Now that we’ve all stuffed our faces this past week, it seems appropriate to talk about food. As I’ve mentioned before, preventative medicine needs to be improved in this country, especially if our health reform is going to succeed, since for-profit insurance works best when more people are healthy than sick.
As it turns out, most of the leading causes of death and illness in the United States such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer, can be prevented in part with a healthy diet. Barriers to this prevention come from agricultural policy that supports agribusinesses instead of sustainable farming. Congress is now finally revising a new version of the Food Nutrition and Conservation Act (also known as the farm bill) that expired on September 30th 2012. So if we are going to make health reform plausible by keeping people healthy in the first place, we need to reform the way we eat and produce food in this country.
Since the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, agriculture has focused on exporting and producing enough food to feed our growing world population. One consequence of this has been a boom in industrialized farming that is also heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Now only a few agribusinesses control the majority of the food industry: the top four grocery retailers sell more than half the food consumed in the United States; the top four beef processors slaughter 81 percent of all the beef consumed; and 80 percent of corn and 93 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are under a Monsanto patent. Most farmers that breed animals don’t even own them; they contract for them, and have thousands of pounds of manure to get rid of. Our farm bill gave money to research getting rid of manure, but when did they stop teaching the nitrogen cycle in school?
Our recent farm policies (influenced by many millions of dollars of agribusiness lobbying) help create a monopoly that runs farmers in our country and abroad out of business by subsidizing commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, which are grown exclusively and are cheaper to buy than to produce. Now we don’t even grow enough fruits and vegetables in this country to meet the required intake set by the USDA and less than 1 percent of the corn grown is actually edible – instead it is turned into animal feed and high fructose corn syrup to make highly-processed and low-nutrition foods.
Subsidizing more fruits and vegetables would be one way to help improve the diets of many Americans but current revisions to the Farm Bill focus on limiting money to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Food Stamps in place of regulating agribusiness and food production. SNAP is the main expense on the farm bill and should be reformed but not by spending less on it. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health shows that most low-income adults are not meeting the dietary guidelines, mainly because of a lack of access to healthy foods. Harvard recommends many changes to SNAP including that it more resemble Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a program that helps low-income mothers buy healthy foods (as opposed to SNAP where you could spend your whole monthly allowance on candy and soda) and offers nutrition education. A new farm bill could also create more incentives to buy fruits and vegetables, not only by individuals but by small corner stores too, as a pilot program in Baltimore did.
In comparison to the proposed $16 billion cut in SNAP, obesity accounts for $190 billion a year in medical care costs (and low-income people are more likely to be obese). Cutting funding to SNAP doesn’t do anything for the 50 million Americans who already go hungry or the 1 in 3 obese people who may be malnourished. A new farm bill needs to support sustainable agriculture and not highly-processed foods in addition to an increase in food security and better nutrition education. A comprehensive farm bill has endless opportunities to improve the health of our country not just by helping to prevent chronic diseases but by creating fair jobs in sustainable farming, limiting our dependency on fossil fuels, and creating a more fair market place, just to name a few. This farm bill should not just fix problems in our food system but address why we have these problems in the first place. The health of our country depends on it.
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