WASHINGTON (August 8, 2013) — The old adage “an apple a day” was on to something. There is significant potential to prolong lives, improve health, and save health care costs if Americans simply ate more fruits and vegetables each day, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
“The $11 Trillion Reward: How Simple Dietary Changes Can Save Lives and Money, and How We Get There” examines the linkage between fruit and vegetable intake and incidence of cardiovascular diseases. These diseases, the leading killer of Americans, include coronary heart disease and stroke, which together are responsible for 725,000 U.S. deaths each year. The report finds that if Americans consumed just one additional serving of fruits or vegetables a day, the nation would save $5 billion in health care expenditures and prevent 30,301 heart disease and stroke deaths annually.
If Americans were to go a step further and eat a full 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit daily, as recommended by federal dietary guidelines, it could prevent 127,261 deaths each year and save $17 billion in medical costs. The economic value of the lives saved from cardiovascular diseases is an astounding $11 trillion.
“Our food system is quite literally making Americans sick and driving the country further into debt,” said Jeffrey O’Hara, an agricultural economist with UCS’s Food & Environment Program and author of the report. “One solution is to enable better access to fruits and vegetables, and we can do this through incentives that make produce more available and affordable.”
UCS is advocating cost-effective policies that increase access to and reduce the cost of domestically grown fruits and vegetables for consumers, especially for low-income consumers who are hardest hit by cardiovascular disease and other diet-related illnesses. Low-income neighborhoods – where some 30 million Americans reside – are often far from grocery stores and other sources of fresh produce, hindering access.
The report’s recommendations are particularly relevant in the Paso del Norte region of southern New Mexico, where affordability and accessibility of fruits and vegetable are especially problematic. In the report, UCS profiles the work of the Anthony, New Mexico-based La Semilla Food Center, which is raising awareness within the community about the links between food, health and the local economy.
With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Farmers Market Promotion Program – a program UCS has long supported – La Semilla is partnering with five local farmers markets to expand access to low-income families. Customers can now redeem nutrition assistance benefits at the farmers markets, and take part in cooking demonstrations. USDA grants are also helping the organization to launch La Semilla Youth Farm, which will provide the region’s youth with training in food production, desert ecology, culinary and nutrition skills, and marketing, and serve as a demonstration site for other small-scale farmers in the region.
“La Semilla Food Center is demonstrating how public investments that aim to engage all consumers can create healthier and more equitable food systems, spurring local economic development and saving money in the long term,” said O’Hara. “Farm policy should increase funding for cost-effective investments like these across the nation.”
Current farm policies set by Congress and implemented by the USDA channel taxpayer dollars into subsidies for commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, which are used as feed for livestock, biofuels and as processed food ingredients. These policies offer few incentives for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables – effectively discouraging production of the very foods federal dietary guidelines recommend.
“An ‘$11 trillion reward’ is possible, but it will take smarter policies that invest in more farmers markets and farm-to-school programs, along with other programs that make fresh produce more affordable for low-income families. We need to start thinking about consuming produce as a public health investment,” said O’Hara. “These smart investments would reduce the health care burden on families and taxpayers, and improve public health – a win-win for Americans.”
A three-minute video produced by UCS summarizes how we can achieve an $11 trillion reward through forward-looking farm policies.