There's no question that Americans need to eat a healthier diet. Recent decades have seen a surge in obesity and the chronic metabolic diseases that go with it. And there is a growing consensus that changes in the American diet, particularly increased consumption of high-calorie processed foods, have played a central role in this disturbing trend.

It's clear what we need to do: replace more of those processed foods in our diet with healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, and nuts. But for many Americans, healthy food is not as available or as affordable as it needs to be. And policies that stack the deck in favor of processed food production don’t help. Fortunately, there are things we can do to expand healthy food access for everyone.

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Reward farmers who grow healthy food

American farming is currently dominated by the system of industrial agriculture that arose in the decades after World War II—a system built around immense farms growing commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, that are used to produce processed foods. Production of these crops is heavily subsidized, which ensures that processed foods will be cheap and abundant.

Farmers growing fruits and vegetables—known as "specialty crops" in the world of farm bureaucracy—are largely left outside this system. It's harder for these farmers to obtain credit or crop insurance, which makes their work a much riskier proposition. And if commodity-crop farmers want to branch out and plant fruits and vegetables, they may find that the terms of their subsidies actually prohibit them from doing this.

In short, policy puts fruit and vegetable farmers at a disadvantage compared to their peers growing commodity crops. If we want a more abundant and affordable supply of healthy food in our markets, we need to make it easier—not harder—for farmers to grow it.

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Support local and regional food systems

One of the best ways to help people eat healthier is to give them convenient and affordable places to shop besides the convenience store and the supermarket, where processed foods predominate. Recent decades have seen rapid growth in local and regional food systems, in which farmers sell food to customers either directly—via farmers markets or community supported agriculture (CSA) operations—or through local institutions such as schools, hospitals or food hubs.

Local and regional food systems not only provide a pathway for getting healthy food from the field to the plate. As UCS analysis has shown, they are also good for our economic health: they create jobs and promote economic activity in the areas they serve.

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Ensuring food equity and security for all

Growing healthier food, and marketing it through local and regional food systems, are big steps in the right direction. But they will only provide a real solution to our food system problems if everyone has access to them.

Research has shown that diet-related health problems hit low-income communities hardest. People living in these communities often find it more difficult to buy healthy food than residents of more affluent neighborhoods; they may have few nearby food sources besides convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.

UCS is working with a variety of partners to bring the voices of these underserved communities to the forefront. Together we are advocating for common-sense policies to ensure access to affordable, healthy food for people at every income level.

One promising strategy is to leverage community institutions such as schools and hospitals. Stronger child nutrition policies can make schools reliable sources of healthy food for low-income students, while innovative Farm Bill programs are encouraging hospitals and health centers to partner with community groups on healthy food access as a public health initiative.

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We Need Your Support
to Make Change Happen

We can transform the U.S. agricultural system to prioritize investments in healthy foods and farms —but not without you. Your generous support helps develop science-based solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.