It’s no secret that a plant-based diet protects us from chronic disease, but for many Americans, the problem isn’t that they want to eat unhealthy food. It’s that the healthiest foods are also the most expensive. Produce prices and health are inextricably linked.
New research indicates that reducing the price of fresh fruits and vegetables by 30 percent would prevent 200,000 deaths from heart disease and stroke in the next 15 years. And that figure is looking at deaths alone. It doesn’t include the impact on the rest of the 85+ million people living with (and medicating themselves for) heart disease here in the U.S.
Right now, it’s actually the unhealthiest foods that receive the most subsidies. Animal products, animal feed (like corn and soy), and processed ingredients (like high fructose corn syrup) are some of the most subsidized foods in this country. No wonder broccoli is out of reach for many low income families, while a Big Mac is affordable.
Researchers from Tufts University and the U.K. presented their findings on produce prices and health at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology meeting in Phoenix in a session called, “The Impact of Food Taxation and Subsidy Policies on Cardiometabolic Disparities in the US.” They used simulations to see how price drops of certain foods would impact consumer spending and health.
While they didn’t talk about specific policy change during their session, Tufts University cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian shared some ideas with NPR via email. He says that, “At state or national levels, general subsidies could be implemented at the farm or wholesaler level. Grocery store bonus cards could also be a mechanism for providing lower prices.”
Another analysis found that here in the U.S., we spend six times more on subsidies for protein foods (mostly animal protein) than we do to offset the price of fresh produce. That’s bad news for our health, since there is clear evidence that too much protein is bad for our health. In fact, biochemist Dr. T. Colin Campbell says:
“Eating too much protein increases the rate of aging. It turns on hormones that are not helpful to us. It increases the risk of disease (all kinds—from cancer to heart disease to diabetes). But the problems don’t end there—when you increase the proportion of animal products you eat, you decrease the plants you eat (proportionally).”
This unhealthy system of subsidies is deeply ingrained in our food system, and it’s not going to be an easy change. Unfortunately, the Farm Bill – which lays out those subsidies – was finalized in 2014, and it did little to improve our food subsidy system. The Farm Bill is renewed every five years, so it’s going to be a while before there’s another chance to revisit our subsidy programs.
In the meantime, what can we, as individuals do? There are grassroots efforts to connect low-income families with fresh, healthy food. SNAP to Health lists some excellent resources for folks who receive SNAP benefits that are looking to stretch their food dollars.
One program, called Wholesome Wave, teams up with farmers markets to help folks gain access to healthy, fresh food. They offer a doubling program and help filling fresh food prescriptions (That’s a thing!). They are also working on improving access and improving food policy. Learn more about Wholesome Wave here, and if you’re already able to afford fresh fruits and veggies, consider throwing some money their way, to help fund their amazing work.