DeBor observed that the new federal Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act has strengthened the long standing IRS “community benefit” requirement that nonprofit hospitals must meet to justify their nonprofit status. This includes a mandate to perform a “community needs assessment” in collaboration with public health experts and stakeholders in local communities served by the hospital/hospital system and then to develop and implement a plan to meet the identified needs. Since obesity-related chronic disease is a widespread problem and improving food systems and access to healthful foods is now recognized as part of the solution to this problem, farmers should be among the stakeholders participating in the community needs assessment process.

In the past, hospitals have received the majority of their community-benefit credit for providing charity care. But with the expansion of insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act and the call for hospitals to practice “population health,” DeBor said that food producers have a unique opportunity to help hospitals address the public health crisis of obesity. DeBor urged farmers to develop “direct relationships” with local hospital officials responsible for community benefit programs and with public health departments, and to learn how to participate constructively in this new process.

“Farmers really need to be advocates in what is a time of crisis, but also opportunity,” DeBor said. “It is a time of new ideas, when those who produce the most fundamental element of human health — real, healthful food — must connect and have their voices and expertise embraced by the healthcare sector.”

DeBor’s eloquence about the essential connection between sustainable agricultural systems and public health inspired action on the convention floor. A joint effort of the New England, Rocky Mountain and California delegates on the convention floor added language to the NFU national policy encouraging health care system emphasis on access to healthy food.

“So many of our public health problems of obesity and chronic diseases can be traced to diet,” said DeBor. “Increasing access to and consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods produced right here in New England must be a key component of improving public health,” she said.