By Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture
President Biden recently announced his administration’s goal to eliminate hunger and reduce diet-related diseases by 2030. His plan is based around five policy pillars; improve access to food, integrate nutrition and health, empower consumers to make healthy choices, support physical activity and enhance nutrition and food security research. Addressing these issues is crucial as we face rising energy prices, inflation and supply chain problems. At the same time, more than 35% of the adult population and 20% of children are now considered obese, in addition to one in ten households facing food insecurity. It is refreshing to see an administration show some commitment to nutrition and food security, but I urge the President to look towards West Virginia for successful program examples.
In just the past year, the number of folks reliant on food banks has increased by 12%, with over 100,000 families receiving commodities. Food access is a prevalent issue facing many of our smaller and more rural communities. As big box stores pushed out small businesses, only to leave a few decades later, it has left many of our communities without reliable grocers. This forces our citizens to travel hours to secure food for their families. To combat these issues, we have seen West Virginia develop SNAP Stretch which doubles the value amount of those dollars when purchasing healthy produce, as well as convert WIC, WIC SFMNP and Senior SFMNP to electronic solutions to keep these programs moving forward. We have also seen the number of farmers’ markets triple since being moved to the Department of Agriculture and meat processing production rise 50% since the pandemic. We are doing a lot to expand access, but it is not enough.
To further integrate nutrition and medicine, the Biden administration plans to pilot covering “medically tailored meals” through Medicare. In West Virginia, we have already found success through our “FARMacy” programs that prescribe food boxes to combat diet-related diseases. Our eight programs around the state expand access to nutritious, healthy foods and combine them with educational materials and expert resources. Over the last several years, we have seen participants achieve better health outcomes and learn more about healthy living. To address mental health, we have funded projects through our Veterans and Heroes to Agriculture program to integrate mental health and agriculture. Through partners such as the VA hospitals and homes, we have expanded mental health programs to those who have served our country and communities. As a State that has limited medical resources, health and wellbeing of our citizens should be a top priority for ensuring a prosperous West Virginia.
President Biden wants more schools to cook food from scratch, as well as purchase more food from local farmers. The President is right, although he failed to mention how we got here. A grave policy mistake made by Departments of Education shifted us towards “heat and serve meals” in lieu of home cooking. The long-term effects of these policies have worsened nutritional outcomes for our youth leading to adulthood health risks. Now, most of our schools lack the staff and equipment to reverse course, but through successful programs such Farm to School and the Fresh Food Act we have tried to right these wrongs. If we are truly going to serve better meals in our schools like the President wants, it will take a huge investment in school resources. In the meantime, the Department continues to work through the Farm to School Coalition and invest staff time into how to connect more farmers to schools.
As much as I am happy to hear these policies initiatives from the President, we have been preaching since day one that food security is vital to West Virginia. It is sad that despite being one of the leading producers of food in the world, the United States still faces food deserts, rising diet-related diseases and food shortages during these economic times. Closing the gap between consumption and production not only lessens our reliance on foreign sources of foods, but also fosters a healthy citizenry, environment and economy. We must invest in the local farmer and programs that support them. President Biden is right; we must end hunger in the United States, and it starts by replicating and expanding the programs we have started right here in the Mountain State.