Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

An Environmentally Friendly Solution to America’s Obesity CrisisGetting More Produce to At-Risk and Low Income People

By Daniel WrennPublished May 22, 2020

Eating a healthier diet often entails a more expensive price tag. Yet, a healthy diet with enough fruits and vegetables can have resounding health improvements. Fruits and vegetables also improve the environment, especially if they are locally sourced. A solution is beginning to emerge helping solve all three of these problems. Community-shared agriculture given at discounted prices and as medical prescriptions holds an answer.

America has an obesity epidemic on its hands. The CDC found that, in 2019, more than one third (36.5%) of US adults were obese. A study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health projected that by the next ten years, 50% of Americans will be obese, with 25% of that population clocking in a severely obese. This rise also increases the prevalence of certain cancers, cardiovascular diseases and disorders, strokes, and type 2 diabetes. These health problems derived from obesity are also causing premature mortality to rise, ultimately costing society an estimated $117 billion in direct (preventive, diagnostic, and treatment services related to weight) and indirect (absenteeism, loss of future earnings due to premature death) expenses. 

Compared to non-obese Americans, obese Americans incur an average of $1,429 more in medical expenses annually, with the obese American population spending $147 billion per year. This exceeds health care costs associated with smoking, accounting for 6% to 12% of national health care expenditures in the United States.


One of the main causes of the rise of obesity is attributed to the industrialization of America’s food network, specifically the increasing availability, convenience, and cheapness of processed food. According to the Pew Research Center, American’s today receive nearly half of their total needed calories from just two food groups: flours and grains (23.4%) and fats and oils (23.2%). This is up from a combined 37.3% in 1970. On the other hand, fruits and vegetables provide smaller shares of our daily calorie intake than they did four decades ago, composing 7.9% in 2010 versus 9.2% in 1970.


A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower the risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar, which can help keep appetite in check. Eating fruits and green leafy vegetables also help promote weight loss. Thus, eating a healthy diet positively affects health outcomes, beginning to reverse the consequences of America’s obesity crisis. However, Americans are not purchasing these foods because of higher prices.


Processed foods tend to have a lot more calories at a lower price; that’s more bang for your buck than fresh food if you’re on a budget. Fresh fruits and veggies are more expensive to farm than crops that will be processed. Produce relies on human labor rather than machines, and machines are more efficient and cheaper in the long run. But the US government also doesn’t subsidize leafy vegetable crops in the same way it supports wheat, soy, and corn—vital ingredients in a lot of junk food.


In 2019, a CDC funded study offered fruits and vegetables at sub-market costs to low-income children to help meet their dietary and health needs. The study found that by prescribing these foods, like medicine, and giving access to formerly unattainable foods increased vegetable and fruit consumption in the targeted populations, also correlating with more positive health outcomes. This unique solution using a Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program (FVRx) for low-income people holds promise in helping our obesity and unhealthy eating crisis. 


In Ithaca, “Healthy Food For All,” a non-profit, has partnered with local farmers and Cornell Cooperative Extension to help the nearly 13,000 food-insecure people in Tompkins County. The food is being provided to low-income families through community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares. By doing this, it allows the families to get access to fresh locally grown produce at a subsidized price and for the farmers to still get their fair price to continue to support their sustainable and organic farming practices. 98% of the participating low-income families cited their CSA as important to obtain adequate amounts of produce, 93% reported it increased their family’s food stability, and 100% reported it increased the healthiness of their diet. 


This non-profit has also helped found a produce prescription program in Tompkins County. This program allows those with diet-based illnesses to receive a prescription for a CSA by their doctor, with the cure being a healthier diet. This program has had strong testimonials from those involved, both patients and doctors, saying that it has been improving health outcomes. Currently, they are working to get this prescription covered by medical insurance. And while health metrics are being improved, this program is also supporting the environment.


Vegetables cannot be industrially farmed, requiring human labor instead of machines to plant, grow, tend, and harvest. Thus, the farming of veggies helps combat the negative effects of industrial farming like soil depletion, overuse of artificial fertilizer, erosion, loss of biodiversity, and the mass use of chemical pesticides as its farming is more precise compared to painting fields with a broad stroke. Moreover, the FVRx programs use produce supplied by local farms, helping reduce greenhouse gas emittance as non-local but domestic produce we buy in stores travels an average 1,500 miles or more, with produce from other countries traveling even farther. This shipping and transport burns fossil fuels, which produces greenhouse gases and increases global warming. By supplying local-sourced produce, the positive environmental effects will only increase.


The obesity crisis is gripping the United States, with rising levels projecting even more economic loss and poor health outcomes for the country. One way to solve this, while improving the environment simultaneously, is by supplying access and affordability to low-income and health-struck Americans for CSA subscriptions through similar programs like the FVRx.