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Increasing Healthy Food Access, A Community Conversation and a National Challenge

Posted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Food and Nutrition Farming
Jun 08, 2012

Today I participated in event with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to highlight the challenge of increasing access to healthy foods. It’s a conversation that I and others at USDA have had many times before.  From small towns to big cities, people are talking about how to get more fresh, healthy food into their communities.  Everywhere I go, parents ask how and where they can get fresh fruits and vegetables for their children.  Schools ask for advice on sourcing healthier food for school meals. Shoppers ask where they can buy healthy foods in their neighborhoods.

According to the Institute of Medicine, 1 in 3 children and 2 out of 3 adults are overweight or obese. The percentage of obese adults in the United States is expected to reach 42 percent by 2030. More than 20 million Americans have diabetes, and 79 million are pre-diabetic. Our nation’s children may be the first American generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents’, due in large part to obesity-related diseases . In addition, the economic costs of obesity and related chronic health issues are staggering at an estimated  $147 billion per year in direct costs, and billions more if indirect costs such as lost productivity are included.

We know that there is no magic solution to country’s mounting obesity-related health challenges.  But we do know that increased consumption of healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables, can help tremendously. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Council , the presence of supermarkets in local neighborhoods and other sources of fruits and vegetables, especially in low income areas, are associated with lower Body Mass Index (BMI).

That’s why the USDA is committed to increasing access to fresh, healthy food in communities across the country, especially in low-income and other underserved neighborhoods.   We’ve helped grocery stores in communities like Winnsboro, Louisiana carry more fresh produce. We’ve supported the construction of high tunnels – temporary greenhouses - in places like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and across the country to extend the growing season and availability of fresh produce.  We’ve assisted mobile groceries and food hubs as they facilitate direct distribution of fresh healthy food in places like Camden, NJ . Our Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass outlines many of USDA’s other projects that use local food systems as tools to increase healthy food access.

USDA is also outfitting more farmers markets with the ability to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps); revising the national school lunch program standards to better meet nutritional guidelines; and offering a new farm to school grant program to get fresh, local food into our nation’s schools.  And just this month, USDA celebrated the one-year anniversary of the MyPlate/MiPlato icons – a simple way to help Americans to make healthier choices in their daily lives.

This conversation – about the barriers to healthier lifestyles and how we surmount them – is a conversation we all need to be engaged in. USDA isn’t alone in the Federal family in addressing these issues; we work closely with the departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services, along with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, to explore the relationships between healthy  food access, community investment, and healthy environments  more broadly.  We’re also constantly learning from communities’ experiences and their many success stories.  Addressing these issues will take all of our collective will and creativity.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition Farming