The nation's capital leads the nation in childhood obesity, according to a recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey. This fact comes as no surprise to the National Urban League. We studied D.C.'s 8th Ward, where more than one-third of residents live in poverty and more than one-third of its children are obese.
The neighborhood is a classic food desert. Saturated with fast food outlets, it doesn't offer a single full-size chain supermarket, and the three small grocery stores that do business there offer outdated meat and tired-looking produce. Fast food and convenience stores make up 81 percent of food resources. The Food Research and Action Center, a D.C.-based nonprofit working to eradicate hunger in the United States, has even given the neighborhood a grade of "D" for community food security.
Communities such as Ward 8 are one reason why this country is paying over $100 billion a year in obesity-related health costs. Urban League affiliates are attempting to combat obesity by teaching people about healthy eating habits and the need to limit processed foods laden with fat and sodium. These efforts, however, are fruitless, without places to buy healthy food from.
As 8th Ward residents struggled to find a decent apple or a non-wilted bunch of collard greens, only one mile away, the U.S. House of Representatives was writing its 2007 Farm Bill, the nation's most vital piece of food legislation.
Calls for reform in farm-support programs and significant increases in nutrition and conservation spending made little progress. While the House included new programs and increased spending for existing ones, their size and scale simply do not measure up to the scope of the problem.
At the NUL's annual conference, our affiliate CEOs called upon the House Agriculture Committee to authorize $30 million in funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Community Food Projects program, which helps low-income neighborhoods develop innovative solutions to food problems.
Did Congress listen? With 35 million Americans classified by the USDA as food insecure, the House passed a bill that made only marginal improvements to the Food Stamp Program, the nation's most important defense against hunger.
Did Congress take significant steps to increase the availability of healthy food? Yes and no. It did authorize increased funding for distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables to the nation's schools over current levels but by only enough to reach 2 percent of all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. This hardly represents progress when childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions.
Did Congress address the issue of food desertification? The House passed legislation directing federal agencies to "study" the problem but failed to authorize funding for the Community Food Projects, a program that has helped neighborhoods address food deserts for the past 10 years.
Congress has also made little progress in reforming a system of commodity food production that rewards the overproduction of crops, adding unnecessary pounds to our waistlines.
Since 1985 the actual price of fruits and vegetables has risen 40 percent, while the price of sugar and fats has fallen as much as 14 percent. These disparities in the cost of healthy and unhealthy food reflect U.S. farm policies that give nearly nothing to fruit and vegetable producers but pass along the lion's share of public support to commodity crop farmers.
Let there be no mistake about it — urban America wants farmers to succeed. We have watched with delight as 4,500 farmers markets have blossomed nationwide. As those farmers have brought their abundance to urban consumers, we have brought our demand for healthy locally grown food. The synergy between city and country has never been so robust and the market opportunities so immense. That is why our farm policies must do more to strengthen the viability of local and regional farming to help meet the surging demand.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.