« Previous Story | Front Page | Next Story »

It's All Connected...

By Moti Rieber
Opinion | February 22, 2010

WICHITA, Kan. - As President Obama prepares for the bipartisan healthcare summit on Thursday, and in light of the increasingly uncertain future of current healthcare reform efforts in Congress, I thought it might be worthwhile to point out two policy areas that, while not seeming to be directly connected to healthcare, would, were they to be dealt with effectively, have a substantial impact on healthcare costs and effects in this country. We could call this, "how to deal with healthcare without dealing with healthcare."

The first is food policy, and the second is transportation policy. The relation of these to healthcare is evinced by a recent Newsweek article on heart disease, in which both were mentioned. I would venture to say that with the exception of quitting smoking, no two factors would have a larger impact on heart disease than these.

The background on this, as any acolyte of Michael Pollan knows, is that since the Nixon administration, food policy has supported making food as cheap as possible, so corn and soybeans and meat heavily subsidized, with the result that a calorie derived from one of these foods is much cheaper than a calorie derived from fresh fruits and vegetables.

The only thing I hear about food policy in my Twitter and Google reader universe is coming from the First Lady's office. Last summer she tried to lead by example by establishing the White House garden: "In three short months, Michelle Obama had accomplished what other food advocates could only dream about. Good food was no longer just virtuous. It was cool."

Moving from good example to public policy, here's what the article in Newsweek recommends:

Subsidize whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in the food-stamp program. The underprivileged tend to have disastrously unhealthy diets, and no wonder: $1 will buy 100 calories of carrots--or 1,250 calories of cookies and chips. The government should offer incentives for buying produce. The Wholesome Wave Foundation has shown the way in 12 states, providing vouchers redeemable at farmers' markets to people in the SNAP program (the official name for food stamps). "We've seen purchases of fruits and vegetables double and triple among recipients," says president and CEO Michel Nischan.

Poor people are much more likely to get more of their "nutrition" from junk sources because of the price issue. Putting these foods into the food stamp program would address this, making it cheaper to eat healthier for the people who are most likely to have negative health effects of an unhealthy diet. It also probably could be done by executive action rather than legislation.

Of course, as with healthcare reform, climate legislation, and anything else, any attempt to redress this situation meets with resistance from a combination of ideological opponents and entrenched corporate interests, in this case Big Agro - the farm and ranch lobby - meaning it's unlikely that the misguided farm subsidy system that underlies the issue will be addressed anytime soon. This is probably why the issue is being handled rather sotto voce by the first lady. After her garden last year, she's undertaken an effort to get healthier food into the schools, relying primarily on voluntary efforts on the part of "school food vendors, food manufacturers and beverage makers."

The second issue is transportation policy. Lack of physical exercise is a major reason for the growth (so to speak) of obesity in America, with all the health repercussions that entails. As I know from my own experience, not everybody likes to go to the gym; people would be more likely to exercise if short trips and commutes of short distances could be done by foot or bike. Yet because of the dangers of walking and biking in the car-crazed United States, Americans use their cars for 66% of all trips up to a mile long and for 89% of all trips between 1 and 2 miles long.

Here's the pertinent paragraph from the Newsweek article:

Require that sidewalks and bike lanes be part of every federally funded road project. The government already spends 1 percent of transportation dollars on such projects. It should increase the level to 2 to 3 percent. When sidewalks are built in neighborhoods and downtowns, people start walking. "The big win for city government is that anything built to a walkable scale leases out for three to five times more money, with more tax revenue on less infrastructure," says Dan Burden, executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute. He recommends a "road diet" in which towns eliminate a lane or two of downtown traffic and substitute sidewalks. "When roads slim down, so do people," he says.

In other words, addressing the safety issue so as to increase the use of biking and walking even a couple of percentage points would have a huge impact on some of the most expensive and pervasive healthcare issues the country faces.

Again, given the hyper-partisan opposition to anything Obama suggests, and the stranglehold that corporate lobbyists have on Congress, the possibility of major overhauls of transport policy through legislation appear slim right now. (There is even ideological opposition to this sort of thing among "libertarian" sorts, on the basis that the market has spoken and people like McDonald's and cars, so why should government intervene? This ignores, of course, the huge amount of government intervention there has always been on these issues over the years through tax policy and subsidies.)

Maybe it will be possible to get the revisions in road project funding through in some sort of omnibus highway bill that no one wants to vote against. There should also be some places where changes can be made through executive action. In any case, again, a small investment in this approach would bear large dividends in healthcare costs and impacts, even in the absence of overhaul legislation.

Let me conclude by stating that I support efforts to overhaul the healthcare system, and I'm aware that subsidizing whole grains with food stamps isn't going to get anyone health insurance who doesn't have it. What I'm trying to point out is how interrelated some of these issues are, how addressing one thing can have a substantial impact on something else that doesn't seem (at first glance) to be related, and - perhaps - how to address some of the underlying issues that we must deal with in this country even in the face of determined partisan and corporate opposition.


I noticed that Mike Huckabee had First Lady, Michelle Obama on his program on Fox News. She was discussing the problem of childhood obesity which is a major factor in health problems later in life if the child's obesity continues into adulthood. Gov. Huckabee is also a role model for having overcome his own weight issues while in office in Arkansas.

