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Farm Bill Reform Could Trim Americans' Waistlines

First Posted: 12/07/11 02:52 PM ET Updated: 12/07/11 03:49 PM ET

A cartoon consumer appears happy and healthy, eating a meal of fresh carrots, corn and chicken as the calendar cycles through the 1950s, '60s and '70s. But come the 1980s, a processed burger, fries and soda enter the picture, followed by a crutch, a prescription order and a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.

In "The Biggest Farm Bill Loser," a short video by the nonprofit Food & Water Watch, the consumer's growing waistline and declining health is blamed on the "Corporate Fat Cat," who lifts money bags while sporting a suit emblazoned with Tyson, Nestle and Cargill logos. Meanwhile, the independent farmer -- who once provided Ms. American Consumer with healthy food -- works harder and harder (on a metaphorical treadmill) to stay afloat. As the video suggests, this is the result of the agriculture industry's long-time motto, "Get big or get out."

"America, it's your responsibility to decide who will emerge victorious from this battle of the bulge," says the spoof reality show's host.

The federal government's expansive agricultural and food policy legislation, known as the Farm Bill, will be back up for debate in 2012. As HuffPost reported last week, the congressional super committee's failure to agree on future budget cuts this November means the bill will shift from a controversial fast-track reauthorization to a more open and lengthy discussion.

Public health advocates hope the extra time will provide an opportunity to start a national discussion about the importance of protecting or even enhancing health-promoting programs, such as those that support fruit and vegetable production, affordability and access, as well as others that slow the drive to produce unhealthy processed foods.

"The Farm Bill is one of the most critical -- if not the most critical -- opportunity we have for human health," Matthew Marsom, director of public health policy and advocacy for the nonprofit Public Health Institute told The Huffington Post.

He has another name for the legislation: "Real Health Reform."

Epidemics of obesity and hunger cause widespread suffering and debt in the U.S. Obesity rates in adults have doubled over the last few decades, with two thirds of Americans now obese or overweight. In children, the rate has gone up more than three-fold. Obesity has been linked with an array of chronic health problems including diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as well as a hefty annual price tag of over $150 billion in lost productivity.

Meanwhile, enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) is higher than ever before. As of August, more than 46 million low-income Americans were participating in SNAP, which receives about three-quarters of the Farm Bill's funds.

"Food stamps ensure that you have a little money to spend on food," said Dan Imhoff, co-founder of Watershed Media. "But they don't ensure that you're getting healthy food."

Some experts think the ability of SNAP participants to buy foodstuffs such as soda and candy with the funds partly explains why low-income populations tend to bear the brunt of the extra weight.

"It's the combination of concentrating calories and removing nutrients," said Dr. David Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Harvard, during a recent forum on the Farm Bill at the Harvard School of Public Health.

He singles out sugar-sweetened beverages as the biggest culprit for obesity and related chronic diseases, with the U.S. government and taxpayers paying for the purchase of 20 million servings every year. Dr. Ludwig also suggested how a child, 50 years ago, may have eaten a 100-calorie bowl of nutrient-rich strawberries as an afternoon snack. "Today, that child is probably eating strawberry-flavored Fruit Gushers," he said.

"Sure, we've got a lot of junk food out there. But you don't have to choose it," said Gary Williams, professor of the department of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University, another member of the panel. "You know, I eat food that tastes good."

"Consumer preference drives what is on the shelves," added Dale Moore, a farm policy specialist at the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farming lobbyist group. He points to the programs within the Farm Bill that provide education for consumers -- whether wealthy or poor -- on which foods are healthy choices.

"We are always looking for ways in which we can provide better, healthier and more nutritious commodities," he said.

While public health advocates acknowledge the important role of choice, they suggest that people also eat what is available, affordable and advertised. For many Americans, said Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a participant in the forum, this often turns out to be "junk," the pervasive array of processed foods that are created primarily from the same four commodities -- corn, wheat, soybeans or rice -- or the animals that feed on those foods.

Low-income families are particularly vulnerable. They often lack both the money and easy access to a grocery store or farmer's market that offers healthy foods. This means that they rely on fast food and corner markets. Moreover, many American children also attend schools that offer limited healthy options, where the only fruit or vegetable products they might regularly see at lunch are pizza sauce and french fries.

Patty Lovera, assistant director of the Food and Water Watch, blames the big processors and grocery stores for "inventing foods that aren't good for us and marketing the hell out of them."

"Farmers didn't decide that every product in America had corn syrup," Lovera told HuffPost. "That was the food companies. Farmers are simply growing what they can sell."

She added that while "lots of people would like farmers to have more options," that is unlikely to happen without breaking up the monopolies collectively known as "Big Ag." No farmer can get out of the cycle amidst the "constant pressure" to consolidate, she said.

But simply cutting subsidies for corn and soy, restricting what products can be purchased with SNAP or providing more financial help to fruit and vegetable growers may not be enough to revamp the food system, according to experts.

"The only way to help healthy consumption is to increase demand," said Bruce Babcock, chair of energy economics at Iowa State University. "This is not a supply issue. If we double the supply of carrots, we're not going to get people to double their consumption. But if demand doubled, then we would double supply."

SNAP itself can help drive this healthier demand, suggested Christine Fry, senior policy associate at Public Health Law and Policy, touting the success of farmer's markets and nutrition programs for participants.

Fry wants to see SNAP standards further improved, such as requiring small store owners to carry healthier foods before they can accept SNAP -- much like the USDA's WIC program. "This not only benefits SNAP participants, but everyone in the neighborhood," she said.

Adding restrictions on what foods are eligible for SNAP, such as banning the purchase of soda and candy, is a less popular strategy among experts, as well as the USDA. "Food choice is an important part of the SNAP program, and USDA's longstanding position is that incentive-based programs are best suited to encourage healthy eating for the working families, elderly and other low-income individuals who rely on SNAP for basic nutrition assistance," USDA Spokesperson Aaron Lavallee told The Huffington Post in an email. He noted that the USDA is active in research on incentive-based programs, which received funding from the 2008 Farm Bill.

Other programs have shown promise since their introduction in the 2002 and 2008 installments of the bill, such as the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program. The program currently reaches more than four million low-income elementary school students every day. Fruit and vegetable consumption by these children is estimated to have increased by 15 percent.

"I'll frequently hear from a boy's mom that he had never eaten anything green before and now loves green veggies," said Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association, the industry's leading trade association. "And once schools see what kids are eating and enjoying, then we've seen these schools change what they're serving at lunch. It's impacting what parents are buying as well."

This is the second in a series looking at how the next Farm Bill could affect the food system, the environment and public health.

This article has been updated to include comments from Dale Moore of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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