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5 Ways to Save Billions and Boost the Nation’s Health

December 16, 2011
By Neal Barnard, MD
|11Comments|


While Congress debates how to cure America’s massive debt problem, let me offer a doctor’s prescription: five smart cuts could save taxpayers $383 billion and make Americans healthier at the same time.

Right now, the U.S. government spends billions subsidizing the least healthful foods, fueling America’s obesity epidemic and escalating healthcare costs. In contrast to federal nutrition guidelines that emphasize healthful vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, federal subsidies go in the opposite direction, supporting meat, dairy products, and sugar, and all the cholesterol, fat, and calories that are packed into them. This, despite abundant scientific evidence showing that increasing consumption of animal products is associated with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and certain forms of cancer, among other health problems.

So here’s where to put the scalpel:

1. Cut Junk Food from SNAP

The government provides food for economically disadvantaged people through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program). One in seven Americans now draws SNAP benefits.

The enormous size of the program — $65 billion a year — is not a testament to the political clout of SNAP recipients. Rather, it’s the food manufacturers who are profiting, as SNAP supports a growing market for candy, soda, fatty cheese, and specialty meats as much as it does for healthier foods.

SNAP perpetuates food deserts — geographic areas with inadequate availability of healthful foods. Because shelf-stable junk food is covered on the same basis as perishable fruits and vegetables, grocers have little incentive to stock healthful foods, and providers of fresh fruits and vegetables operate at a disadvantage.

A vanishingly small number of Americans currently suffer from hunger, defined as an inadequate caloric intake. Instead, a great many suffer from poor nutrition — too much fat, cholesterol, and overall calories, and not enough of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals provided by vegetables and fruits.

SNAP also has an unintended demeaning feature in that it tacitly suggests that economically disadvantaged people view unhealthful foods as necessities. I don’t believe that for a minute. Everyone, regardless of their income, recognizes that unhealthful foods are not to be parts of our daily routine and that a continued supply of these foods is to our detriment.

Here’s a better SNAP structure: SNAP should be limited to truly healthful staples: oats, rice, and other grains, dry beans, fruits, and vegetables, which could be fresh, frozen, or canned. Participating grocers could be required to stock certain items, such as no-salt-added canned beans and vegetables.

With these nourishing foods, an adult’s monthly food costs would total approximately $134, which is one-third less than the $200 benefit provided by the most complete current program coverage. Were SNAP to be reorganized in this way, we could cut costs by $24 billion annually. For once, we could wipe out both hunger and malnutrition at the same time.

2. Prioritize Health in Commodity Purchases

American children today are in the worst physical shape of any generation in the nation’s history. One in three is overweight. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three children born since the year 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life. As the years go by, the drain on America’s health care resources will only escalate.

Contributing to this problem is the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture routinely uses school meal programs and other food assistance programs as a dumping ground for agricultural commodities. When cheese prices fall, the USDA buys up millions of pounds of cheese. When beef prices fall, it buys up beef. School menus then feature cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, and Salisbury steak. These purchases are designed to boost agribusiness income, but they do children no favors.

In fiscal year 2009, USDA spent more than $1.4 billion on commodity purchases of meat, dairy products, and eggs — twice what it spent on all fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and oils combined. If USDA were to base commodity purchases solely on health value, we could reduce expenditures by about $14 billion over the next decade, save on medical care costs, and improve children’s health.

3. Eliminate Direct Payments to Agribusiness

Food producers currently receive yearly checks in a direct-payment program set up as part of the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act. These payments are based on the historic use of land. That is, if you used to grow feed corn for livestock, you’ll still be paid today. The direct payment program makes it profitable to keep land dedicated to the production of feed grains for livestock, and program restrictions block the growing of vegetables and fruits. Eliminating direct payments would save approximately $50 billion over the next decade.

