Abandoning the Fight Against Obesity

A new GOP plan would cut funds critical to combating the obesity epidemic.

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Array of fruits and vegetables at a farmers market
Array of fruits and vegetables at a farmers market

According to recent studies, middle and high school students are eating more fruits and vegetables, skipping breakfast less, watching less TV, eating fewer sweets and exercising more.  As a result, childhood obesity rates appear to have leveled off for the first time in years. 

This is welcome news and behavior that needs to be encouraged, as obese children are more likely to become obese adults, resulting in higher risks for heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, cancer and Type 2 diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control for Prevention, obesity-related health problems in adults already cost Americans more than $190 billion per year, exceeding smoking-related health issues as the number one public health cost. 

Although eating more fresh produce has been shown to have positive effects on one's health, it is especially challenging to incorporate for low-income households due to the increased costs. Unfortunately, many of the cheaper items in grocery stores are highly processed, less nutrient foods with high contents of salt, sugar and fat. As such, this segment of the population is more susceptible to obesity. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, more than 31 percent of adults ages 18 and older who earn less than $25,000 per year are obese, compared with 25.4 percent of those who earn at least $50,000 per year.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

In the 2008 farm bill, policymakers sought to address this relationship between income and obesity and developed a $20 million pilot program called the Healthy Incentives Pilot. The program ran for 14 months in 7,500 select households and ended in December 2012. The test program sought to find out whether, if the price for fruits and vegetables were reduced, food stamp recipients would purchase more fresh produce and develop healthier eating habits. 

The good news is that the USDA's report on HIP showed that it actually worked, and that for an ongoing investment of less than 15 cents per person, per day, there was a 25 percent increase in fruit and vegetable consumption among adults. This would suggest more children are also eating more nutritious foods if they are more readily available in their homes. As First Lady Michelle Obama said earlier this year, "slowly, but surely, we're beginning to turn the tide on childhood obesity in America."

The bad news, however, is that a current GOP plan would slash more than $40 billion from the food stamp program (known as SNAP), including any extension of the HIP program. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

At a time when obesity rates have begun to level off, and in some cases, decreased, it would seem that this is exactly the time to invest more into programs that perpetuate this trend and give ourselves the best chance to reduce America's number one health care cost; to cut such programs now seems completely counter-intuitive.

While the GOP likely believes it is helping Americans by cutting government spending, the result is really just to shift the burden to another generation, as the draconian cuts that are being proposed would only escalate the obesity epidemic and increase associated health care costs. Without changes to current behavior, obesity costs are expected to explode to $550 billion by 2030.

Crazy as it sounds, $40 billion in "savings" today may actually cost $550 billion in another 17 years – now that's what I would call fuzzy math.

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