Cassandra Leveille wrote a nice piece that was published the other day on Campus Progress’s site. The piece focused on the link between declining health among low-income neighborhoods and the lack of healthy and organic foods available in those areas.

Leveille explains throughout the piece that, whereas many supermarkets carrying the fresh produce — the most nutritious food in the store — are exclusively located in suburbs thanks to the white flight of the 1960s and 1970s, those trapped in poverty in urban areas are forced to rely on convenience stores overflowing with fatty, over-processed alternatives. And because of their lack of resources, many impoverished shoppers are trapped in the cycle of buying these foods, because it is the only option (other than simply not eating). In other words, living paycheck to paycheck usually means a diet of frozen dinners, Twinkies, and dollar menus at fast food joints for youth.

Leveille examines the roots of the problem from a policy perspective:

For many, the Obama administration offers hope for changing the massive amount of unhealthy foods Americans are exposed to. However, our current food agenda is largely out of Obama’s hands, by policy set forth in the 2007 Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill legislation is amended every five years and largely determines what products are available for Americans on a mass scale. The original farm bills produced during the Great Depression paid farmers to not overproduce their crops, but the current farm bills promote overproduction of subsidized foods, such as corn. The five foods that receive the highest subsidies are soybeans, corn, wheat, cotton and rice. These products appear in abundance on our supermarket shelves, often in the form of highly processed foods.

A piece in The American Prospect commented on the 2007 version of the Farm Bill, particularly the ramifications of overproducing the main five crops cited by Leveille — not just leading to a lack of diversity in food choices, but threatening the small farmers who simply can’t compete with the extremely low prices caused by overproduction.

Subsidies are marketed as an important protection for America’s food-production system and a necessary support for hard-working farmers who maintain our rural heritage. But most beneficiaries are not part of that pastoral tradition, and artificially low prices have devastated many small farmers. Since 1948 the number of farms has dropped from 5.8 to 2.1 million, and the number of farmers who actually benefit from subsidies is even smaller — a mere ten percent of farms receive 74 percent of the subsidies. Smaller farms do receive some money, but it’s hardly on par with what becomes agribusiness profit. In many ways, this consolidation is caused by the very subsidies that claim to protect the traditional farmer.

Furthermore, only five crops (corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and rice) receive more than 90 percent of the allotted funds. And because the subsidies are crop-specific, crop diversity decreases. Banks are less inclined to lend to farmers who want to plant non-subsidized crops, as there’s no guaranteed return. Thus, more farmers plant more corn or soy, which escalates overproduction and reduces the safeguards that a diverse crop load provides.

Leveille’s piece does a good job of pulling together the economics, public health issues, and agriculture policy involved in this matter. Leveille suggests a combination of new zoning laws, which serve to keep unhealthy fast food options out of low-income neighborhoods (already either being pursued or passed by city governments in New York and Los Angeles) with improved agriculture policy, which subsidizes more fruit and vegetables over the traditional crops listed above. Certainly the big five will continue to be the most popular, but I agree with Leveille that policy should create more of a demand for produce than it currently does. I endorse all of these actions.

However, our responsibilities don’t stop there. Our youth are being poisoned thanks to the policies we have set forth. School lunches are little more than the “drunk food” on which many college students snack — chicken nuggets, french fries, etc. In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, explains why:

But [Vilsack] has a mission to make “nutrition” the watchword of the nutrition programs in the Department of Agriculture: School Lunch, Food Stamps, WIC. Now, that sounds kind of “duh,” but, in fact, those programs have nothing to do with nutrition right now. They’re essentially ways to dispose of agricultural surpluses. So if they actually raise the nutrition standards and make that the focus—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, they’re the way to—

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, the reason we have a School Lunch Program, you know, it began as an effort really to get rid of this incredible overproduction of American agriculture. I mean, we’re using our children as a disposal for excess, you know, cheap ground beef and cheese and all these corn products, and that the—you know, under the School Lunch Program, we feed our kids chicken nuggets and tater tots in school. We’re using the School Lunch Program to teach them how to become fast-food consumers. So, it’s not about health, and it needs to be about health. So, if he can move that program in that direction, I think that will be wonderful.

So after the adjusted subsidies that Leveille advocates produce more fruits and vegetables, we should be getting those into the School Lunch program and avoiding the stale, corn-laden taco shell filled with the 20/80 ground beef most kids are eating. Perhaps we should also manufacture some creative signage to place on our cafeteria’s serveries that inform students in an understandable, fun way what they are eating.

Food is such an important part of the lives of young people. Of course, they need it to survive in the short-term, but it also forms the foundation of many of their daily schedules. The importance of nutrition, then, should be that much more apparent. In addition to doing a better job of educating our students on the foods/drinks they eat, we should also be keeping an eye on agriculture/food policy which is the driving force for many of our public health and economic problems today. While it would seem that those worse off would be afforded more of the resources needed to get to a better place instead of less, that’s not what’s happening now. As DeNeen Brown put it in a story for the Post earlier this month on the poor, “You have to be rich to be poor.” It’s up to us to change that.

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