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.