The federal government seems concerned that 42 percent of American adults are obese, but apparently not concerned enough to have formed a competent, coordinated plan of attack.
A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report publicly released this week found that 21 federal agencies oversee 200 different efforts focused on research, improving crops' nutritional quality, health education and food access initiatives, and regulating grocery stores and restaurants. The GAO admits that, upon study, these nearly two-dozen agencies "have not effectively managed fragmentation of diet-related efforts or the potential for overlap and duplication," which leads to your taxpayer dollars going to waste.
Since "neither the White House nor any federal agency is responsible for leading or coordinating diet-related efforts across the government," GAO experts "recommended that Congress consider identifying and directing a federal agency or other entity to lead a federal strategy on diet-related efforts aimed at reducing Americans' risk of chronic health conditions."
Current government efforts include even "unexpected agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, which studies how our diets can help mitigate the chronic health effects of air pollution." There are the usual suspects, like the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but then there are somewhat silly initiatives—like the Healthy Parks Healthy People program, part of the National Park Service, which surely doesn't need to exist for people to continue enjoying parks—and others that could probably be done by the private sector or university researchers, like parts of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, which researches "developing more secure plant species that can maintain productivity in nutrient-depleted soils…and better genetic tools for use in crop improvement." (Sure, more research is better, but private companies may be incentivized to conduct this research on their own to maximize their bottom line.)
Nestled within the report are also some nuggets from discontented agency officials:
"Officials from three of the 16 agencies we interviewed mentioned federal efforts that work at cross-purposes or have conflicting outcomes. For example, officials from one agency said that HHS and USDA have not effectively aligned their missions in public health and agriculture. These officials said that USDA agricultural subsidies have created economic incentives for increased corn production. This has led to lower prices and increased consumption of corn syrup in Americans' diet. However, HHS public health goals call for reduced consumption of sugars such as corn syrup."
This is all a pretty big admission of failure on the part of government bureaucrats and regulators. "There really is no overarching federal strategy to guide the government's efforts to improve Americans' diets," says Steve Morris on the GAO's companion podcast. Programs "work independently, without a common purpose or goal" and sometimes even overlap with each other, wasting resources and "fail[ing] to focus on the areas that really need attention."
This failure comes at an enormous cost: "In 2018, spending to treat cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and diabetes accounted for 26 percent of the approximately $1.5 trillion in total health care spending for U.S. adults," notes the podcast. And the pandemic has put less-healthy Americans at even greater risk of dying than before, though that's thankfully mitigated with the proliferation of vaccines. "People who contracted COVID-19 who reported underlying health conditions were six times more likely to be hospitalized and 12 times more likely to die," compared to those without diet-related chronic health conditions, says the GAO.
Needlers and baiters of libertarians often attempt what they view as a trump card, assuming that minarchist types must want the agencies that minister to poor people and regulate our food supply to be abolished. But some libertarians are OK with a small amount of federal oversight in this arena, while also casting doubt on the idea that regulatory agencies actually do a good job at achieving their stated aims; irradiating meat, for example, can kill all kinds of bacteria, rendering USDA inspection less important, but consumer groups "instead whipped up panic against it," wrote Megan McArdle in The Atlantic in 2009, leading to slower adoption. Kids' school lunches have long been plagued by political point scoring and fiddling at the margins, without much eye toward whether the guidelines rely on accurate, up-to-date nutritional science.
"Federally funded nutrition researchers have demonstrated scientific incompetence over many generations by presenting anecdotal evidence as scientific evidence," reported researchers for Mayo Clinic Proceedings in a scathing indictment of the federal government's Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the body that meets every five years to help the government craft its nutrition standards. The federal government's food failures are a dime a dozen—don't even get me started on the food pyramid.
But you can't force a kale salad down people's gullets, not even if you're the U.S. government, and you can't just suggest that people shop at farmers markets or visit Zion National Park and watch them scurry. Many people will still reach for their Big Macs and seasoned Checkers fries even once they've been hectored by a well-meaning bureaucrat. But the government could at least, if it wants to take obesity seriously, be a little less wasteful with our money and a little better at measuring which interventions work best to achieve its aims.