Why are tax dollars buying you junk food?

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As our country continues to face an obesity crisis, it is ridiculous to think that the government would be spending even one dollar to subsidize junk food.  According to a report just released by the US Public Interest Research Group, that number actually looks more like $19 billion.

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In the report, Apples to Twinkies 2013, PIRG unveils some seriously troubling issues with our current subsidy model. Here are a few of the key findings:

  • Since 1995, the government has spent 19.2 billion on corn and soy-derived junk food ingredients including corn sweeteners, hydrogenated oils, and corn starch.
  • Over that same time period, only $689 million has been allotted for apple subsidies, which is the ONLY fruit or vegetable to receive a substantial government subsidy.
  • If taxpayers were to receive an annual federal subsidy directly, each person would receive $7.30 to spend on junk food. In other words, every year, your tax dollars pay for enough junk food additives to buy 20 Twinkies, as the recently re-released product contains 17 taxpayer subsidized ingredients including partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening, corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup.
  • On the contrary, the few dollars spent on apples only amounts to 26 cents per taxpayer per year, which would buy less than half of one apple per taxpayer.
  • The system disproportionately benefits larger commodity crop producers, sending tax subsidies to large, already-profitable companies like Cargill and Monsanto.
  • 75 percent of the subsidies go to just 3.8 percent of farmers, with 62 percent of farms receiving no federal funds whatsoever.

Many of these subsidies are set to expire this year, but not surprisingly, lobbyists for junk food companies want Congress to keep them.  Just last week, the House passed a Farm Bill (H.R. 1947) that will continue the subsidies for the next five years, while an amendment to discontinue certain subsidies for agribusinesses with high incomes failed.

Estimates of obesity-related medical costs have reached $150 billion per year, thanks in-part to cheap and highly accessible processed junk food.   If accessibility and low prices could be offered for healthier foods like fruits and vegetables instead, wouldn’t that help to circumvent the health problems and costs that are associated with junk food diets?

Critics argue that lower prices may not be enough to persuade consumers to choose healthy foods over junk foods, but several studies have shown that this probably isn’t the case.  A systematic review published in Public Health Nutrition concluded that subsidizing healthier foods tends to be effective in modifying dietary behavior.   All but one study in the review showed that subsidies on healthier foods significantly increase the purchase and consumption of promoted products.

“Taxpayers cannot afford to finance empty-calorie products when they foster obesity-related illnesses and raise already high health care costs,” says PIRG’s report. Nor should they want to.  With all of the focus that goes to wasteful government spending, you would think there would be a collective agreement that there are far better uses for taxpayer dollars than subsidizing the ingredients of a Twinkie.

Marion Nestle’s message on Food Politics: We need social solutions

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a presentation from Marion Nestle at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas.  Marion is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, a renowned food policy advocate, and author of one my favorite books, Food Politics.  Her research examines scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing; so you can imagine my excitement about seeing her speak.

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Much of the information that Marion presented was not new to me, however, I still found her messages to be powerful and motivating.

First, Marion outlined how we have gotten ourselves into the obesity epidemic that we currently face:

  • Since 1980, the number of calories available in our food supply have increased to twice the average need per person per day.
  • Dietary intake is up 200 calories per person per day.  This is according to what individuals report, which as we know, is probably lower than what is actually consumed.
  • Federal policy (including corn and soybean subsidies) have lead to processed junk foods that are cheaper than raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Food companies have to report to Wall Street every 90 days.  In this heavily scrutinized and competitive market, companies have to continue to sell more in order to grow, which means increasing the amount of food that consumers take in.
  • Food marketing is loosely regulated (mostly by the food companies themselves),  allowing for a lot of deception and manipulation, especially for our most vulnerable populations — children and minorities.
  • Companies use health claims like “fat-free”, “cholesterol-free”, and “sugar-free” which studies have shown trick consumers into treating the products like they are also “calorie-free”.
  • Junk food products are showing up everywhere: Drug stores, Office supply stores, etc.  There are very few places you can go without at least finding a vending machine filled with candy, snacks and sugary drinks.
  • We live in an environment that encourages us to eat more.  Exercising personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance in this type of environment.
  • Food companies have drastically increased portion sizes of their meals since the 1950’s.  The CDC released a great infographic to display this:

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  • Even if they wanted to, the food industry can’t make any changes to their products and practices if it will negatively affect their bottom line.

So what does all this mean? Should we all just accept defeat in this obesigenic environment? Not according to Marion.

Her solution is twofold:

1) Vote with your fork:   Exercise your power as a consumer.  McDonald’s doesn’t make cheap hamburgers because laws require them to. They make cheap hamburgers because people buy them. Every time you buy a food product, you are, in essence, voting for the company that produced, packaged, and marketed it.  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it. But the opposite is also true.

Even more importantly…

2) Vote with your vote: Changing our food environment requires social solutions, not just personal responsibility.  We need to educate consumers through menu labeling, media campaigns and honest food labels.  We need restrictions like nutrition standards for schools and foods marketed to children.  We need taxes on harmful products like sugary drinks to deter over-consumption.  We need to restructure government subsidies to  make healthful, unprocessed foods cheaper.  We even need the occasional ban for dangerous industry-created substances like trans-fats.

While the concepts are simple, actually implementing them is much more challenging.  For starters, we need legislators and policy makers that are more interested in public health than corporate health, and a constituency to back them up.

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If you haven’t read any of Marion Nestle’s work before, I highly recommend checking out her blog. Michael Pollan ranked her as the #2 most powerful foodie in America (after Michelle Obama), and Mark Bittman ranked her #1 in his list of foodies to be thankful for.  I couldn’t agree more.