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State Officials Urge Changes to Federal Nutrition Program

Incentives for Purchasing Healthy Food Could Combat Obesity

Several Louisiana officials sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today urging him to combat obesity in America by make policy changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a program many Louisiana households rely on to feed their families.

In Louisiana, more than one-third of children ages 10-17 and nearly two-thirds of adults are either overweight or obese-twice the national level.  Louisiana ranks fourth nationwide for obesity.

In the letter, Department of Children & Family Services Secretary Kristy Nichols, Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine, Department of Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain and state representative Patrick Williams advocate sweeping changes to SNAP by introducing incentives for the purchase of healthy food products and the expansion of SNAP pilot programs that "double" benefits spent on fruits and vegetables purchased at local farmers' markets.

"We recommend policies that further the promotion of nutrition and healthy food choices along with increased access to fresh local fruits and vegetables," wrote Williams, Nichols, Levine and Strain.

The coexistence of obesity and poverty in Louisiana is also troubling; according to the National Coalition for a Healthy America, nearly 35 percent of Louisianians between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level are obese. That number is 3 percent higher than the national average.

"Childhood obesity is a deep-seated issue that should cause us all great concern. But, bringing attention to the issue and treating the disease of obesity isn't enough," said Williams. "We must take strong preventive steps and start early. Instead of treating childhood obesity after it happens, we shouldn't let children become obese to begin with. I look forward to our collective work to fight for the future of our children."

Nichols continued, "We want to encourage healthy food choices for Louisiana's families. In addition to educational programs, a financial incentive to fill grocery baskets with peaches, broccoli and whole grains instead of processed and unhealthy food could help Louisiana move out of the bottom rankings for obesity."

Levine said, "Preventive steps such as making healthier food choices and incentivizing those healthier choices are the best ways our State can improve its health outcomes. Just like our children deserve the best health care when they are sick, they and their families deserve options that can help them achieve their potential while avoiding chronic disease."

Strain concluded, "Louisiana farmers markets offer a number of safe, healthy and fresh food choices. These proposed changes to SNAP will not only help our farm economy but also benefit the overall health of Louisiana."

For low-income families, SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program, is a vital source of funds for food purchases. In April, 284,410 Louisiana households received more than $91 million in SNAP benefits.

The letter also called on Vilsack and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to combat "food deserts," rural areas where low-income residents have little to no access to fresh produce, by encouraging farmers markets to offer SNAP recipients incentives for purchasing healthy food with electronic benefit transfer cards.

Earlier this year, as well as in 2008, Williams walked 226 miles from Shreveport to the steps of the State Capitol in Baton Rouge, as part of his campaign to raise awareness of obesity and other childhood health concerns.