Make American Agriculture Great Again? Let’s Start With Our Diets

As change rapidly manifests in the White House, I hope we’ll see the same momentum churn when the United States Department of Agriculture reauthorizes the 53-year-old Farm Bill. The bulk of this budget, $84 billion, goes to the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, a program that works beautifully to fight hunger, but takes an ugly turn when it comes to nutrition.

The challenge: Half of SNAP participants, 20 million, are children and teens.

In 2011, less than a quarter of SNAP spending went to fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. More than half went to foods we should limit or avoid. There are virtually no rules for SNAP spending, outside of avoiding hot entrées, alcohol and tobacco.

If you’re a parent, you’re familiar with choice architecture. It’s our jobs to make the healthiest choice the easiest choice. Rewards are part of the game. In my house, fresh fruit, sliced veggies, and whole grains are within easy reach and high fives accompany healthful food choices. USDA secretary Sonny Perdue can do the same by aligning SNAP benefits with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

This alliance — the Art of the Farm Deal — can double nutrient intake and save the USDA $26 billion each year. Here’s how it works:

A Return on Dietary Investment: Nutrient Gains

Synchronizing SNAP benefits with one of three eating patterns in the Dietary Guidelines — a Mediterranean, a healthy vegetarian, or a healthy U.S. diet — produces a diet rich in plant foods. By targeting inexpensive, simple varieties, SNAP participants can double nutrient intake. A day’s meal plan may include oatmeal and raisins for breakfast; beans, an apple, and salad greens for lunch; steamed vegetables, spices, and brown rice for dinner; and a banana or clementine for dessert.

Compared to traditional SNAP purchases, valued at $126.39 in 2015, a Healthy Staples meal plan saves $47 each month. It provides equal calories, but contains twice as much fiber, iron, vitamin E, and folate; almost twice as much potassium, calcium, and magnesium; almost 40 percent more vitamin D; and five times more beta-carotene compared to a traditional American diet.

This supports a healthy body weight, lowers blood pressure, stabilizes blood sugar, improves cholesterol and reduces inflammation.

Dollars and Sense: Draining the Food Swamp

A monthly savings of $47 per person equates to $26 billion each year, which the USDA can save or reinvest into SNAP by expanding food benefits, increasing participation, or by giving vegetable rebates, a reward program for purchasing dark green, red, and orange varieties. Participants can still purchase any food they like, but with their own funds. Empty calories are cut from this federal nutrition program.

More than 50 percent of SNAP participants agree. Even more — 8 in 10 — favor a program that incentivizes healthful food choices.

Hidden Health Care Costs: A New Prescription 

By making the healthiest choice the easiest choice, the USDA gives power to the people. Health insurance claims for type 2 diabetes, the most expensive disease to treat, doubled for people younger than 23 years old since 2011. Prediabetes in children rose 110 percent, with hypertension, or high blood pressure, increasing 67 percent. Obesity rates follow suit, with teen gastric bypass surgery on the rise.

From an ethical standpoint, we can’t look the other way. Compared to higher income populations, SNAP participants have a 70 percent increased risk for type 2 diabetes and a 19 percent increased risk for hypertension. Compared to income-eligible populations, SNAP participants are 1.5 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease and twice as likely to die from diabetes. Heart disease is our world’s No.1 killer, while diabetes can lead to a life void of kidney function, vision, and a sense of feeling in our fingers and toes.

I’m not an economist, but I’m a dietitian, a mother, and I’m concerned about the health of today’s generation. It’ time to divest from these ill-fitted food practices. This will save money, boost health outcomes, and provide a healthy, evidence-based template for our children and other countries to follow.

To make American agriculture great again, let’s start with our diets.


Susan Levin is the director for nutrition education at the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and an author of a SNAP supplement in the Feb. 2017 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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