Friday, December 6, 2013
Congress left Washington for its August recess without taking action on a farm bill that is set to expire next month. This failure offers an opportunity to take a long look at our policies on food and hunger.
It’s not a pretty picture.
As a nation, we tend to subsidize food that is bad for people’s health, lowering its price. When the most cost-conscious consumers get sick as a result, we blame them for their bad judgment. No wonder the policy is failing.
America needs a balanced agriculture and nutrition policy that not only maintains the food supply but also assures everyone access to healthy food.
While the number of Americans who make their livings on farms decline, we offer billions of dollars in subsidies to agribusiness to produce commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat. Meanwhile, the nation is experiencing an obesity crisis that is fueled by what kinds of food people eat as much as the amount.
People in poverty are hit the hardest by this epidemic, with adult and childhood obesity rates greater than seen among middle-class and well-off Americans.
Why does this link exist? Because on a per-calorie basis, processed foods made from subsidized crops are less expensive than healthy foods. Even though one of the most commonly heard health recommendations is to eat more fruits and vegetables, that kind of produce is not subsidized by the government and winds up being more expensive on a per-calorie basis, if not in price by the pound.
For decades the nation’s farm policy has been built on a careful rural-urban balance, which tied farm subsidies to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as “food stamps”). The balance has continued, even as the declining buying power of SNAP allotments has pushed more poor people into making bad nutrition choices.
To combat this, some well-intentioned civic leaders have proposed blocking SNAP purchases of soft drinks or other unhealthy foods, typically made with subsidized products such as corn sweeteners.
The implication is that low-income people can’t be trusted to make the right choices. The Maine Legislature killed one such plan sponsored by Gov. Paul LePage.
In Washington, House Republicans passed a bill this summer that would make things even worse. It would increase subsidies by $195 billion over 10 years, while stripping out nutrition supplements completely. Fortunately, that idea will not go anywhere, but doing nothing is not the right answer, either.
A much better idea has been offered on a small scale in Norwich, Conn., where The William W. Backus Hospital is distributing vouchers to low-income patients that give them credit at local farmers markets. Called “Rx for Health,” the program addresses the real problems.
By giving direct aid to consumers, the program creates an incentive to make healthy choices. Indirectly, it also subsidizes the farmers who grow the kind of food that is the healthiest.
This is the kind of approach that could make a real difference on a national level. That is the kind of farm bill lawmakers should be debating.