Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Importance of the Department of Agriculture

This article by George Will, the conservative columnist for The Washington Post raises an issue of great importance to those of us concerned about federal food policy.

I was very concerned when Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa was appointed by the Obama administration as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Vilsack is a well known friend of the food processing industry, which depends very heavily on the corn grown in Iowa for one of its basic raw materials. The byproducts of corn are a cheap source of food for cattle being pushed through the fattening process getting them quickly ready for market. Corn byproducts also found in a high percentage of processed junk foods fed to Americans, including our children. Corn syrup is a basic sweetener in Coke, Pepsi and other soft drinks.

The Department of Agriculture administers commodity subsidies to farmers. Many of the beneficiaries of these subsidies, cheap meat, dairy, and soft drinks end up in school lunch programs. The Department of Agriculture oversees the nation's school lunch program. Obesity in America, including obesity among children, has worsened in recent years. The poor quality of federally subsidized cheap food that pours into our schools to feed children is one of the reasons for the growing epidemic of obesity among children.

So, those of us who were hoping for reform in federal food policy under Obama were disappointed at the Vilsack choice. The Department of Agriculture is not one of the most visible of federal agencies. But, the department has a huge impact on the food that Americans eat. Federal subsidies administered by the USDA determine what farmers grow. Unhealthy meat, dairy, and many junk foods are by far the biggest beneficiaries of federal subsidy programs. The industries that produce these foods represented in Washington by such organizations as The National Cattleman's Beef Association, The American Dairy Association, and The American Beverage Association spend lots of money to influence food policy in Congress and at the Department of Agriculture. Any change in direction for this department requires a Secretary with the gumption to take on these industries to craft a federal food policy that is more conducive to the health of the American people. Given the power of the industries conspiring to keep Americans eating unhealthy food, this is a gigantic undertaking. The Department of Agriculture is as influential on policies that affect Americans' health as is the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Some would argue that USDA has more impact on health than DHHS. This is especially true if you consider, as I do, that the food we eat is one of the most important determinants of our health.

George Will's article emphasizes the importance of USDA and raises the question of whether the Department, under Vilsack, will be able use its powers to begin to reverse the national epidemic of obesity in our country. I hope that Tom Vilsack rises above his ties to the food processing industries and leads a vigorously reformist effort at USDA to lead Americans down the path of eating more healthfully. Reforming our commodity subsidy programs and our school lunch programs would be good starts. But, it remains to be seen whether the Obama Administration will focus on food policy given all of its other critical priorities.

If, however, national health reform survives as a federal priority, turning our federal food policy around to fight the nation's obesity epidemic should be at the center of this reform. Improving the nation's health is a critical component of any attempt to control costs and make health care available to everyone.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food has written about the importance of federal food policy. For more, see this interview on NPR.

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