SNAP to Action on Health

January 23, 2014 Johanna Goetzel

In President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this week, he commended the First Lady’s efforts to get Americans, and particularly children, moving.  The Let’s Move! campaign combines getting active with healthy eating and is a great example of partnerships between the US government, NGOs, and industry.  Additional collaborations are needed to promote healthy eating in federally supported programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The Farm Bill was omitted from Tuesday night’s address despite being a key to the future of agriculture, food and health in America.

Graph (click to enlarge) created by Brad Plumer, The Washington Post, January 28, 2014.

The majority of spending of the Farm Bill – nearly 80%, or $756 billion – is allocated to support nutrition and food security for low income Americans (see graph), although the funding does not explicitly support healthy eating or nutrition for recipients.   Improving the SNAP programs is an occasion for the US government to codify the link between agriculture production and healthy food consumption.

Importantly, shifts in diets could reduce the burden of disease and chronic disability which now account for nearly half of the US health burden.  Improving availability of fresh fruits and vegetables can help replace high-calorie, highly processed foods with less energy intensive production.  It is also important to understand the relationship – or lack thereof – between subsidies and crop insurance support and retail costs of the healthiest foods

Land use for farming is not currently driven by health indicators. Harvard School of Public Health calculates that it required about 40 acres of farmland to produce 1,000 kilograms (approx. 2,200 pounds)  of ground beef while only 3/4 of an  acre to produce the same quantity of potatoes and even less — 1/16 of an acre to grow 1,000 kilograms of carrots.  The Farm Bill should support the production of more sustainable protein sources over energy intensive meat production. Further, by subsidizing fruits and vegetables instead of grain, corn and soy used predominantly for animal feed, the Farm Bill can be an effective lever to reduce the quantity of highly processed foods going to market and concurrently reduce the ecological footprint of the food system.

There is a tremendous opportunity to improve SNAP to help guide healthier food decisions.  Additionally, bolstering Michelle Obama’s efforts for healthier children, SNAP-Ed can complement the national Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program helping children form healthy habits early in life. The road ahead to reforming SNAP and revising the Farm Bill may by rocky, but shifts to promote health will benefit all and result from businesses, government, and local organizations supporting healthy and cost effective food choices promoting health.  Let’s get moving on this together.

Start seeing real results with a program that works.

Talk to us