More than 70 percent of USDA’s budget is devoted to programs to increase food security and reduce hunger, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) and food distribution programs. At the same time, our nation is fighting an obesity epidemic involving more than one-third of adults and 17 percent of children. As we develop a new farm bill, we need to find a way to see that our national efforts to boost food purchases also help decrease waistlines.

On March 7, the Senate Agriculture Committee will be considering “innovative opportunities in agriculture through policies that assist the development of local markets for farmers—connecting them to the growing consumer demand for locally-produced, healthy food options.” As part of this process, we need to identify ways to improve nutrition along with simply funding the purchase of more food. While obesity rates are alarming for all populations, low-income populations tend to experience higher rates of obesity and are more likely to be overweight. There must be a connection between funding food assistance programs and promoting healthy eating through nutrition education and other initiatives.

Increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables is one of the most effective dietary means to combat obesity as well as reduce risk of chronic disease. These foods are high in nutrients and generally low in calories. USDA’s dietary guidelines now called “My Plate” illustrate this simply—half the plate is filled with fruits and vegetables, with room on the other half for whole grains and lean meat and other proteins, and of course, not forgetting a place for low-fat dairy. Some have suggested a regulatory approach might be effective, such as limiting the purchase of high calorie, low nutrient foods for SNAP recipients. However, I believe other strategies will prove more effective in the long run. Initiatives that support filling the half plate, such as the Healthy Incentives Pilot and increasing fruits and vegetables in schools, as well as those that educate consumers on the nutritional value and health appeal of foods that can help them maintain an optimum weight are the better approach.

One way to encourage fruit and vegetable purchases for all could be greater promotion of these foods through the collaborative voice of farmers. The check-off programs should step up and take the lead here.

Another resource is the growing local food movement, which is helping farmers market their produce, both organic and conventionally grown, through local venues. This is a growing option that enables producers with mid-size farms to reach a broader array of customers. 

At the same time, we recognize that it’s nice to have the option to purchase green grapes from Chile at a reasonable cost when they’re out of season in the U.S. or more expensive to transport from one coast to the other than to ship in from South America. As we encourage everyone to eat more fruits and vegetables, we need to resist any temptation to disparage produce because it’s imported or well-traveled rather than locally-grown, conventionally-produced rather than organic, frozen rather than fresh. 

By the way, there’s not even a definition of “local.” The term could mean grown within 30 miles or 300 miles.   I’ve yet to see scientific studies that demonstrate greater nutritional value for products simply because they were grown adjacent to where they were consumed. Local does not mean superior nutrition. That green stuff tastes good, and it’s good for you, regardless of origin. Decisions on the relative value of various food items must be made based on sound science, not unfounded claims or distance traveled. 

In any case, as we face the challenges of ramping up to meet world food demands and as we move away from subsidies for commodities, this is not the time to begin new subsidies or expand current ones for local produce or organically-grown products. Rather than picking winners and losers, we need to encourage farmers to make planting decisions based upon marketplace signals, not Washington directives. We need to be tracking consumer preferences and choices carefully and objectively so we can ensure that farmers know of potential increases in demand.

In addition, we must seek increased efficiencies in administrative and program delivery costs for the nutrition programs that can achieve at least $4 to $5 billion savings in the next farm bill. These savings should be applied to promoting healthful eating and adequately funding nutrition education initiatives for low-income populations as a part of all food assistance programs.

Nutrition programs not only constitute the majority of the USDA budget, they are a vital lifeline for many Americans. We need to protect them and preserve them while at the same time promoting individual food choices that will bolster overall health and wellness for all. Local food is a great option for many, but Mom's homegrown advice is still best . . . "work hard, don't spend money you don't have, and eat your vegetables!"      

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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