Congress Gets in Poor Families' Business

When Congress yielded to corporate interests and blocked the Department of Agriculture’s efforts to improve the nutritional standards of school lunches, the food processors won, and the nation lost.

School lunches, high in calories and low in other nutrients, have been a major contributor to childhood obesity and the dramatic increase in type 2 diabetes in people under the age of 20. Type 2 diabetes, formerly called “maturity onset” was rarely seen in anyone under the age of 40, but its appearance in a younger population has matched the increased incidence of obesity among children.

Lobbyists for industry argued that lunches with more fresh fruits and vegetables would strain the budgets of local schools. There was no discussion of the costs of caring for diabetic children — cost analysis is complex since diabetes leads to many complications — but the American Diabetes Association reported that “People with diagnosed diabetes, on average, have medical expenditures that are ~2.3 times higher than what expenditures would be in the absence of diabetes. The direct medical costs, for diabetes alone, come to about $116 billion a year. This proves that there’s no such thing as a cheap lunch. But Congress, in this case the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, doesn’t always pay attention to the effects of its decisions.

In February 2011, the House, pretty much along party lines, voted to block funding for Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest provider of gynecologic services for lower income families. By blocking prenatal care, there is a high likelihood of increases in the number of cases of spina bifida and prematurity – and besides the emotional considerations of both these conditions, the costs are high.

Spina bifida is a birth defect which occurs when the spine of the fetus fails to close during the first months of pregnancy. There are mild cases in which the patient is hardly impaired, but more typically SB leads to severe disability. The Spina Bifida Association estimates that the cost of care (figures not updated since the mid 1980s) is $532,000 per patient.

Closing Planned Parenthood centers may stop an occasional abortion, but it will increase the number of infants born with severe paralysis, which can be a personal and family tragedy and a huge expense to the family and the community.

Mitt Romney has already assured his followers that among the programs he would eliminate if elected are The National Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and Planned Parenthood. Rick Perry probably would list the same cuts if he could remember them.

Another problem related to maternal nutrition is prematurity. From Bloomberg Businesweek: “Nearly 13% of all babies in the US are preemies, a 20% increase since 1990. A 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that the 550,000 preemies born each year in the US run up about $26 billion in annual costs, mostly related to care in NICUs.

“This cost estimate may be low. While many preemies go on to develop normally, others experience lifelong disabilities which can bring the costs as high as $50 billion a year. Proper medical care can reduce the incidence of prematurity and in many cases allow the fetus to be carried to term – but only when proper care is available – and this too includes a proper diet during pregnancy.”

Newt Gingrich, the Republican front runner du jour, has been railing against the food stamp program, properly called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and implying that this program is a source of waste and fraud. Nearly 46 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2011, and the Department of Agriculture estimates that payment accuracy is 96%, which seems commendable for a program that large.

Many major health expenses can be prevented with something as simple as proper nutrition, which can reduce to fresh fruits and vegetables – but it becomes a matter of party orthodoxy to oppose any programs in aid of poor people.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2012

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