Thursday, November 27, 2008

"How We Can Progress" by Senator Tom Harkin

I just read this excellent letter by Senator Tom Harkin in my On The Pulse. I'm glad we have him in the Senate.

How We Can Progress

By Sen. Tom Harkin

Public health professionals understand that making progress in the fight against obesity and diet-and-lifestyle-related chronic disease requires comprehensive, multi-sectoral change. We need concerted efforts in our homes and family life, at school, in the workplace, in the design of our communities, and in our health care system if we are going to reverse high rates of cancer, heart disease, obesity, type-2 diabetes, and other conditions associated with poor diet and lack of physical activity. Policymakers need to be creative in helping support these changes, including looking beyond healthcare legislation per se, in order to identify less obvious avenues. On virtually every bill under consideration, Congress should ask whether it can be modified to encourage the adoption of healthier lifestyles.

As chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, I led the effort to reauthorize and update federal food and agricultural policy in the recently passed Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (better known as “the farm bill”). The term “farm bill” is something of a misnomer, since a majority of the funding authorized by that legislation goes to federal food assistance programs, both at home and abroad. It was a priority of mine to ensure that this omnibus legislation included significant health-promotion provisions. In my view, anyone who eats has a stake in the farm bill. I am hopeful that, over time, the many health-promoting initiatives included in the new bill will have a significant impact on the health of our citizens, especially our children.

For example, the new farm bill includes significant reforms to the Food Stamp Program, which is renamed as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to reflect the fact that paper stamps have long since been replaced by electronic benefit cards. Most significantly, the bill ends the erosion of purchasing power of SNAP benefits that has occurred since the mid 1990s, and even increases benefits modestly. This increase in the value of SNAP benefits will enable families to purchase more healthful foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that, unfortunately, often cost more than mass-produced foods loaded with fat, sugar, salt, and calories.

I am also enthusiastic about a new provision, which I included in the bill, to test whether food-assistance recipients will purchase healthier foods if given economic incentives to do so. The bill includes funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the SNAP Program, to oversee and evaluate a pilot program in which recipients will receive bonus payments for the portion of their benefits they use to purchase healthful foods. For example, when a program participant spends $100 in SNAP benefits at the local grocery, $50 of which is used to purchase healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables, he or she will receive some amount bonus credits for the $50 in healthful food purchases. This will be a difficult pilot to design, implement, and analyze, but it holds great potential to help us understand the ways in which existing federal food assistance programs can encourage better nutritional choices. I am hopeful that this pilot project will be a success, and that we will be able to use the SNAP program to encourage and incentivize healthful choices on a national scale.

The farm bill also includes an historic expansion of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program, which provides free fresh fruits and vegetables to children at schools. I initiated this program in the 2002 farm bill on a pilot basis. Over the years, many have argued to me that children won’t choose to make the healthful choice when they are at school. I disagreed. When our schools are overrun with junk food and sugary beverages, how can we really say that we are giving them an opportunity to make such a choice? I initiated the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program out of a desire to get healthier foods into our schools so that the healthy choice is an easy one to make.

Since its start five years ago, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program has been an extraordinary success – popular not just with students, but also with teachers, school administrators, and parents. As a result of strong interest, the new farm bill extends the program from just a handful of states to all 50 states. Within five years, the program will have an annual budget of $150 million and will serve as many as three million elementary school children each year. Just as important, the farm bill includes strong new language requiring that first priority be given to schools with significant proportions of low-income children.

I am a strong believer in broad, community-wide changes aimed at promoting better nutrition. This is especially urgent in low-income communities, which often lack access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. After all, how can we expect families to make healthful food choices when their neighborhood offers them only expensive convenience stores and cheap fast-food outlets?

I am proud that the farm bill significantly expands funding for the promotion of farmers markets in the United States, which play an important role in providing consumers with opportunities to obtain fresh, local, and healthy foods. As part of this effort, the bill also dedicated funding to establish an infrastructure for SNAP program participants to use their electronic benefit cards at farmers markets. The new legislation also increases funding for the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, which awards grants to provide low-income seniors with coupons that can be exchanged for eligible foods at farmers markets, roadside stands, and community supported agriculture programs.

ADA members will want to know that I worked with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to establish and fund the Healthy Urban Food Enterprise Development Center, which will identify best practices and provide technical assistance for groups that bring healthy, local foods into underserved communities.

I am proud that this law both initiates and sustains a wide range of programs designed to improve the health of the American people, especially children. At a time when heightened attention is being focused on the rapidly rising cost of food staples, we also need to keep our attention focused on encouraging healthful food choices, and on increasing the affordability and availability of foods essential to good health.

No comments: