Booker: Scale up GusNip program, add specialty crop food box program |

Booker: Scale up GusNip program, add specialty crop food box program

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., left, opens today's Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research. Photo by Jerry Hagstrom, The Hagstrom Report

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Agriculture subcommittee in charge of nutrition, said at a hearing today he wants the next farm bill to substantially increase incentives for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables, with a focus on food as medicine.

After citing a litany of statistics on diet-related health problems, Booker said, “No. 1, we should substantially scale up successful programs like GusNIP; and No. 2, we should create a new USDA specialty crop food box program to provide locally sourced fruits and vegetables to Medicaid participants who have one or more diet-related diseases.”

The Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNip) competitive grant programs, named for a former Agriculture undersecretary, allow the secretary to provide funding opportunities to conduct and evaluate projects providing incentives to income-eligible consumers to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables, prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables and training and evaluation programs.

In his opening statement, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., ranking member on the subcommittee, repeated the account he has told before of holding down health care costs at Meyer Distributing, the Indiana company he ran before being elected to the Senate. Braun confirmed today that he will run for governor of Indiana in 2024 but said he plans to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee and the nutrition subcommittee in the next Congress.

Braun said he insisted that his employees engage in healthy eating and living. He offered them free biometric screening and said that if they did not participate in it they got penalized. Braun said he checked with the company recently and that the employees have not seen an increase in health care premiums in 15 years.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., left, opens today’s Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research. Photo by Jerry Hagstrom, The Hagstrom Report

“It should be obvious to everyone that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Braun said.

Braun, who was the only Republican in Congress to participate in the recent White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, encouraged a conversation with witnesses about systemic problems in health care that are outside the jurisdiction of the Agriculture committee.

Booker also called for medically tailored meals and nutrition counseling for Medicare and Medicaid participants, and after the meeting told The Hagstrom Report that a “whole of government” approach is needed to address the nutritional problems in the country. He said he believes the Biden White House is already leading that effort.

Braun said he believes that the current medical system in which hospitals and doctors are paid fees for specific services makes it impossible to engage in the kind of prevention programs that could make big changes in health care. But when asked by The Hagstrom Report whether Congress is likely to address that issue, Braun said that will not happen because one faction would want to follow Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who wants a government-led health care system, while others would follow him into a market-oriented system in which health care consumers would be able to get services cheaper through competitive pricing.

Two witnesses – Martin Richards of the Community Farm Alliance in Berea, Ky., and Leah Penniman, founding co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg. N.Y. – said that GusNip and other federal programs are important for both farmers growing fruits and vegetables and for consumers.

Three medical doctors also talked about the importance of helping people systematically change their eating and exercise habits.

Kevin Volpp, a University of Pennsylvania professor who testified on behalf of the American Heart Association, said that food as medicine interventions need to be studied comprehensively and that and the Rockefeller Foundation and American Heart Association have committed to mobilizing $250 million to build a national Food is Medicine Research Initiative to be launched in Spring 2023.

“This transformative research initiative will generate evidence and tools to help the health sector design and scale programs that increase access to nutritious food, with the goal of generating evidence on what works for whom that can be used to convince public and private sector payors to cover different types of interventions that could vary based on the level of patient need and the likely cost of inaction,” Volpp said.