Economy / Healthcare / Politics

Obesity and a Healthy America: Food and Farm Policy

The current Farm Bill has opened discussions on the relationship between health, food, and farm policy, yet health and nutrition has not played a large role in the current Farm Bill.  Health and healthcare are major issues facing America today, and agricultural policy needs to address them.

A major health policy issue is the rising cost of healthcare.  We place some of the blame on insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, large providers and their medical billing and profits.  While these are large contributors to the growing cost of medical care- it is necessary to also examine the lifestyle prevalent in America.

Individuals need to be more proactive about their own health.  How much do I exercise? How many servings of fruits and vegetables do I eat? Am I involved in any preventative care?  If individuals are actively living healthy lives we can drive down a portion of our healthcare costs: obesity and chronic diseases.

Rising obesity rates can be attributed to the lack of physical activity and unhealthy eating trends.  Currently more than one third of the adult population is obese according to the CDC.  What is even more concerning is the pace at which obesity rates have grown.  In 2000 there were no states with obesity prevalence of greater than 30% – now there are 12.  The CDC has also estimated that $147 billion is spent each year on just obesity-related illnesses in America.  In 2009 the CDC found that 75% of healthcare costs are from treatment of chronic diseases.  Those that are obese are at a higher risk of chronic disease, such as diabetes type 2 and cardiovascular diseases.  With lifestyle changes we can help prevent and manage chronic conditions.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s June 2013 Report, Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens our Economic Future, details issues and policy solutions related to obesity.  In their report, they outline projections of what makes individuals healthy –  10% is due to access to care, 20% is due to genetics, 20% is due to the environment, and 50% is due to our health behaviors.  However, of American’s money spent on being healthy,  88% is spent on medical services and only 4% on health behaviors.

Where does food and farm policy affect this issue?

Food and farm policies can play a major role in creating a healthier America.

We can begin by creating policies that incentivize healthy eating.  This can start with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – restructuring funds to encourage purchasing fruits, vegetables, lean meat and unprocessed food.  Another potential policy would be educating children and adults about healthy eating.  There are likely many individuals that do not fully understand healthy eating. This lack of understanding is evident in modern eating trends: these days we cook less and consume more highly processed foods.

A study performed at Brigham Young University looked into approaches that can be used to increase children’s consumption of fruit and vegetables and how long children must continue to eat fruit to before it becomes habitual.   Studies like this give us a picture of what can be done to increase healthy eating.  In a recent paper, Joe Price and David Just found that incentives increased consumption of fruits and vegetables by 80%.

We can begin to seriously cut subsidies on corn, soy, sugar and other community crops.  These subsidized crops are predominately used on “junk food” products and keep costs artificially low.  Demand might change if consumers had to pay the real cost of junk food.  The money saved can also be used to subsidize healthy alternatives and help low-income individuals.  This is a difficult issue but I believe the money spent on subsidies can be better used.

This post only highlights the tip of the iceberg of health issues and possible policy solutions for obesity.  There are many current and proposed policies that promote healthy living.  This is a very difficult issue and there is not a clear solution.  However it is an issue that needs to be seriously addressed.  Farm policies need to be analyzed for their effect on health.