New GAO report details how federal nutrition programs are thwarted by agencies working at cross purposes


by Lela Nargi, The Counter



Federal subsidies boost consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, sugar intake recommendations are exceeded by school lunches, and many nutrition programs are simply ignored.


First, the good news: 200 programs and activities within 21 federal agencies have a mission to improve health and nutrition outcomes for Americans, tackling, in various ways, the impacts of poor diet on disease. The bad news: An extensive new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that these agencies have priorities and policies that work in direct conflict with their own and others’ programs. As a result, the federal government spends vast sums to educate people about healthy foods, improve access to them, research best methods for doing this, and issue requirements for producers and retailers—while simultaneously spending billions to treat diet-related cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, and obesity.


The goal of GAO’s investigation was to better understand how, despite concerted work at agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Department of Agriculture (USDA), Health and Human Services (HHS), and Department of Defense (DOD), about half of—or 1.5 million—annual deaths in the U.S. are still caused by preventable, diet-related diseases like diabetes and obesity. These eat up well over half of the U.S. government’s healthcare budget of $383.6 billion to treat them; GAO examined hundreds of documents and interviewed a number of agency officials and experts over two years to determine how this comes about. The audit takes on special poignancy in light of the pandemic: People with cardiovascular disease, the report points out, are six times more likely to be hospitalized or die of Covid, while obesity also increases the risk of severe Covid effects.


The diseases covered by the audit are both deadly and costly, said Sharon Silas, GAO’s health care director and report contributor. But effectively addressing them is a challenge “because efforts are fragmented and each agency is doing its own thing,” she said. While some agencies may hold programs accountable for the success (or failure) of outcomes, there’s no overarching, cohesive strategy or coordination that spans agencies and programs to ensure that these efforts are not working at cross-purposes.


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