4. Let Producers Buy Their Own Crop Insurance

Weather happens. When rain fails or floods arrive, food producers need to be insured against losses. All industries protect themselves against shifting profits and costs, and agribusiness is no different.

The cost of crop insurance programs was approximately $7.3 billion in 2009, and approximately 80% of crop-insurance costs are borne by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, these programs favor feed grains for livestock (especially corn and soybeans), providing a de-facto subsidy for meat production. It is difficult to argue that taxpayers should shoulder these costs. Privatizing crop insurance would save an estimated $70 billion over the next decade.

5. Make Polluters Pay

Feed-grain production and concentrated animal feeding operations create wastes that pollute rivers and streams. Government programs cover much of the clean-up costs, becoming yet another de-facto subsidy. In 2010, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program cost $839 million.

Producers raising crops for animal feed or raising livestock under intensive conditions should pay for their own waste clean-up. At the same time, governmental agencies that oversee environmental protection must have authority to enforce appropriate regulations to ensure a healthful, clean environment. Privatizing farm clean-up operations would save $9 billion over the next ten years.

Do the Math

Adding up our savings, we reach $383 billion over the next decade. But wait, there’s more. As we stop promoting unhealthful foods, our healthier population will need less medical care. Today, the medical costs attributable to meat consumption are approximately $60 billion to $130 billion every year. If we can trim even a little of that, we’re talking real money.

For more information on how to optimize your health, visit NealBarnard.org

Originally published on HuffingtonPost.com

Photo credit: KAZ Vorpal



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11 responses to 5 Ways to Save Billions and Boost the Nation’s Health
  1. WOW! This is truly amazing. You are one smart doctor. I hope the right people listen and put your solutions into effect.

  2. Yep – totally agree. We should promote healthy foods where it makes sense and stop subsidising unhealthy foods.

    Processed foods are engineered to be hyper-palatable and will lead to over eating and weight gain in most people and weight gain will lead to other health issues. A lack of fresh produce will eventually lead to health issues in most people. Too much meat in the diet crowds out more nutritious foods and may lead to health issues.

    Also insufficient exercise will lead to health issues. If doctors would prescribe nutrition and exercise instead of pharmaceuticals our health care costs would be lower and we would all be a lot healthier.

    However as food and healthcare are both trillion dollar industries their influence with the government runs deep. It’s going to take a substantial change in public opinion for the government to move away from the status quo.

  3. Would you please, like, run for President of the US or something? This is so awesome. I am so in agreement with these proposals.

  4. Thank you very much for this excellent analysis. I worked in public health for six years before medical school and I believe that the SNAP along with the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is an absolute travesty of government policy! Here is one opportunity where we could make a huge impact in children’s health and instead we are legislating obese and/or nutrient-deficient kids!

    The worst part is the behind-the-scenes argument frequently made in policy circles–that it is “too expensive” to provide kids with higher quality foods. That is a completely false statement, as you so accurately pointed out: “With these nourishing foods, an adult’s monthly food costs would total approximately $134, which is one-third less than the $200 benefit provided by the most complete current program coverage. Were SNAP to be reorganized in this way, we could cut costs by $24 billion annually.”

    Thank you for setting that record straight. I wish more of us in the medical establishment would stand up and advocate loudly for these kids. Not only is it ruining their health & costing us billions–it is also effecting education in a big way. Will all the low-nutrient, high sugar foods–kids are being diagnosed with ADHD right and left when all they need is a dietary change and at least an hour of active physical activity (what we used to call recess).

    Keep doing your outstanding work. I always look forward to hearing more from you! (I follow PCRM). I’m going to put this post up in my “best of the blogsphere” on my blog this week–hopefully some of my doc & policy folks will read it! Its a small blog, but I figure that the more we talk about this the better!

  5. Thank you very much for this excellent analysis. I worked in public health for six years before medical school and I believe that the SNAP along with the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is an absolute travesty of government policy! Here is one opportunity where we could make a huge impact in children’s health and instead we are legislating obese and/or nutrient-deficient kids!

