Merrigan: Farm bill avoided real nutrition debate

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



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WASHINGTON, June 21, 2013 - Yesterday, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (SNAP) became a central battleground and roadblock in the House's failed farm bill debate - but a group of industry insiders say lawmakers avoided the truly important discussions about the underpinnings of U.S. nutrition policy.

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“The bottom line…[is that] there were a huge amount of amendments that had to do with SNAP, but there's really no game change in this bill,” said recently departed USDA deputy undersecretary Kathleen Merrigan yesterday at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There's a lost opportunity, I believe, around nutrition…opportunities that could really come about to make this a different place, a different game.”

Merrigan accused lawmakers of failing to tackle problems - nutrition, obesity, rising healthcare costs, farm policy - that intersect in complex and nuanced ways. “What I suggest is that we look at the Venn diagram approach to the problems at hand,” she said, suggesting all stakeholders, including healthcare and farming professionals, take part in a deeper discourse before the next important farm policy discussion. 

Merrigan used the example of vegetable prescriptions - when doctors instruct patients to buy vegetables rather than medication - to demonstrate an issue-bridging solution to the country's obesity problem. Two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, Merrigan pointed out, so a medical intervention that comes before, rather than after, the first heart attack or diabetes diagnosis could not only save lives, but precious healthcare dollars.

And increased consumption of vegetables would also benefit farmers, Merrigan said, especially the “new population of young farmers coming in and ready and willing to be the fruit and vegetable farmers of the future.”

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association, agreed that lawmakers had missed the boat during the farm bill debate. “One of biggest disappointments is that [lawmakers are] too focused on funding,” he said. Rather than spending time on intractable battles surrounding the funding of SNAP, he said, politicians should have discussed “policies on how to drive more focus on healthy eating.”

This year, the debate “has all been about money - everybody's been in their bunkers.”

“Why wasn't this panel in front of a subcommittee?” former Rep. Charles Stenholm, R-Texas, asked. “We at least have to have an exchange with the people who have votes” in Congress. 

The Bipartisan Policy Center speakers acknowledged that nutrition problems are particularly thorny: “How do we change [the American] people's behavior?” asked Eric Olsen, senior vice president of government relations at Feeding America. “I don't think we really know.”

But former secretaries of agriculture Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman, also present at the event, urged policymakers to attempt to find out.

“We need to move beyond turf and silos,” Veneman said. “We need to look at the health of our people, the health of our communities, the health of our country.”

“I think that as we go forward we want to understand [how] these things are complex,” Merrigan concluded.

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