Do you know the #1 cause of death in America? It is not what you think – our diet has surpassed smoking as a cause of death. Michel Nischan, chef and Founder, President and CEO of Wholesome Wave, and Lindsey Seegers, Program Manager of Nutrition Education at Manna Food Center in Montgomery County, MD know that food-related disease is both deadly and preventable. They join Share Our Strength founders Debbie and Billy Shore to explain some promising ways they are addressing the root causes of diet-related diseases. “We spend about $1.4 trillion a year on diet-related disease,” says Nischan. Yet the economic disparities of a disease like Type 2 Diabetes are stark. “I learned that the majority of the people that struggle with that condition lived at income levels so low they couldn’t even afford the basic ingredients to help them prevent the disease in the first place.” Seegers works with thousands of families in Montgomery County on nutritious eating. “Healthy eating is not just for the rich,” she stresses. “What parents want so much is to feed their children well – they want the best for their kids. The challenge is to be able to afford adequate and enough wholesome staple foods.”
Both guests believe that systemic changes are needed to impact health outcomes, and they are making real progress. Seegers’ work at Manna Food Center focuses on nutrition education – not just food distribution – to help families learn how to identify and afford healthy foods on a budget. They are also launching a retrofitted school bus that serves as a mobile kitchen and pop-up pantry. Wholesome Wave began a 2-for-1 program for buying fruits and vegetables with SNAP food stamps with private funding which grew into a federally-funded program in the Farm Bill called the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Grant Program with $100M over 5 years. Nischan did not predict the success of the model. “However complicated the root causes are, something as simplistic as providing affordability thru incentives can be so powerful – it’s mindboggling.” FINI has also had larger economic impacts because farmers whose produce is purchased through the program are responding to this increased demand by making infrastructural improvements and expanding their enterprises.
These food justice leaders also discuss the recent threats to the SNAP food stamp program and the effect that cuts would have on families and the economy. “Food is where people are going to cut when things get really tight,” reports Seegers, which means that preventing diet-related disease will be even more difficult. “It’s just wrongheaded,” says Nischan. He cites the return on investment of giving people access to healthy food vs. paying for expensive health care treatments like dialysis. “$100 thousand dollars saves $4 million dollars.”