    The worst part is the behind-the-scenes argument frequently made in policy circles–that it is “too expensive” to provide kids with higher quality foods. That is a completely false statement, as you so accurately pointed out: “With these nourishing foods, an adult’s monthly food costs would total approximately $134, which is one-third less than the $200 benefit provided by the most complete current program coverage. Were SNAP to be reorganized in this way, we could cut costs by $24 billion annually.”

    Thank you for setting that record straight. I wish more of us in the medical establishment would stand up and advocate loudly for these kids. Not only is it ruining their health & costing us billions–it is also effecting education in a big way. Will all the low-nutrient, high sugar foods–kids are being diagnosed with ADHD right and left when all they need is a dietary change and at least an hour of active physical activity (what we used to call recess).

    Keep doing your outstanding work. I always look forward to hearing more from you! (I follow PCRM). I’m going to put this post up in my “best of the blogsphere” on my blog this week–hopefully some of my doc & policy folks will read it! Its a small blog, but I figure that the more we talk about this the better! Thank you Kris for posting this!!

  6. If only Washington would listen to this great advice.

  7. I’m reading the China Study and more confused then ever. I’m actually afraid to eat now.

  8. Speaking as a former cashier in a health food store I disagree with what Dr. Barnard thinks would happen if SNAP were redesigned to cover only the healthy staples he mentions. I believe many stores would decide to opt out of participating in the SNAP program rather than changing the products they carry to fit what the program covers. The store I worked at chose not to participate in WIC due to “limited shelf space.” Basically it didn’t want to have to deal with carrying the approved products.

    In addition, I wonder if Dr. Barnard has ever been in a grocery store line that has been held up because a person using food stamps did not understand which foods were covered and which were not. As a cashier I regularly helped people using food stamps who had to deal with the already confusing rules. I witnessed many people receiving assistance enduring embarrassment and inconvenience when they had to figure out which groceries to put back with a line of people watching them. Other shoppers are often not kind about these hold ups and usually have no idea how confusing food stamp rules can be. Perhaps it varies from state to state but where I live candy and hot deli food is already not covered by food stamps.

    Finally, most of the food stapes Dr. Barnard suggests need a base level of preparation. Dried beans, oats and fresh veggies need pots, stirring utensils, knives and a kitchen stove to make them edible. People living in shelters, crashing on friend’s couches or otherwise just trying to get by are not going to be soaking their beans overnight. Honestly, I think the urge to help “fix” people’s difficult situations by mandating health is well meaning but misguided. People qualifying for government food assistance already have it rough. Are we really helping by making sure they don’t eat salted beans? That seems demeaning to me. Instead of narrowing options can we find ways to create new options? In my area food stamps have recently been approved for use at farmer’s markets. That could be one way to widen access to healthful foods in a supportive rather than punitive way.

  9. I have a single problem with this article. The good doctor, naturally, suggests cutting out meats and dairy products from SNAP, and how that will cut the *average adult’s* grocery bill by a third. Hurrah! However, over 70% of people that benefit from the SNAP program are CHILDREN. Children NEED the extra proteins for proper growth and brain development. Children NEED dairy products for proper bone and muscle development. Yes, childhood obesity IS a problem (often due to high carb foods and lack of exercise), but human children are, biologically, supposed to get most of their nutrition from milk until they are 4-5 years of age…. and if they are not getting it from their mothers (There is a rather harsh societal stigma against a woman who nurses past one year of age), they need to be getting it from *somewhere*.

  10. CaliannG: I’m surprised by your comment on children NEEDING dairy and meat to be healthy considering the website you are reading the article from….?? Dairy and meat have proven more harmful than healthful to humans-ask any doctor or nutritionist worth their salt. It would be worth your while to do some more research and stop letting the people who profit from your business tell you what’s best for you.

  11. Call your gov official and ask them to read this!