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EDITORIAL

Healthy diets should be a top national priority

The coronavirus has illuminated weaknesses in public health. If we’re serious about improving it, we need to improve public nutrition.

A worker packs Crimson Red rhubarb into a box at the EG Richter Family Farm in Puyallup, Wash.
A worker packs Crimson Red rhubarb into a box at the EG Richter Family Farm in Puyallup, Wash.David Ryder/Bloomberg

Later this year, the US government is due to update its dietary guidelines, which advise Americans on the specifics of a healthy, balanced diet. These guidelines are important for many reasons, given that they arise out of an exhaustive analysis of the latest scientific research on the links between nutrition and health. The guidelines help inform, among other things, the development of school lunch programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps.

This past week, a respected scientific panel issued its advice to the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services on what should be in the 2020-2025 edition of the guidelines. Several suggested changes stood out, such as reductions in the acceptable amount of added sugars — especially for young children — and in the amount of alcohol men should consume (one drink per day instead of two, though not drinking at all would be more advisable). The scientists also could not ignore that this is an extraordinary moment for Americans’ health: They pointed out that their work was not just happening amid the coronavirus pandemic but also is inextricably linked to it.

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After all, the committee wrote, “Those at most risk for the most serious outcomes of COVID-19, including hospitalization and death, are people afflicted by diet-related chronic diseases (obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease).” The advisers added that the “interrelationships between chronic diseases, COVID-19, and social determinants of health emphasize the critical importance of improving dietary patterns.”

In other words, if we’re serious about public health, we need to be serious about improving public nutrition. The benefits would compound. To reduce demands on our health care system, help people live longer and healthier lives, and gird ourselves for the next infectious disease outbreak that may arise, state and national leaders need to seize this moment. It’s time to invest far more in programs that make it easier for people to follow the dietary guidelines.

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That would mean many things, like expanding poor people’s access to healthy food and taking steps to increase wages across the economy — including for the millions of people who work in the food industry itself. The government could also do far more to stimulate the production and accessibility of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I’m hopeful that we can create change that lasts beyond this crisis,” says Sarah Reinhardt, who analyzes food systems and health at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If we treated food insecurity and chronic disease like national defense, we could keep everybody healthy. It’s a matter of priorities.”

Congress could take a big step in the right direction in the short term. One of the stimulus bills that passed the House this spring, the Heroes Act, would temporarily expand the benefits available through SNAP, which would be a corrective to recent cuts by the Trump administration. Unfortunately, that bill has been held up in the Senate.

Ensuring increases in SNAP benefits, not just during the pandemic but for the long haul, should be a top priority for Congress in the next stimulus package. Feeding the hungry by helping them gain access to healthy food should not be a partisan issue in the richest country on earth.

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But progress shouldn’t stop there. Even before the pandemic and the resulting economic shock, nearly 40 million Americans lived in households struggling to put enough food on the table; counterintuitively, hunger and chronic health conditions including obesity go hand in hand. The pandemic has only highlighted and exacerbated the dysfunction of the system. Low-wage workers in meatpacking plants were subject to dangerous conditions where the virus could easily spread; meanwhile, farmers had to destroy crops and dump milk down the drain even as long lines formed at food pantries.

A more humane and flexible food system would make the country stronger and more resilient. Building that should be a national priority.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.