Our nation’s top killer? The iconic American diet
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Terrorism, gun violence, and police brutality take up well-deserved space in the presidential debate, but America’s leading cause of death—our food choices—are nowhere to be found in talks leading up to the Nov. 8 election.

Dietary risk factors remain the leading cause of death in our country, but neither candidate has talked about food policy. We know about their personal food preferences, but where do the candidates stand on reforming legislation, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)?

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We hear about funding and restrictions, but we don’t hear about transforming the system. What foods are in? Which food-like substances are out? What position will the candidates take? Nobody knows.

Why should we care?

SNAP is a hot-ticket $74 billion item and can transform our nation’s health care system. It feeds 45 million people and accounts for 80 percent of the Farm Bill, slated for review in 2019.

Here’s why we should bring it into the debate:

States are asking for change.

Nearly half of the country’s state leaders want to modify the SNAP program. At least 22 states have introduced local legislation or petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to modify the program. Requests include prohibiting junk food purchases in Maine, banning soda and candy buys in New York, and allowing benefits to apply only to nutritious options in Tennessee.

The bills stalled. The delegates’ voices remain unheard.

Here’s why: With a good portion of $1 trillion at stake, lobbyists, like the meat, dairy, and sugar industries, have a lot to lose if federal funding for SNAP resembles the supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC), which receives less than $7 billion each year, and aligns with scientific policy.

WIC delivers results and is cost effective: Participants increase their nutrient profiles without extra calories and improve iron-deficient anemia, without red meat in the program.

While WIC serves a smaller population, it provides us with data to create a pilot study to assess how we can strengthen our nation’s largest food assistance program.

More than 70 health organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and chairs from leading universities, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins agree: They sent a letter to the USDA in 2013 requesting support for SNAP pilot programs.

Similar to the policymakers’ requests, these medical researchers are still waiting to hear back.

Food banks are asking for change.

Outside of SNAP and WIC, community organizations, like churches, food banks, and soup kitchens, steadily provide nourishment to communities in need, but they are starting to change their policies.

Historically, anti-hunger groups have been part of the problem since they are not selective about which foods they distribute. This keeps nutrient-poor, calorie-rich foods in demand since local grocers donate unused varieties. This year we’re seeing change. The Capital Area Food Bank takes sheet cakes and less-than-healthful options back to grocery stores and requests donations for the healthy basics.

Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, notes: “If people are going to rely on a significant amount of food coming from us, we had better be sure we are not contributing to illness.”

If food banks, staunch opponents of SNAP restrictions, are starting to see the unethical link between feeding people in need with foods that cause their blood sugar to spike, why isn’t our federal government?

Leading scientific experts are asking for change.

To align our country, let’s start by aligning our nutrition policies. Diabetes will soon affect one in three children and remains the sixth leading cause of workplace disability.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends following plant-based dietary patterns to reach optimal health and reduce the risk for chronic disease. Several farmer’s markets and online marketplaces, like Thrive, have altered their system to encourage people of all income levels to gain access to whole, plant-based foods.

SNAP should follow suit and eliminate funding for “junk food” turned away from food banks and WIC, and purge carcinogenic varieties, like processed meats, which comes with a warning label from the World Health Organization.

Hippocrates first introduced the concept of “Let food be they medicine,” and “Let medicine be thy food,” but after countless centuries, we’re waiting to integrate this into our agricultural and health policies.

Let’s bring the Farm Bill into the presidential debate. What message are we sending to our country if we leave it off the table? Will the health of our nation or industry interests prevail during the next term? Will leading voices remain ignored?

As voters, we deserve to know.

Agustina Saenz, M.D., M.P.H., is the director of nutrition education and policy for the nonprofit Physicians Committee.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.