Can Changes in Our Food System Help Make Americans Healthier

Ask a Scientist - May 2013

J. Cruz of Kamiah, ID asks "Our country has one of the highest costs for medical care, and has increasing amounts of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases. To what extent can changes in our food system help make Americans healthier and what is UCS doing about these problems?" and is answered by Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program.  

It’s true that healthcare spending in the United States currently accounts for 18 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is expected to rise sharply as the population ages. And rates of diet-related chronic diseases are soaring. Most of us know we should eat a healthier diet—with more fruits and vegetables, and less meat, sugar, and processed foods—but we’re being undermined by a food system that sets us up to fail. Today, the U.S. government pays farmers to grow virtually the opposite of what it recommends for Americans to eat—including billions to subsidize corn and soybeans, the building blocks of processed foods and sugary drinks.

The costs of this misguided food system are enormous and include significant healthcare costs associated with the preventable diet-related diseases you mentioned. In 2010, treatment costs for cardiovascular disease—the leading killer in the U.S. today—amounted to $273 billion, and indirect costs in the form of productivity losses were estimated at $172 billion. By 2030, the American Heart Association projects that some 116 million Americans will have some type of cardiovascular disease, with direct and indirect costs reaching $818 billion and $276 billion, respectively. Because taxpayers foot a portion of these costs through Medicare and Medicaid, this problem truly affects us all.

Insufficient consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has been identified as a significant contributor to cardiovascular diseases. On an average daily per capita basis, Americans would need to increase consumption of fruit by 150 percent and consumption of vegetables by 56 percent to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) “MyPlate” dietary guidelines. Later this year, UCS will release a new analysis showing that if Americans increased their consumption of these foods to recommended levels, we could save tens of billions of dollars per year in total medical and lost productivity costs—even trillions, factoring in the economic value of lives saved. (Stay tuned for that report this summer.)

Meanwhile, federal support in the form of farm subsidies and publicly funded research prioritize the wrong things. The same flawed incentives that fill the nation’s shopping carts with processed foods also encourage agricultural practices that damage the soil, water, and air. When you think about it, our current food system makes the public pay twice: once to subsidize the production of unhealthy processed foods, and a second time to treat the illnesses and environmental impacts these products cause.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. UCS is a leading voice in the movement to bring more healthy food to American dinner tables. We’re promoting incentives for farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables, and supporting marketing channels—such as farmers markets—that have been shown to increase consumption of these foods.

Last fall, Congress allowed the federal Farm Bill to expire rather than overhaul it to fix our broken food system. As Congress revisits the legislation again this spring and summer, UCS will call for reinvestment in lapsed and underfunded USDA initiatives like the Farmers Market Promotion Program, farm-to-school programs, and targeted programs that increase access and decrease costs of fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income families. Modest public investments in these cost-effective programs would increase all Americans’ access to healthier foods, with lasting health and economic benefits for us all.

As a senior analyst in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Karen Perry Stillerman manages campaigns and initiatives aimed at transforming and modernizing the American food system to make it safer and healthier for consumers, farmers and farm workers, rural communities, and the environment. Ms. Stillerman holds a master's degree in public affairs and environmental policy from Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. She is an active member and a program planner for the Environment Section of the American Public Health Association


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