Fiscal Bill Cuts to Education Nutrition Will Increase Spending On Health Care in the Long Run


With the evasion of the fiscal cliff, many hunger advocates are left wondering whether anything was truly resolved or if we have simply extended the fall into intense hunger pains.

Like most Americans who have even moderately followed the fiscal cliff, you have probably heard many mixed responses on both sides about the size, or lack thereof, of the spending cuts in last week's House agreement. But what the media has failed to give its due coverage to are the cuts and extension to the all-to-side-swept Farm Bill that was slipped into last week's so-called deal. Under the pressure to make spending cuts, Congress decided to make cuts to quite possibly the most bi-partisan and integral program to help end hunger in America — the SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program's Nutrition Education) portion of the $2 trillion Farm Bill. The funding for SNAP-Ed is used to educate at-risk populations and communities about nutrition, agriculture and affordable healthy diets despite their financial situation. By educating at-risk populations about making healthier choices within their means, the government could effectively gnaw at the systemic issues that plague our ballooning health care costs. It's actually quite intuitive: lower obesity rates equal less health issues. But by cutting $110 million from SNAP-Ed, our Congress has effectively robbed Peter to pay Judas.

Before Last week, SNAP-Ed constituted a meager .05% of the Farm Bill budget. Roughly 80% of the five-year $2 trillion bill is attributed to Federal Nutrition Services (particularly SNAP), while the rest goes towards rural development, crop disaster insurance, farm subsidies that typically benefit "big ag" and other outdated farm polices such as the MILC program (Milk Income Loss Contract). In fact, the bill may have been rushed for extension in order to avoid the increased milk prices that would surely follow the outdated MILC program that would require the government to buy milk at nearly twice its market value to stabilize prices and production costs related to inflation (which would probably lead to more Got Milk? commercials with people who can't afford to get milk). Instead of solving the problem, the 2008 Farm Bill has been extended another 8 months for review. Although most of the prior bill remains intact, something came over our Congress to cut $110 million from a hardly funded and well-needed program.

From left, right and down under, most Americans would agree that SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, cannot solve the multiplicity of issues that surround hunger on its own. Aside from the elephant in the room named "jobs with fair wages," nutrition education shares a passenger seat in the road to a healthy and well-fed nation. That is where Snap-Ed comes into the conversation. The money used for SNAP-Ed is typically allocated for Cooperative Extensions throughout the nation. Cooperative Extensions offer several agriculture and nutrition based programs and research, including urban agriculture, farmers' market outreach and incentive programs, cooking workshops and nutrition lessons in the center of both rural and urban communities with some of the highest rates of hunger and food insecurity.

Next to the nearly 50 million Americans who face hunger in our nation is also the issue of record obesity rates. It is projected that by 2030 there will be 400,000 new cases of cancer and 6 million new cases of coronary heart disease or stroke due to obesity, as well as $66 to $68 billion in health care spending due to obesity related health complications. Studies have also shown that low-income communities are disproportionately affected by obesity related diseases. As the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey demonstrates, low-income families are less likely to meet "My Plate" standards by consuming more carbohydrates and sugar sweetened beverages while failing to meet the suggested servings of vegetables and whole grain. At the crux of this paradox are families that may not have access to affordable and fresh nutritiously adequate foods, may not have time or knowledge of food preparations, are overwhelmed by fast food promotions and underwhelmed by health food advertisements (how many Del Monte commercials have you seen lately?), the stress of multiple odd jobs and shifts, and a culture that perceives quick, easy and high processed foods as a better bang for the buck than healthier foods that are considered less fulfilling.

Because SNAP is so far reaching, SNAP-Ed gives our government the opportunity to lower health care costs by getting at the heart of the issue surrounding high obesity rates in impoverished communities: nutrition education. SNAP-Ed effectively addresses the paradox of higher obesity rates in record high poverty rates by breaking down false notions of cheap unhealthy food and expensive and impossible to cook (or make appetizing) healthy foods. As an employee of a food bank and sharing a building with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Rochester, I have seen firsthand how far SNAP-Ed can go in improving our nation's overall health. From providing trips to farmers' markets in areas that are recognized by the Department of Agriculture as food deserts to organizing cooking demos in the middle of Rochester neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates, SNAP-Ed can and must come to the forefront of the battle to lower our record high obesity rates and related medical expenses.

Unfortunately, spending less on what works (SNAP-Ed) to fund something that is quite possibly the fallout of not having more programs like it in place (health care) is counter-intuitive. While the cuts have already been made, it isn't too late to make sure that our Congress doesn't cut any more money from this penny and life-saving program. The Senate has approved a 2012 Farm Bill that effectively cuts spending by $23 billion over the next decade; naturally, the House has kicked the bi-partisan can down the cliff to take on harder to agree upon issues first. But that also means you have the next 8 months to tell your representative that we cannot afford our nation's health bill, and that it is about time that we support more programs that use education to actually take on systemic issues as opposed to financing their consequences.