Farm policy, nutrition go together

The House rejection of the farm bill in June, followed by its passage last week of a farm bill without nutrition programs, was a defeat of long-standing bipartisanship in the area of food and farm policy. Today, many are hard at work to determine how to move ahead. Whatever the path forward, this year’s farm bill debate missed an important opportunity to discuss significant issues surrounding the role of food and farm policy in the larger context of our nation’s health and obesity crisis, as well as the related impact of those diseases on our nation’s finances.

As former Agriculture secretaries, we believe we need to focus on the opportunities for our federal agriculture policy to support better health and lower healthcare costs. Rising rates of obesity and chronic disease account for almost three-quarters of our nation’s healthcare spending. Many of these diseases are caused by poor dietary habits and sedentary lifestyles. Whatever the ultimate outcome of this year’s debate, we know that food and farm policy play a key role in influencing what we eat, ensuring an adequate supply of nutritious, affordable food. The links among food and farm policy, population health, and rising healthcare costs deserve more attention across sectors.

There is no question that the American population as a whole needs to eat better. USDA research shows that most Americans are eating more calories than recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, yet they are not eating enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The United States has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, with two-thirds of adults and one-third of children overweight or obese. Just last month, the American Medical Association officially classified obesity as a disease. At the same time, nearly 15 percent of Americans face food insecurity. That means 18 million households lack consistent access to adequate food for an active, healthy life. 

The problems are complex and thus demand engagement from multiple sectors, both public and private. In June, the Bipartisan Policy Center convened a public forum to discuss precisely that: the role of food and farm policy in our nation’s obesity and health crisis. The conversation we hosted included former Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), and representatives from producers, the public health and hunger relief communities, and the food industry. Much of the conversation centered on the need for a greater focus on nutrition as part of the farm bill discussion and agricultural policy more generally. As Stenholm said, “it’s just west Texas tractor-seat common sense” that “farmers and nutrition go together, and always have.” 

The panel recognized the hard realities of the federal budget and a highly politicized environment. Nevertheless, there was consensus among the participants that a more deliberate discussion of nutrition as part of food and farm policy was essential. At play are the federal nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) and other feeding programs to meet emergency needs. The USDA also administers the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) among others. It is critical to ensure that these programs are delivering the most nutritional bang for the buck for the populations they serve. Among other strategies, farm policies and nutrition programs should be carefully reviewed and strengthened to better align with the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

What are the next steps in making nutrition a bigger part of the equation? The panel focused on the need to create the right environment for constructive engagement on these issues, identifying barriers to change and the steps needed to overcome them. Merrigan suggested highlighting the areas of overlapping interest for the multiple stakeholders we need at the table, from farmers to healthcare providers to hunger-relief advocates to the public health community to food companies. As Stenholm observed, just like the stakeholder community, Congress, too, is siloed. He challenged the group to take the panel discussion to the Hill for an honest hearing about how to leave turf battles behind in favor of a more integrated approach. 

Recent bright spots suggest that nutrition is beginning to make some inroads into the national conversation on food and farm policy and healthcare costs. Federal programs such as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, Community Food Projects and Hunger-Free Communities grants have expanded access to staple foods, fruits and vegetables for low-income families. Nonprofit organizations, such as Fair Food Network and Wholesome Wave, are providing incentives for SNAP participants to purchase local fruits and vegetables. In the private sector, employers and insurers are increasingly offering programs to promote healthy eating and active living. The food industry is also beginning to respond, with innovative companies recognizing the need to offer healthier choices for consumers. 

Collective engagement across sectors must continue if we are to improve our nation’s physical and fiscal health and if we are to experience meaningful reform in food and farm policy. 

Glickman served as secretary of Agriculture from 1995-2001 and as chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America from 2004-2010. Veneman served as secretary of Agriculture from 2001-2005 and executive director of UNICEF from 2005-2010. Together they co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative.