Focusing on nutrition is paramount to getting a sound, bipartisan farm bill out

Focusing on nutrition is paramount to getting a sound, bipartisan farm bill out
© Getty Images

The farm bill is finally headed to conference. To three former Secretaries of Agriculture, this would normally be cause for celebration. Instead of appreciating the farm bill’s progress, however, we have found ourselves becoming distressed. Debate over this monumental piece of food and agriculture legislation has neglected a crucial subject: nutrition.

The farm bill spans a vast array of food and farm issues, but 80 percent of the bill’s funding goes toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation’s largest food and nutrition program. Yet, the House of Representatives and the Senate have each passed their own version of the farm bill, with no substantive debate about diet quality.

ADVERTISEMENT
The two farm bills are now headed to conference committee, where House and Senate negotiators will seek to reconcile their differences and emerge with a common bill. Yet, to our dismay, rather than focusing on how federal food programs can combat the diet-related disease epidemic that is crushing health care costs, impeding economic productivity, and threatening national security, debate appears likely to be centered on work requirements for a relatively small percentage of SNAP recipients.

 

SNAP is an invaluable tool for reducing food insecurity. With a $70 billion dollar budget dedicated to feeding over 40 million individuals each month, the program supports the most vulnerable members of society — the majority of SNAP participants are children, elderly adults, people with disabilities, and veterans. SNAP has been alleviating hunger for over fifty years, but there is room to strengthen its nutritional integrity and that work needs to be done now.

Research from Tufts University shows that SNAP participants have lower diet quality than income-eligible nonparticipants, and that the diet quality of SNAP participants has not shown signs of improvement, despite recent positive trends in diet among Americans as a whole. Focusing on nutrition will make SNAP even more effective for those it serves—and a better use of the public’s money.

Luckily, there is still time to shift the farm bill conversation back to nutrition during the upcoming conference committee deliberations. There are myriad ways to address nutrition within the farm bill, but there are three topics we believe warrant particular attention.

First, the House and Senate negotiators should officially make diet quality a core SNAP objective, like fiscal integrity and food insecurity are now. This will compel the USDA to evaluate SNAP based on how effectively the program improves participant’s diets, rather than solely assessing the program based on fraud and participation rates.

Second, SNAP-education needs to be strengthened. SNAP-ed is the government’s primary tool for improving SNAP diets through nutrition education and obesity-prevention interventions. Most states want to help their constituents eat healthier, but they lack the day-to-day support from FNS to create and implement effective SNAP-Ed programs.

The Senate farm bill moves SNAP-Ed in the right direction by building on past SNAP-Ed reforms and allowing states to submit their SNAP-Ed plans electronically. However, the final farm bill should go further, by authorizing up to 2 percent of SNAP-Ed funds for infrastructure to help SNAP-Ed function to its true potential.

Third, Congress should authorize a pilot nutrition intervention program within SNAP to evaluate purchasing behavior and health outcomes. Once we have a more robust understanding of which interventions are most successful at encouraging Americans to make the healthiest choices, we can ensure that both SNAP and non-SNAP recipients have diets that lead to health and longevity.

There has never been a more important time to refocus the farm bill on nutrition. Diet-related disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, surpassing tobacco, drug, and alcohol usage. More than 1000 deaths every day are due to poor diets. Emerging science on the global cancer burden points to proper nutrition as the most important way after not smoking to protect against cancer. And of course, these diseases come with a hefty price tag, putting tremendous pressure on an already overburdened health care system.

The three of us served under Republican and Democratic presidents, and we can all agree that focusing on nutrition is paramount to getting a sound, bipartisan farm bill out of conference. Ignoring nutrition is, quite literally, killing a thousand Americans every day, and the 2018 farm bill is a once in every five-year opportunity to make a difference.

Dan Glickman served as the secretary of Agriculture from 1995 until 2001. Ann Veneman served as the secretary of Agriculture from 2001–2005. Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE served as the secretary of Agriculture from 2009 until 2017.