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The Physicians Committee

Editorial: Childhood Obesity and Federal Nutrition Policy

The epidemic of childhood obesity is worsening day by day. One in six American teenagers is now overweight, and many more are headed for the same problem. All too soon, cute pudgy kids become adults burdened by diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and a higher risk of cancer. All these health problems take a disproportionate toll among African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Native Americans.

One contributor is obvious. Step into almost any school lunchroom, and the menu boasts Salisbury steak, sausage pizza, cheeseburgers, and chicken nuggets. If you’re wondering about the lack of healthy vegetarian options, the problem is not in the kitchen. It’s in Washington.

Federal law requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy up beef, pork, chicken, cheese, and other commodities as a way to remove agricultural surpluses and provide price supports to agribusiness. Schools must serve these foods in order to qualify for federal support.

That’s obviously terrible for children. And if you thought this system benefits the small family farmer struggling to make a living, take a look at who benefits from these federal contracts. The following examples come from 2005, the most recent year with complete figures:

  • Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the U.S., with revenues totaling $26 billion, received $46.6 million in commodity contracts.
  • Smithfield Foods, the fourth-largest meat producer, with $11 billion in revenues, scored $18.2 million in contracts through two subsidiaries.
  • Pilgrim’s Pride and Hormel are the seventh- and eighth-largest meat producers, respectively. Pilgrim’s Pride pulled in $42.4 million, while Hormel received $28 million in commodity contracts.

In turn, these huge corporations gladly pay the hand that feeds them. Tyson Foods’ executives contribute thousands of dollars to the company’s political action committee, TYPAC, which gives campaign contributions to the members of the House and Senate agriculture committees, among others. Smithfield Foods does the same.

The medical community has awakened to the problem and is calling for sweeping changes. In June, the American Medical Association passed a resolution calling for food assistance programs to be based not on the price of beef or cheese but on health considerations. The AMA also called for these programs to provide vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, vegetarian foods, and healthful nondairy beverages, and asked that federal subsidies encourage the consumption of products low in fat and cholesterol. In August, the President’s Cancer Panel echoed the call (see “Health vs. Pork: Congress Debates the Farm Bill” sidebar).

This fall, the Senate will consider reforms to food assistance programs as it deliberates on the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007, often called the “Farm Bill.” Please contact your senators! You can call the U.S. Capitol at 202-224-3121 and tell the operator which state you are calling from. Or log onto and click on the icon about federal food policy.

Ask your senators to vote for changes to the Farm Bill that put health first. Read them the AMA resolution and insist they take notice. 

Neal Barnard signature
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM

Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

In June, the American Medical Association passed a resolution calling for food assistance programs to be based not on the price of beef or cheese but on health considerations.

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