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The Physicians Committee

Why We Need to Reform the Farm Bill

By Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., M.P.H.

This opinion piece was published in the Sacramento Bee on June 13, 2007 and the Daily Press on June 17, 2007.

He's seriously overweight, suffers from diabetes and is homeless, to boot, but Gerald—a fictitious name for one of my free-clinic patients—wishes he could afford to eat more fruits and vegetables. One of the millions of working poor in this country, Gerald can't afford to buy the healthy foods he knows could help him combat his disease. And the D.C. shelters he frequents don't offer as many nutritious choices as he would like.

Given the astronomical medical costs associated with diabetes and obesity, one would think the U.S. government would do all it could to ensure Gerald has access to all the healthy foods he wants. Instead, it does just the opposite. Myriad government policies favor meat, dairy and other unhealthy items over fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and other vegetarian foods. It's one of the reasons cheeseburgers are cheaper than salads and why any American who has to watch his or her wallet has a tough time always eating right.

The good news is we have a shot at doing something about this mess. The U.S. Farm Bill, a complex, influential piece of legislation, is up for reauthorization. Worth billions every year in direct farmer subsidies and other agriculture-related support, the Farm Bill determines, to a large part, what we grow and produce in this country, and what we end up eating.

Unfortunately, lobbyists for the least-healthful foods have been most skillful at lining up government assistance. Between 1995 and 2004, nearly three-quarters of the entire U.S. expenditure for agricultural subsidies—$62 billion—went for feed crops and direct aid supporting meat and dairy production. Less than half of 1 percent ended up subsidizing fruit and vegetable production.

There's something wrong with this picture. Funding levels favor products high in cholesterol, fat and sugar over high-fiber, nutrient-dense foods. Even the government's own nutrition advice recommends Americans eat fewer of these foods and increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and grains.

Indeed, there's no lack of scientific evidence illustrating that meat consumption increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and several cancers. New studies demonstrating the benefits of plant foods are published regularly.

One sees the same sort of lopsided funding priorities in other government programs. The national school lunch program, for example, has long been a dumping ground for the meat industry. Whenever prices fall, the government buys up surplus product and "donates" it to the schools and other assistance programs. In 2005, $747 million—a full 61 percent of all federal outlays for this sort of aid—went to buy up high-fat, high-cholesterol beef, pork, chicken, dairy and other animal products. Less than $10 million went for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fortunately, there's a growing interest on Capitol Hill in restructuring the Farm Bill to favor healthier foods. If you eat, you have a vote. Let your elected officials know that you want our agricultural policies to promote the public's health, not undermine it.

And I'll let Gerald know that help is on the way.

Hope Ferdowsian is an internist and preventive-medicine and public-health specialist. She is director of the Washington Center for Clinical Research, a subsidiary of the not-for-profit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Hope Ferdowsian, M.D.

Hope Ferdowsian, M.D.

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