How Does the Farm Bill Impact National Health?

By | April 30, 2019

Nutrition is a driving force concerning health. Consequently, the Farm Bill is an important program that contains several provisions that influence our public health. For those who need clarification, The Farm Bill is a package of legislation renewed every five years by congress that shapes the federal food and agriculture policy.

The Nutrition component of the bill accounts for 76% of its spending. Within this appropriation is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, which provides monthly benefits for food purchases for 42 million low-income beneficiaries. As a result, the administration and details of this program influence the diet quality of many we serve.

In 2014, the Farm Bill established the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) to provide financial incentives for SNAP participants to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the amount of this funding only corresponds to just over $1 of subsidy per person per year. Not nearly enough to ensure healthy food spending to those who need it.  A better way to approach this would be to allow a 30% subsidy for all purchases, but this would come with a steep price tag.  If we take a look at the modeling demonstrating how nutrition influences health we would see that although a higher cost now, it would be more cost-effective over a lifetime by reducing cardiometabolic diseases. Unfortunately, the investment today will only reap financial benefits in many years down the road, which creates a problematic dilemma of cost and time versus the benefit.

Another possible use of the Farm Bill funding that has a potentially significant impact is in the domain of research. These dollars could fund a study on the effects of sugar-sweetened beverage restrictions, which is a recommendation of the 2018 Bipartisan Policy Center SNAP Task Force. Research dollars currently are evaluating the impact of a Produce Prescription Program, which categorizes fruits and vegetables as “medicine.”

Another missed opportunity is the funding of studies to evaluate medically tailored meals. However, assistance is available to support states in implementing education policies and this is very important in translating proven interventions into action to beneficiaries. If intervening is beneficial, it’s imperative that there is funding for operationalization of the program.

As we pivot to the other components of the Farm Bill, they too affect nutrition. How dollars are spent protecting farmers from market swings and uncontrollable factors, have been a major primary focus for many years. But, if we also take a deeper look at nutrition, these policies will incorporate models that would protect farmers financially against the overproduction of healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables, which would lead to lower prices for the consumer by effectively allowing oversupply to occur. In other words, if we are subsidizing, let us fund in a manner that lowers the cost of healthier commodities. An intriguing result may be that healthier foods become more affordable than unhealthier choices.

Regardless of the policy, how we view all the dynamics that affect health is essential as we implement our interventions in multiple sectors. Undoubtedly, a coordinated approach will only enhance our ability to influence health and wellness. In supporting our public policies, let us view them in a much more holistic manner.