Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Local Food and Healthcare Costs

I recently received this letter as part of a Community Food (COMFOOD) listserv that I belong to. I believe that the author did a great job of laying out one of the main reasons we should care about - and support - local food. The letter was written by Christopher Beford.
We are at a defining moment in the movement for healthy, locally produced food in America.

Michelle Obama’s planting of Sam Kass’s vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House last week offers us a shining example of the change in our consciousness that we must achieve. It was a hopeful beginning, but only a beginning.

A critical public policy debate has begun that will fundamentally impact our nation’s economic future and with it, the future of our movement.

Amidst the blizzard of “trillions” of dollars now being spent to bailout a financial system that functioned on Calvinist greed and in the sure knowledge that it could privatize its profits while socializing its losses (we pay), there is an even larger financial and ecological issue that goes to the heart of our financial future and our food system’s relationship to nature.

Health care costs are rapid increasing, threatening to destroy our economy. At the same time, the health of Americans is in accelerating decline. We are simply paying more for less health. The numbers are startling and sobering. I will sample just a few here.

Health care costs are increasing 2 to 5 times faster than the rate of inflation.
Obesity and diabetes threaten two-thirds of the children now in school, cutting 10-20 years off their life span.
Total healthcare spending, now at 13.5% of GNP, is projected to rise to 30% as baby boomers age.
Epidemics in inflammatory diseases from asthma to arthritis are growing.
In the next ten years Americans will spend $2 trillion on drugs related to healthcare.
Chronic disease care accounts for 75% of the nation’s annual $2 trillion medical care costs.

President Obama has identified health care system reform as critical to economic rejuvenation of our country. Health care costs slow job growth, suppress wages, put US business at a steep competitive disadvantage in trade, threaten family homeownership, disproportionally impact small businesses that create the most new jobs.

President Obama’s plan seeks to reduce administrative costs (25% of the health care bill) through investment in information technology, care coordination and prevention. His mention of “prevention” is of supreme importance to our movement.

In a speech at the University of Iowa on May 29,2007, then candidate Obama described his understanding of “prevention” this way.

“We also spend far more on treating illnesses and conditions that could've been prevented or managed for far less. Our health care system is turning into a disease care system, where too many plans and providers don't offer or encourage check-ups and tests and screenings that could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars down the road.”

Prevention is equated with check-ups, tests, and screenings. Diet and particularly the nature and source of food is not mentioned.

I believe our challenge, at this moment, is to bring food into the healthcare cost containment, universal access debate.

I am not talking just about the five-a-day food pyramid recommendations.
I propose that we begin a national conversation that presents food as an ecological system in which ecological health is tied directly to human health.

Robert Rodale put it the most succinctly.
“Healthy soil. Healthy plants. Healthy animals. Healthy people.”

I propose we make a direct link between human health, farming and food preparation processes, and food distribution.

Said more clearly, we have to put an end to the industrial food business model that currently dominates food production in the US to ensure of our physical and economic health.

Dr. Alan Greene, in his keynote address to the 2009 MOSES Conference in LaCrosse, enumerated the links between industrial food and the growing epidemics of immune system, inflammatory diseases that are overwhelming our children and their parents.

Epidemic rises in allergies and food sensitivities, asthma, autism, hyper-activity and attention deficit disorder, inflammatory diseases in virtually every organ in the body all are increasingly tied to industrial food production.

We are at a moment similar to the one health advocates faced with smoking in 1960. The negative health consequences of smoking began to be documented by scientific research. But it took nearly three decades, trillions of dollars, and millions of lives before we gathered enough political momentum and courage to tackle the tobacco/cigarette industry in the name of our collective health.

We have an advantage over the anti-smoking advocates.
We have an alternative that is not only more healthy, more cost effective, more economically beneficial to communities, but it also tastes better and builds community. We have a positive alternative to the industrial insanity that now governs so much of our food system.

Food grown locally in a manner that encourages life in the soil (soil health) and that respects animal nature (humane treatment) will…

enable us treat the epidemics of chronic disease,
dramatically reduce public/private healthcare expenditures,
cut agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gases and global warming in half,
increase ecosystem resilience to the challenges of drought and a warming planet,
rebuild local economies in rural and urban areas,
build small businesses and a local food culture that nourishes community building in the process.
establish healthy local food as a key to lifelong human health.

In others, if we establish a ecologically proper relationship to food, we can address many of the most pressing problems we face at the same time.

We must have the foresight and the political will to take on the monopoly industrial food corporations and the handful of giant farmers that now set food policy in this country.

One place to begin is the USDA’s School Lunch Commodity program. Under this program 400 farmers grow 85% of the USDA supplied food served in 93,000 school districts. A Science in the Public Interest investigation found that these “commodities” were most often processed into food with significant amounts of salt, sugar, and fat added. In other words, some of the USDA program is contributing to the health problems of our children.
We must fundamentally alter this program to support local farmers growing food for local school consumption. Just one idea.

So this is our moment.

We have a smart, health conscious First Family in the White House that “gets it” about food.

We are facing fiscally bankruptcy from health care costs directly related to our food policy.

We are facing disastrous decline in health due to food policy.

And we are part of an exploding grassroots movement to establish healthy local food systems.

So what do we do?

Mark Lipson of the Organic Farming Research Foundation wrote a recent post on COMFOOD (March 24, 2009), telling us,

“As a coalition, NSAC (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition?) has a carefully structured priority setting process that responds to its organizational membership (as opposed to individuals). NSAC does not need further agitation from the masses to address this issue. It _does_ need financial support.”

In other words, let the lobbyists do this. Send us money and sit down and be quiet.

I couldn’t disagree more. After attending the Indianapolis event in November, 2008 on the organic provisions of the new Farm Bill, I came away with a strong feeling that the current “organic” lobbyists aren’t willing to take the full step I have outlined above, being more intent on defending the gains they won for organic research in the Farm Bill.

A grassroots movement in alliance with health care reformers, small business advocates, and local economic development proponents is what we need. We must bring healthy local food to the center of the debate.

We need to seize this moment. Yes, we can.

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