The federal government’s current approach to addressing hunger and nutrition shortcomings is failing the recipients of federal nutrition assistance and the taxpayer, witnesses said at a Senate Ag subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

The panel’s Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics and Research Subcommittee convened Tuesday for a hearing on the state of American nutrition, where a series of academics and nutrition leaders offered a blistering critique of the current approach the federal government takes to providing nutritious food to the hungry. 

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, said the fact that three of four adults in America are classified as overweight or obese – and the healthcare costs stemming from that statistic – should be a rallying call for policymakers.

“We are on a path to disaster,” he said. “If three in four houses in our country were on fire and all we did was build more firehouses and hire more fireman, that would not be sensible. And yet, that’s what we’re doing with health.

“The majority of Americans are sick, and all we’re doing are building systems to treat the downstream causes,” Mozaffarian added. “With most houses in the country on fire, we need to figure out what’s causing the fires and put them out rather than only focusing on the downstream treatment.”

Dariush_Mozaffarian_Tufts.jpgDariush Mozaffarian, Tufts UniversityMozaffarian and several other witnesses offered a handful of suggestions to address the glut of spending on obesity-related illnesses; as subcommittee Chair Cory Booker, D-N.J., put it, $1 of every $3 in the federal budget goes to for healthcare, 80% of which is spent on the treatment of preventable diseases.
One of the most popular suggestions is greater involvement by the medical community in nutrition education and understanding.

Mozaffarian suggested increasing the required nutrition education for doctors and tweaking the testing for licensing to include more nutrition-based questioning. “If we change the tests, we’ll change medical education overnight,” he said.

For his part, Patrick Stover, the Texas A&M dean and vice chancellor for agriculture and life sciences, suggested a greater level of coordination between production and consumption needs if the general nutrition of the nation is to be improved.

“There is a disconnect right now – a major disconnect – between food production and our expectations around consumer health,” he said. “We have to address this across the entire food system.”

He said extension systems across the country are also underutilized, and underfunded, nutrition education resources. He says Texas A&M is also working on an academic paper to encourage the combined programs of nursing and dietetics.

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“It’s nurses who are the frontline healthcare workers who see every patient, especially in our disadvantaged communities,” Stover said. “We need to have those frontline workers have that nutrition education because there simply aren’t enough dietitians in these healthcare facilities to educate about nutrition.”

While a greater level of thought given to the medical nutrition approach was roundly welcomed among witnesses and senators at the hearing, there’s also the matter of what to do with existing efforts like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Angela Rachidi suggested restricting purchases of things like sugary beverages but rewarding the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables could be a pathway to a healthier SNAP recipient.

Corey Booker at ISF 2019 soapbox 3Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. The hearing comes as Congress is set to begin its update of the 2018 farm bill, which is set to expire in 2023. The nutrition title makes up the bulk of the outlays for that legislation, a fact reflected in the amount of the Department of Agriculture’s budget spent on SNAP and other nutrition programs. But Booker suggested the current approach to the programs – and the kinds of foods purchased using SNAP funds or private consumer dollars – is due for a thorough evaluation.

“It is a food system where everyone is losing,” Booker said after discussing nutrition issues as well as the diminishing share of the food dollar going to producers. “We are as a government using our tax dollars to incentivize behaviors that are driving pandemic-like conditions and driving unhealth. … Let’s not be fooled, this is not a free market right now; we are investing dramatically in our own death.”

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