Hunger and obesity. Two of the most common, most debilitating and most solvable health issues our country faces. There should be no politics to these issues.There should be no one ideology that triumphs over the other. However, as the House just passed a bill that would cut $40 billion to vital nutrition programs, the American people could lose the fight against both of these devastating conditions.
The Farm Bill currently under debate on Capitol Hill contains many facets, but two may be the most important initiatives affecting the health of the American people: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education. One begets the other, but both are crucial to improving the health of our nation and providing opportunity to those who need it the most.
In the midst of Hunger Action Month and the just-proclaimed Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, I’m reminded of words from the acclaimed African-American author Mya Angelou’s: “When you know better, you do better.” This succinct thought carries with it the impetus for arming the poorest of our citizens with the education and the power to improve their lives and the lives of their families.
Access to healthy food is a basic human need and a fundamental right of all Americans. This is why we have programs like SNAP providing assistance to low-income populations and resources so they may purchase food to feed their families. However, as nutrient deficiencies among low-income populations continue to rise, the focus turns to the complexities of food choice. Healthful eating is not intuitive, but rather a learned skill. Navigating the grocery store shelves; deciphering confusing marketing messages, popular trends and nutrition misinformation; understanding ingredient labels and nutrition facts panels; and, possibly most importantly, knowing how to store and cook food properly are all learned skills that make up the foundation for healthful eating. SNAP-Ed is the tool in our belt to help these low-income families learn these skills, take back their kitchen and take back their health.
Our nation is paying the price for overlooking the importance of food and nutrition related diseases. Obesity accounts for 21 percent of total national health care spending, summing to as much as $210 billion annually. Obesity places an enormous financial burden on American families, our economy and our nation’s healthcare system.
Right now the SNAP-Ed nutrition program is available in every state and reaches more than 6 million people, but this is only a small fraction of the 50 million or more citizens who are struggling to eat healthfully on a budget. Since its recent reform, SNAP-Ed is becoming more efficient, reaching more vulnerable populations who are disproportionately suffering from poor health. Additionally, the new structure will focus more on anti-obesity efforts to prevent chronic diseases from running rampant in communities. These programs, frequently led by registered dietitian nutritionists, have shown to be effective and change behavior, including increased fruit and vegetable intake, reduced rates of childhood obesity, improved food safety practices, enhanced shopping techniques and implementation of meal planning.
However, as debate continues regarding reauthorization of the Farm Bill, the proposed funding cuts would swiftly undermine the goal of these programs. While the effects of cuts vary by state, if the integrity of these programs is decimated, low-income, hungry families will have less to eat and less nutrition knowledge to help them lead a healthy life, which is something we will all ultimately pay for.
Dr. Glenna McCollum is a registered dietitian nutritionist and the 2013-14 president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In addition to serving on the Academy’s Board of Directors, McCollum was the speaker for the House of Delegates and vice-chair of the Quality Management Committee. She was recognized as the Outstanding Educator of the Year. McCollum served as president of the Arizona Dietetic Association and was recognized as Arizona’s Outstanding Dietitian of the Year. She was also recognized as the Outstanding Woman of Chandler and received the Community Service Award from Project CENTRL. McCollum is a graduate of Arizona State University. She earned a master’s degree from Loma Linda University and a doctorate in management and organizational leadership from the University of Phoenix.