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In addition to hunger, Sen. Cory Booker says the U.S. faces a nutrition crisis

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Democratic Senator Cory Booker was part of a bipartisan group behind the hunger conference. Booker talked with our co-host, A Martinez, and offered his vision for some outcomes.

CORY BOOKER: The challenge we have now is we have a twin problem in our country. There still is hunger and food insecurity. But we have this explosion now of a nutrition crisis, with one out of every three of our government dollars being spent on health care because we have so many diet-related diseases out there from diabetes and heart disease, this explosion of obesity, that is really threatening public health in a way we have never seen before. So my hope is that this is the beginning of another major movement in America to expand access to healthy, fresh foods, affordable foods, as well as making sure that we stop this over-proliferation of highly processed, sugar-filled, nutrition-empty foods that are really driving disease at alarming rates.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

So when it comes to nutrition, I know you've raised concerns about what you just mentioned, ultra-processed foods. And your concerns are based a lot on packaging labels. So what are those concerns when it comes to that?

BOOKER: Well, first, let me tell you the underlying concern of this all, which most Americans don't realize. We are a nation that dramatically subsidizes the foods that are making us sick. And only 2% of our ag subsidies go to the healthy, fresh foods that our nutritionists tells us we should have as the majority of our diet. And that's wrong. And that's one of the reasons why you see in America places that are food deserts. They have a proliferation of tax-subsidized foods, but no access to healthy, fresh, affordable foods. And as a result of that, that then drives taxpayer expenses again because of this incredibly high health care costs.

So the White House, to their credit, has already come out with a vision to address some of these things. The first thing is getting behind a movement that's been growing for years, which is a food as medicine movement, that people can literally get in their Medicare, Medicaid prescriptions for healthy fruits and vegetables, which actually will not only improve public health, but the evidence shows it will drive down our health care costs as well. And then to the point you made about food labeling - we have seen from other countries that are doing it, that do front-of-package labeling with critical information for consumers, that consumers will make better choices. And it will also help overall with public health.

MARTINEZ: So would the warning labels say that this food is unhealthy? Or would it just offer the information that is on the back on the front to make it more obvious for someone reading, oh, this has a lot of sugar or this has a lot of fat?

BOOKER: I'm hoping that the warning label would let people know that these foods are unhealthy, especially when consumed at large amounts, and are driving so much of our diet-related diseases. Let me give you an example. Fifty percent of America right now has Type 2 diabetes or has pre-diabetes. We are seeing such levels of diet-related diseases. We have a crisis of health in this country when one out of three of our government dollars, again, is used for health care, when almost one out of five of our dollars in our economy are being used to treat, again, health problems, most of which are related to what we eat or are preventable diseases. We have got to be a society that informs consumers, provides healthy, nutritious alternatives and aligns our tax subsidies with the foods we actually want people to eat and stop allowing these companies to do these very specifically designed foods that are addicting, that are - that trigger cravings. To let us subsidize that food, at the end of the day, only helps to drive these diseases that we see proliferating in our society.

MARTINEZ: How do you balance the need, though, to create a healthier food landscape with allowing people to make their own choices, buying saltier or sweeter food just because, maybe, Senator, they like it more?

BOOKER: Oh. Well, again, this is nothing about restraining freedom. It's not telling people what to eat. God, I don't want anybody in government telling me what to eat. I want to have my free choices. But again, I want to not have my government subsidizing those unhealthy choices and then making the healthy choices not only more expensive by not subsidizing them equally, but also just not having access to it because of the proliferation of food deserts. This is something we can do as a society. But somebody's got to start asking the question, why is we - have we had such an increasing demand for health care? - because diet-related diseases have been going up so dramatically over the last 25 years. We need to be a nation that starts to embrace a food policy that elevates health, elevates well-being, lowers costs and empowers Americans to live the life of their dreams.

MARTINEZ: That's Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Senator, thanks.

BOOKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.