Vilsack: COVID-19 a “Wakeup Call” on Nutrition Insecurity

The nation’s food security is a big concern within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During an appearance at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University in New York, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says the agency is also concerned about nutrition security.

“What is nutrition security? We know what food security means. We know what it means in terms of being able to provide folks with sufficient resources to be able to go to the grocery store and be able to buy what they need to feed their family. But what does it mean to be nutritionally secure? Well, I think it means consistent access, not a once in a while, but consistent access to food that’s healthy as well as safe and affordable. Food that is designed to provide optimal health benefits and the well-being of those consuming it.”

He says nutrition security concerns grew during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We learned from this pandemic, the linkage between nutrition security and health. It was surprising to me, and maybe it was surprising to some of you, that two-thirds of the COVID-related hospitalizations that occurred, and are occurring, have been related to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart failure; these are all diet-related conditions. Stated another way, poor nutrition is connected to the leading cause of illnesses that take over 600,000 lives every year.”

Diet-related diseases don’t just affect individual health. They also have an economic and financial cost.

“There’s an economic cost to poor nutrition. Just take diabetes: 147 billion dollars. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire budget of the Department of Agriculture on just one diet-related disease. And don’t take into consideration the loss of productivity, the loss of quality of life connected to diet-related diseases. So COVID was, essentially, a wakeup call.”

Vilsack says the agency is taking steps to integrate nutrition security into its food support programs.

“I mentioned the review of the Thrifty Food Plan. Part of the reason we did this is that we surveyed folks, and what we found was that at the end of the month, people who were receiving supplemental nutrition assistance at the end of the month were making tough decisions. They weren’t in a position financially to be able to decide whether or not to buy that fruit and vegetable that they knew they wanted to buy but couldn’t. So, we looked at the Thrifty Food Plan, and we increased it. We’re looking for ways to improve the WIC package; constantly looking at ways in which we take the science and make sure that we expand, change, and transform that WIC package, and expand the knowledge and awareness of WIC so that more who are qualified for the program participate in the program. And when they do that, they have a wide range within this package that exposes them to fruits and vegetables that they might not otherwise ever know.”

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