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Federal Food Policy

Federal Food Policy & American Health

Mon, Nov 6, 2017  -  Comments (0)  -   Posted by Michele Fancher

U.S. federal food policy and the status of Americans’ health are inextricably linked.  And in fact, the federal government’s work related to our food system ultimately has a tremendous impact on the performance of the American healthcare system.

We’re hard pressed to read an analysis of our healthcare system that does not, eventually, make its way to mentioning that we’re not getting a big enough bang for our healthcare buck. We spend a lot of money on healthcare in the U.S., the observation goes, and although we spend more per capita than many other countries, we’re not healthier for it.

Federal Food Policy & American Health

Why is that? That’s a complex question, of course, the answer to which encompasses a multitude of factors, like environment, socioeconomic status, and genetics. Another of these factors is lifestyle. And especially, what we eat, which is where federal food policy comes into play.

Given the considerable sum we spend as a nation on healthcare each year – $3.2 trillion in 2015 – and ongoing conversations about how to better control our healthcare costs, one might assume we’re doing all we can – and more specifically, the federal government is doing all it can – to make available and to encourage Americans to eat the best possible diet for their health. But unfortunately, this is not always the case.

The latest Issue Brief from The Center for Health Affairs explores this topic of the American Diet in greater detail, taking a look at the factors that have influenced federal food policy, like industry-funded research that turned out to be misleading and yet influenced our diets, to negative effect, for decades; and agricultural subsidies that prioritize the wrong foods from a health perspective.

A whole host of diseases and health conditions, from cardiovascular diseases and cancers to diabetes, poor bone health and tooth decay, stem from a poor diet. And in fact, many of these are caused by, or strongly linked to, obesity, an overwhelming problem we’re facing in America. It isn’t news to many people that the rates of obesity in this country are staggering. And, as with many other health problems in the U.S., this one isn’t affecting all of us equally. Rather, minority populations are considerably worse off.

At 48.1 percent, non-Hispanic Blacks have the highest age-adjusted rates of obesity, followed by Hispanics at 42.5 percent, non-Hispanic Whites at 34.5 percent, and non-Hispanic Asians at 11.7 percent.

The Center’s latest Issue Brief delves into the many factors influencing what we eat and contributing to this troubling obesity trend. And indeed, these factors are complex, and often surprising. A book published this year examines the effects of small business loans on the state of American health. What’s the connection? Well, according to Supersizing Urban America, policies such as those intended to promote minority entrepreneurship and urban revitalization in the 1960s had the unintended consequence of an explosion of fast-food restaurants in urban areas. This, of course, can be looked to as just one of many underlying causes of the higher rates of obesity among minority populations. 

Of course when it comes to the nation’s problem with obesity, children are not immune. Today, about 20 percent of school-aged children have obesity, a rate that has tripled since the 1970s. Under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, federal legislation passed in 2010, the National School Lunch Program began making strides in offering healthier meals to kids by reducing calories, fat and sodium and increasing whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and nonfat milk in meals offered at schools. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would be rolling back some of these requirements, particularly those related to whole grains, sodium, and nonfat milk. However, some of the rules, such as those aimed at increasing kids’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, remain. 

There’s no doubt that this problem of obesity lacks a silver-bullet solution. But it does help to understand how we got here and the policy decisions that have been influential.

To learn more, check out The Center’s Issue Brief on the American Diet, Road Blocks to a Healthy Population: The Food Industry, Federal Policy and the American Diet.

Posted in Population Health
About the Author

Michele Fancher

After graduating from THE Ohio State University and spending 17 years living in Ohio, I relocated a few years back to the Boston area. But I left my heart in the Buckeye State and I’m thrilled to remain a part of The Center for Health Affairs and the vibrant healthcare community in Northeas...

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