Food Support Reform Needed to Fight Obesity
29 Dec, 2011
Every day, the government’s food stamp program buys Americans 20 million servings of soda, paying billions for a program that fosters the obesity that the government then has to pay again for in increased health care expenditures.
“That is arguably the single largest contributor to obesity,” said David Ludwig, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital Boston and professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). “It makes no sense … especially when we might wind up paying for that as a society in obesity and diabetes.”
The food stamp program was front and center on campus and on the Internet Thursday (December 22, 2011) during a session of The Forum at Harvard School of Public Health, which regularly brings experts together to discuss important issues in the field. The session examined reforms needed in the federal government’s farm bill to improve public health. The farm bill, expected to come up for discussion in Congress in 2012, is the federal government’s major agriculture subsidy program.
Participants included Ludwig; Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair of the HSPH Department of Nutrition; Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition and of economics at the University of North Carolina; and Gary Williams, a professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University. The event was moderated by former Washington Post health editor Abigail Trafford.
Several panelists blamed U.S. agricultural policy over the past four decades for creating a food system where healthier fruits and vegetables are relatively expensive while high-starch, processed foods and red meats are cheap and widely available. The first farm bill was passed in the 1930s as a way to help the nation’s struggling agricultural sector, which at the time not only fed the country but, in a more rural America, also provided many jobs.
With ensuing technological changes in the years after World War II, the United States ramped up its subsidies, steering production toward what at the time was thought to be a healthy diet of starches and meat. Popkin said the program worked well, as illustrated by statistics showing the prices of those staples came down in the ensuing decades, while those left alone by government policy — fruits and vegetables — became more expensive.
“What is cheap today is what we made cheap. What we ignored, we made more expensive,” Popkin said.
The problem, Willett said, is that we now know that a healthy diet is not dominated by processed starches and red meat, but is just the opposite. A healthy diet is composed of whole grains, nuts, beans, fruits, and vegetables, with red meat in moderation and very little refined starches and added sugar. The result is that today two-thirds of Americans are overweight or even obese, diabetes is rising across the country, and in some parts of the country, life expectancy is actually dropping.