Is there a link between U.S. food policy and obesity?
Obesity in America is off the charts. People of every age, race, profession, income and education level are too fat. As a result, many now suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and other ailments. Being a member of Congress doesn't make one immune.
Even so, lawmakers too often seem blind to the possible link between the obesity epidemic and our nation's food policy. Every five years Congress crafts a farm bill, and for too long the American diet has been the biggest loser. One watchdog website has declared, "The 2012 farm bill continues the federal government's decades-long crusade to get you to eat more junk food."
Some health-conscious celebrity chefs -- including Rick Bayless and Alice Waters -- appealed to Congress last month for greater emphasis on nutrition, conservation, and locally grown, organic foods. Some of that message was heard in the Senate, which last month passed a farm bill that will cost nearly $970 billion over the next decade. The bill promotes farmers' markets. It expands block grants to states for vegetable and fruit development. It preserves funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, along with support for those making the transition to organic farming.
Sadly, conservation dollars decrease by $6.4 billion in the Senate bill, in part because of the consolidation of some programs. But the bill rightly requires basic land stewardship measures from recipients of crop insurance benefits, which the Star Tribune Editorial Board has advocated. Unfortunately, it continues to reward big growers of corn and wheat, which are used to make some of America's least nutritious food.
The bill eliminates the outrageous direct payment subsidies given to farmers whether they need them or not, but it directs too much money to crop insurance programs that mostly benefit large operations.
In other words, the economically fat will grow fatter.
Lawmakers still need to understand that America's growing healthful-food movement is now part of the mainstream and not just the fringe. In a 2011 poll, 78 percent of Americans said that "making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and more accessible should be a top priority in the next farm bill."
The Senate bill cut $4.5 billion from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as the food stamp program. That's not nearly as severe as the up to $15 billion in cuts from the program being touted by House Republicans. The bulk of farm bill funds -- nearly $80 billion annually -- are spent on SNAP.
GOP leaders say they want to crack down on fraud and other presumed waste in SNAP. While that's a worthy cause, this has the sound of political rhetoric at the expense of low-income Americans. Instead of draconian cuts to SNAP, why not refuse to bloat the crop insurance program? Instead of sending more dollars to wealthy farmers, why not support antihunger programs?
To date, the House of Representatives hasn't considered a farm bill. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., the head of the House Agriculture Committee, said it could go to committee markup next week. Will it go to the floor? At the moment, House leaders are more interested in repealing the health care mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
The 2008 farm bill expires in September, and some Republicans have made no secret of a desire to put off passage of another bill until then. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says that would be disastrous, and we hope it won't come to that. More than ever before, Americans need a farm bill that they can sink their teeth into.