Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A side of subsidy with your veggies?

What does the government tell us we should eat more of? Fruits, vegetables and whole grains. What foods does the government support with the vast majority of its food subsidies? Dairy and meat products.

What’s wrong with this picture? In the quest for a modern federal farm bill, public health experts need to be at the table, said the speakers at yesterday’s panel entitled “Farm Bill Renewal: Going Forward with Nutrition and Food Policy Outcomes.”

You’ve heard statistics on the rising rates and costs of obesity and chronic disease in the United States. Yet the government provides our most vulnerable populations — those who rely on federal nutrition assistance programs — with high-cholesterol, high-fat foods from subsidized agriculture.

As panelist Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH, of the Washington Center for Clinical Research and George Washington University, put it: “As public health professionals, we need to be adamant about shifting subsidy supports to more healthful foods. It’s up to us to at least get in there and participate in the conversation.”

While the farm bill is obviously very complicated and requires input from multiple sectors, it makes sense to base agricultural subsidies on health considerations and eliminate subsidies that promote unhealthy foods, Ferdowsian said. In Poland, changes in subsidy regulations led to increased fruit imports and was actually associated with a reduced incidence of heart disease, she added.

Roni Neff, PhD, SM, of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health (and the school’s Center for a Livable Future), linked the concept of the human right to food with food agricultural policy. Analyzing the issue within a human rights framework establishes policy responses as obligations rather than charity or economic strategy, and holds countries to standards that protect individuals, Neff said. The right-to-food approach considers sustainability, economic access, energy conservation and nutrition programs to overlap with the overall goals of the farm bill.

Thus far, Neff noted, the right-to-food ideology has been irrelevant to policy development, and agricultural stakeholders continue to dominate the debate.

“I believe nobody in Congress would necessarily think about the right to food, or care, unless we in public health and our allies make them care,” Neff said.

Currently, the federal farm bill, which includes funding for nutrition and food security programs, is being debated on the floor of the U.S. Senate. To take action and encourage your senators to support a healthy farm bill, visit APHA’s advocacy site.

Extra food for thought: In the United States, the average vegetable travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate.


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