End childhood obesity within a generation – this is the goal of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative. Mrs. Obama's campaign focuses on sedentary children and lots of unhealthy snacking as the drivers of childhood obesity. In the national dialogue on obesity among adults, the discussion isn't hugely different: Overweight Americans lack the self-control to pursue a healthier lifestyle, while certain agricultural subsidies make the unhealthiest foods the cheapest. But the obesity crisis is a lot more complicated than that.
It turns out that the kind of diet that complies with the Department of Agriculture's official dietary guidelines is unaffordable for many Americans.
A researcher at the University of Washington found that an income level that qualifies a family for food stamp assistance makes it nearly impossible to put healthy and balanced meals on the table. Though food stamp benefits are calculated to allow families to buy the lowest-cost foods that are still nutritious, the USDA's own research shows that food prices vary widely across the country. That means if you live in a region with high prices (such as the Northeast), it may be unaffordable for you to feed your family healthy meals.
Beyond junk food and willpower
Obesity isn't entirely – or even primarily – a question of willpower, but has a lot to do with socioeconomic status. Federal policy should address this by making healthy foods cheaper.
Journalists have popularized a link between cheap junk food and subsidies to the corn industry. But this isn't the reason why junk food is cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables. Even with no subsidies for corn production, fresh produce is more expensive because it has a short shelf life. It has to be picked, shipped, stocked, purchased, and eaten quickly to prevent spoilage. Rolling back commodity supports won't make healthier options the cheapest. The solution, as proposed by former US Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben, is subsidies for fruits and vegetables.
Price sends a strong signal, especially for those on a thin budget. In Massachusetts, for example, there are innovative programs at work to make nutritious foods cheaper for those who can least afford them. Many farmers' markets not only accept food stamp benefits, but they also use public and donated funds to double the value of food stamps when they're used at farmers' markets – so they go twice as far toward buying fruits and veggies.
The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture estimates that this matching program and other outreach efforts increased farmers' market sales to food stamp recipients by 300 percent. Lawmakers in Washington should make federal funds available to support this innovation.
Of course, members of Congress have pledged to slash, not grow, government spending this year, so a new subsidy for fruits and vegetables is a nonstarter. But there are ways to pay for it without spilling more red ink.
Pamphlets won't cut it
A child nutrition bill that was passed in October allocated $375 million for state programs dedicated to preventing obesity and educating low-income Americans about healthy eating. That's a lot of money to spend printing nutrition pamphlets, which are an unproven means of promoting health.
Congress should shift half of the funds to direct nutrition support, to double food stamp benefits when they're used to buy healthy items at farmers' markets. This wouldn't cost taxpayers another penny, but it would improve the effectiveness of money already in the pipeline.
Such changes are authorized in the farm bill, which is written on a four-year cycle. Discussions over the 2012 farm bill are already under way. Now is our chance to make real strides toward improving health and tackling obesity. Let's not miss it.
Mattea Kramer is a master in public policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is also serving as a News21 journalism fellow through Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.