May 14, 2010
On Tuesday May 11 the White House released its action plan to reduce childhood obesity. Tied to the First Lady’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, the plan clearly endorses a role for local agriculture in improving food environments and suggests “discussion areas” to explore the role agriculture policy plays relative to the prices of healthy food and junk food.
The plan, based in part on more than 2,500 public comments, is impressive in its scope, involving 12 federal agencies. It is organized around the four “Let’s Move!” areas laid out by the First Lady in February: (1) empowering parents and caregivers; (2) improving school food; (3) improving access to healthy, affordable food; and (4) increasing physical activity. The report concludes with 70 policy recommendations, assigning responsibility for each to the federal government, state and local governments, or the private sector.
“USDA should work to connect school meals programs to local growers” the report states. USDA is to remove regulatory barriers that make it hard for schools to purchase locally, help schools identify local producers, and support the development of supply infrastructure that will allow producers to provide schools with the products they nee. Schools are encouraged to build gardens to increase opportunities for exercise and teach children about how food is grown, to invite farmers to campus and host farmers’ markets on their grounds.
In addition to encouraging the school meals programs to use their food dollars to source local product, the report points out that encouraging SNAP and WIC participants to use their benefits at farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs) can improve nutrition while stimulating rural agricultural economies.
Easing zoning restrictions to encourage the development of farmers markets, farmstands and produce carts is highlighted as an effective way to increase access to healthful food in urban and rural communities without grocery stores or supermarkets (so-called “food deserts”).
The report promotes the Administration’s proposed Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) initiative as a way to leverage private investment in a variety of kinds of food outlets in food deserts. “Interventions may also include helping improve supply chains to bring fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods from rural agricultural areas to urban stores and markets,” recognizing that a key weakness in the development of regional food systems is the lack of appropriate supply chain infrastructure. The report also encourages the establishment of food policy councils as effective ways for locales to bring stakeholders including agriculture representatives together to support better food systems.
The section of the report that discusses access to healthy and affordable food is the only one that directly addresses agriculture policy. “Additional studies should be conducted to determine whether current agricultural policy has an impact on the availability and pricing of different types of food and American diets,” it states. The report recommends that economic incentives be offered to increase the production of fruits, vegetable and whole grains. It lauds the 2008 Farm Bill provisions that increased support for specialty crops and the limited experiment with planting flexibility for particular processed vegetables in particular states. The report indicates a benchmark of success will be to increase the availability of fruits and vegetables in the food supply by 70 percent by 2020, with at least the implication that this increase should come from domestic production.
The next step will be to turn the recommendations into action. The White House could immediately harness the momentum “Let’s Move” has created by stepping up their own efforts to ensure Congress passes child nutrition program reauthorization this summer. Success on the child nutrition bill may well hinge on the White House playing a more prominent role in solving the major sticking point slowing down the bill’s consideration, namely finding the funding offsets necessary to provide for a better, healthier school meals program.