Amid the cacophony of confirmation hearings for Cabinet nominees, President-elect Donald Trump reportedly has settled on former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to fill the final Cabinet-department vacancy: secretary of agriculture. Although consumers may simply think of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) as responsible for overseeing the farming industry, it also plays a key role in promoting health.
The department is influential in maintaining the nation’s health in four key areas:
Although food insecurity across the nation has declined in recent years, the USDA found 12.7 percent of all households in 2015 faced hunger. The department helps address this problem by managing the nation’s food assistance initiatives.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is among the best known of those efforts. SNAP, formerly called food stamps, provides a monthly stipend to eligible residents through an Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, card to use at any qualifying grocer. Since its inception, SNAP has become the nation’s largest safety net for the hungry, feeding more than 44 million Americans last year.
Other pivotal food assistance comes through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides benefits to pregnant and nursing women and children up to their fifth birthday. WIC has assisted 53 percent of all infants born in the U.S.
Older children also receive help through USDA initiatives that provide low-cost food at school. Kids from families with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty threshold (nearly $38,000 for a family of three) can receive breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks there for little to no cost. The National School Program helped serve low-cost lunches to an average of more than 30 million kids each day in 2015.
When school is not in session, the Summer Food Service Program distributes meals at public areas such as churches and playgrounds. This program helped feed 2.6 million children every day during the program’s peak month of July in 2015.
Supporting Rural Medicine
The Department of Agriculture provides a variety of grants to help rural communities meet their health needs.
Among those efforts is the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants, which distributes millions of dollars to strengthen telecommunications in rural communities and increase access to resources such as teachers and doctors. The money has been used in a variety of ways, including setting up a tele-pharmacy dispensing system in Alaska and connecting a medical school to rural clinics in Georgia.
Access to clean water is also a priority for the department. Water and waste disposal grants are available to federally recognized tribal lands, communities along the U.S.-Mexico border and rural towns. The funds are used to install proper waste disposal systems and, in some cases, outfit homes with new plumbing.
For decades, the USDA has been involved in efforts to educate Americans of all ages how to keep off excess weight and lead a healthy lifestyle.
Since 1969, the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program has worked with low-income families to develop healthy diet and exercise habits and educate them about food safety.
The program uses peer educators from the participants’ communities and operates in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and six territories. In 2015 alone, the program reached nearly half a million Americans.
Agriculture also plays a hand in developing the nation’s nutritional guidelines. In partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services, the department issued the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The report outlines five key strategies to develop healthier eating patterns, as well as templates to maintain healthy Mediterranean and vegetarian diets. Online tools to assist in healthy eating, such as choosemyplate.gov, are also maintained by the department.
Preventing Foodborne Illness Nationally And In Your Home
The USDA helps protect the food supply through the Food Safety and Inspection Service. The office monitors the importation of meat, poultry and egg products by issuing safety certifications to some foods from other countries and auditing their food inspection systems.
Domestically, the same agency monitors food processing and distribution through microbiological testing. It also maintains a system that tracks and alerts potentially dangerous foods. For consumers, the office maintains a USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline to answer individual questions about food preparation.