Clearly, when this pandemic subsides, a lot more attention to the American diet will be needed to ward off future medical, economic and social calamities from whatever pathogen next comes down the pike.
The report Dr. Mozaffarian cited, issued in March in honor of the 50th anniversary of the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, was unexpectedly timely. It pointed out that “severe malnutrition has largely been replaced with food insecurity — the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods and beverages,” a circumstance that in 2018 affected 14.3 million American households.
The government spends about $70 billion a year to support food insecure individuals and families through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps). But other than disallowing purchases of alcohol, tobacco, pet foods, hot prepared foods and foods eaten in the store, SNAP does not restrict the kinds of foods people can buy with their state-issued allowance.
Rather than limiting peoples’ food choices with SNAP dollars, experts are devising programs that can prompt people to choose foods and beverages that can enhance, rather than impair, their health. For example, under an expanded version of SNAP, in some states recipients who use the supplement to buy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains get $1.30 on the dollar. But under a proposed disincentive, if the benefit were spent on sodas and snacks, they would get only 70 cents on the dollar.
For those relying on their own funds to buy food, tax strategies could be used to increase the cost of foods and beverages that are less healthful, with the resulting tax revenues used to lower prices for healthy foods.
There have also been several successful pilot programs demonstrating the cost savings and health benefits of actually providing healthy foods to people with diet-related disease.
The Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System began a program in 2016 called Fresh Food Farmacy to give free nutritious food to food-insecure people with Type 2 diabetes and their families.