U.S. food system reevaluation needed to combat health risks

An article published in The New Yorker on Sept. 28 claimed that President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have “done more than any other First Couple to confront the problems that plague the American food system.” Perhaps this assertion is not so impressive in a country that has seen its adult obesity rate rise from around 13 percent in 1962 to 36.5 percent today, but some progress has certainly been made.

With support from the president, Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign led to successful changes in nutritional guidelines and nutritional information panels.

The campaign also helped pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which made the National School Lunch program more nutritious and banned the sale of sugar, fat and sodium-heavy snacks in schools.

While these have been admirable changes, the United States food system remains damaged. The next administration needs to propose reforms to begin to rescue our society from the environmental and public health catastrophe that is our food system.

The government should end or seriously reform the “checkoff programs” that exist for most agricultural commodities. In checkoff programs, producers of a product all contribute money toward the research and promotion of that product, with the goal being to boost sales across the board.

Checkoffs are quite profitable for producers, generating up to $38 in sales per dollar spent on the program. These programs are not so good, however, for consumers. They cause us to consume a lot more of some foods than we otherwise would—and when these commodities are beef, dairy and potatoes, what’s at stake isn’t so much the profitability of farming as is the health of our entire country.

The second thing that has to change regards the U.S. Department of Agriculture and how it needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up—it would probably benefit from being split into two or more organizations. Under its current structure, the agency is responsible for both “promoting agriculture production” and administering most of the major government nutritional guidelines and programs such as the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program.

This is a clear conflict of interest, and the reality is that the agriculture industry has the USDA pretty deep in its pocket. The USDA committee that recently set new nutritional guidelines contained nine members with ties to the animal agriculture industry out of a panel of 13. Their problematic loyalties can be seen in their advice to children to drink more milk, despite rising childhood obesity rates and evidence that milk can contribute to weight gain.

The last reform is the most important and will be the most difficult. The current subsidy structure of the U.S. agriculture industry needs to be entirely revamped. It currently favors products like corn, soy, beef and dairy, all of which are used heavily in high glycemic and fatty foods. The total subsidies paid by all levels in American government total $57.3 billion per year—a combination of USDA budget subsidies of $30.8 billion and $26.5 billion in state irrigation subsidies from 2013.

Partly because of this—and partly because of the rise of factory farming—the relative price of eating healthy has risen considerably for consumers. Over the past three decades, the cost of vegetables rose by 41 percent. When faced with expensive choices at the supermarket, Americans will be influenced into making harmful decisions for their health and the environment.

Americans face many problems, but few hit closer to home than our food crisis. The U.S. is the wealthiest nation in history—it should be eating that way, too.