The need for a national food, health, and well-being policy

A final reason for dietary uncertainty is that our food system has become so political. Government policies heavily influence our dietary guidelines and dictate which foods are grown, how they’re grown and processed, and how they are marketed. Our food policy also determines which foods are at the foundation of all our government food programs, such as food stamps, or SNAP, which feeds more than 40 million people; school lunches; and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children Food and Nutrition Service).

The outsize influence that industrial food and agriculture lobbyists have on our policies encourages a food system that engenders disease. For example, in the 2016 election, the American Beverage Association and the soda companies spent more than $30 million fighting taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. It was only because a deep-pockets organization and a billionaire (the Arnold Foundation and Michael Bloomberg) spent $20 million opposing them that soda taxes passed in four cities.

Also, why do the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines recommend we cut our consumption of added sugars to less than 10 percent of our calories, 3 while the same USDA’s SNAP program (food stamps) spends about $7 billion a year for the poor to consume soda and sugar-sweetened beverages (about 20 billion servings a year)? (Soda is the number one “food item” purchased by those on SNAP.) No wonder the costs of chronic disease overwhelm our federal budget. We need to transform our food system and address one of the biggest threats to our well-being:

our lack of a coordinated and comprehensive food policy. Our nation’s and the world’s health crises are not driven by medical issues, but rather by social, economic, and political issues that conspire to drive disease—or, as the physician and global health activist Paul Farmer calls it, “structural violence.” And our food system is at the nexus of where our current crises come together. The effects of the way we grow, produce, distribute, and consume food undermine the public good and subvert what’s left of the public’s trust in government.

There are many ways to address these issues. However, food injustice and its far-reaching effects on the health of our population, economy, and environment warrant a comprehensive review and reform of our food policy. We have more than eight federal agencies governing the largest sector of our economy: the food industry. The agencies and their policies are often at odds with one another and produce results that do not promote our well-being. For example, the US Dietary Guidelines advise us to dramatically reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, yet the government “crop insurance,” or farm subsidies, supports the production of corn, which is turned into high-fructose corn syrup, making it so cheap that it is ubiquitous in our food supply.

Last word

That is why the vice-chair of Pepsi, when I asked why they use high-fructose corn syrup, replied that the government makes it so cheap he can’t afford not to use it. The lack of a coherent policy benefits special interests and undermines the public good. Reforming our food system, creating a national food, health, and well-being policy, and ending food injustice are key parts of creating a healthier nation.

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