by Dan Glickman and Ann M. Veneman

Those in the ag community are well aware of the claims in recent years that farm subsidies have made people fat. While research has concluded that farm subsidies do not cause obesity, it is true that our nation is facing a public health crisis of epidemic proportions with two-thirds of the American population either overweight or obese. Naturally, the food people eat plays a significant role in an individual’s health, but there are myriad complex and inter-related issues that factor into the health of our nation.   

Clearly, the impacts of obesity on health and quality of life can be devastating. Obesity-related chronic disease is on the rise, and life expectancy in many areas of the United States is already several years lower than that of other advanced countries around the globe. Additionally, our national security is at risk as more than a quarter of young adults of military age are ineligible for service due to being obese or overweight. The economic costs of this crisis -- $147 billion per year in direct costs, and $300 billion if indirect costs like lost productivity are included -- are overwhelming. Escalating healthcare costs are now the fastest growing part of our national budget and the main driver of our national debt.

To combat this increasing health and obesity crisis, we recently issued a new Bipartisan Policy Center report outlining proposals for change. The report includes specific recommendations aimed at supporting healthy families, schools, workplaces and communities, centered on overarching goals such as: encouraging large public- and private-sector institutions to purchase and serve healthier foods; increasing training for our nation’s healthcare professionals and changing insurers’ reimbursement policies to help prevent obesity and related chronic diseases; creating workforce wellness programs throughout public and private businesses; and improving health early and often in a child’s first six years of life.

In addition to the four broad categories named above, a fifth area addresses cross-cutting issues including public awareness, information sharing, and food and farm policy. In the Food and Farm Policy section of Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens our Economic Future,” we provide specific recommendations related to: addressing barriers to increasing the affordability and accessibility of fruits, vegetables and legumes; pursuing opportunities to promote health and nutrition through USDA food assistance programs; and continuing sustained support for relevant research by USDA.

With 80% of the USDA budget going to food assistance programs, we believe that program guidelines should be reviewed and aligned with US Dietary Guidelines. The Women Infants and Children (WIC) program underwent such a comprehensive review and revision in recent years, and it is important that school snacks and other programs undergo the same scrutiny. Discussion about restricting what may be purchased through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (renamed from food stamps in the 2008 Farm Bill), has been heated. We believe that a comprehensive study and evaluation must be conducted prior to making any program changes, and we encourage major retailers to work with USDA to make the needed data available in order to complete any analysis.

Major strides have been made in recent years around the country to connect people back to the farms where their food comes from, though the development of regional food systems and expansion of farmers markets as well as efforts to increase access to local foods and fresh produce for all populations. We need to do more of this but given that less than 11% of the population consumes the recommended servings of both fruits and vegetables, we also need to get the message out that “More Matters” – that is, we do need to eat our fruits and vegetables. We recommend that there should be a national generic promotion program with a special pool created in the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to seed this effort.

Our recommendations are just a few of the many ways we can begin to reverse this national obesity crisis. We stand eager to work with Congress and the administration, governors, corporations, the military, health professionals, schools and, importantly, producers, families and individuals, to implement these and the many good ideas of others. Our recommendations are not about creating a “nanny state.” They are intended to make sure people have access to the food and information they need to live healthier lives.  As people continue to make different choices about what to eat, farmers and ranchers will need to respond to changing demand.  What’s clear for now is that the status quo, under which obesity and chronic disease and their associated costs imperil our nation’s health and its economic future, is simply unsustainable.                       

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