Moti--You're right when you say these problems are interconnected. Unfortunately, the status quo is too connected with big corporations that more and more are able to pay to buy legislation that favors them. It's no surprise that the Kochs are behind the Tea Party movement--it certainly benefits them to have people out there demonstrating against their own interests.

The relation between diet and helath care is one of the most important(or should be when dealing with the health care bill). It does not take an Harvard trained Doctor to explain that natural unrefined food is much better for humans then the cheaper highly refined and caloric ones. I have to agree with Diane though. As long as you have the major corporations supporting seperatists like the Tea Party clan, it is going to be very hard to get our elected officials to acknowledge the correlation.

I like alot of what your saying but with all due respct I do have to take exception on your discussion of transportation. You discuss people using their cars for trips under 1-2 miles. I think the mistake your making is not taking into account the weather. You could have the best sidewalks and bicycle lanes there are but when it's cold outside - people drive. Now I admire the few people I see outside riding bikes in 20 degree temps but, call me Mr. Lazy, I prefer a heated car. Sadly here in Kansas it is often too cold, hot, or rainy to walk or bicycle. But when it is good weather, it's like an explosion of people outside walking and bicycling.
I think the real solution is more indoor community centers and exercise facilities.

Post your own comment here

Do you want to read more? You've only just scratched the surface at the Kansas Free Press. We have so much more to read! Nearly all of the pieces published here are timeless and relevant, regardless of when the articles were first published. To discover more, please take a look at our Table of Contents or go back to our Front Page.

Our sponsors help us stay online to serve you. Thank you for doing your part! By using the specific links below (clicking through from our site) to start any of your online shopping, you are making a tremendous difference. By using the shopping links provided on a Kansas Free Press page, you are directly helping to support the Kansas Free Press:

About This Page

This page contains just one story published on February 22, 2010. The one written previous to this is titled "Spotlight on Citizen Journalists: Meet Christina Braden" and the story published right after this one is "A Stinging Response!"

Our most current stories are always updated on our Front Page.

Other Archives

Interested in other topics? You may wish to poke around in our Table of Contents to find other sections and archives.

Do you want to explore pieces written by specific authors? You can find archives for KFP writers by reviewing our complete Directory of Authors and Writers here.

Recently Featured Stories

My Response As a Kansan to Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti has come on board The Nation magazine to fill in for Katha Pollitt as the feminist columnist while Pollitt is on leave to write a book. I've found reading Valenti's columns thought-provoking and insightful. She often takes …
Of Angels and God's Dogs

There might be a whole group of us out there--people who value our relationships with animals on a par with our ties to people. "Get over it--it was just a dog" does not resonate with us. Our society places …
Of Angels and God's Dogs

There might be a whole group of us out there--people who value our relationships with animals on a par with our ties to people. "Get over it--it was just a dog" does not resonate with us. Our society places …
Roots of the n-word

While N-word dialogue has slackened following Saline County Commissioner Gile's use of it recently, the word still has great power. So, let's look inward at the N-word. To reach a much deeper path to understanding, simply go to Ad …
Corporate Tax Reform

Basehor, Kans.--For an interesting twist on the corporate tax debate, look at Alan Sloan's opinion in the April 29 issue of Fortune Magazine. In all of the froth about corporate taxation, neither proponents of tax reduction, nor corporate critics, …

News and Opinion

Get Connected

See our FB page!
Subscribe for free!
[Feeds & Readers...]
Follow Kansas Free Press on Twitter, too!
Make Kansas Free Press your home page!

Journalists, sign in.

We're reader supported!

Whenever you use the specific links below to begin any of your online shopping, a portion of your sale goes directly towards the support of this site.

Tech Depot - An Office Depot Co.

Our sponsors help us stay online to serve you. Thank you for doing your part! By using the specific links above (clicking through from our site) to start any of your online shopping, you are making a tremendous difference. By using the shopping links provided on a Kansas Free Press page, you are directly helping to support the Kansas Free Press.

Thank you for your help!

Notices & Policies

All of our Kansas Free Press journalists are delighted that you are here. We all hope that you come here often, sign in and leave us comments, and become an active part of our community. Welcome!

Our writers are credentialed after referral to, and approval by, the editor/publisher of KansasFreePress.com. If you are interested in writing with us, please feel free to let us know here. We are always looking for Kansans who want to write about Kansas!

All authors here retain their own copyrights for their original written works, original photographs and art works. They welcome others to copy, reference or quote from the content of their stories, provided that the reprints include obvious author and website attribution and links to the original page, in accordance with this publication's Creative Commons License.

Our editor primarily reviews stories for spelling, grammar, punctuation and formatting and is not liable or responsible for the opinions expressed by individual authors. The opinions and accuracy of information in the individual stories on this site are the sole responsibility of each of the individual authors. For complete site policies, including privacy, see our Frequently Asked Questions. This site is designed, maintained, and owned by its publisher, Everyday Citizen Media. The Kansas Free Press, KansasFreePress.com, and Kansas Free Press are trademarked names.

© Copyright, 2008-2012, all rights reserved, unless otherwise specified, first by the respective author, and then by KFP's publisher and owner for any otherwise unreserved and all other content.