The ‘Childhood Obesity Subsidy’

[pre-packaged junk foods in left photo, fresh produce in right photo]

A couple of years ago, Michael Pollan published a prediction in a piece for The Nation titled “How Change Is Going to Come in the Food System.” He believed that the food movement would be joined by the healthcare industry in taking on such battles as school lunch reform or a tax on sugar fizz drinks. Pollan wrote:

Indeed, as soon as the healthcare industry begins to focus on the fact that the government is subsidizing precisely the sort of meal for which the industry (and the government) will have to pick up the long-term tab, eloquent advocates of food system reform will suddenly appear in the unlikeliest places—like the agriculture committees of Congress.

The agricultural subsidy question is cluttered with rhetoric from people who don’t really understand what any of it is about. Americans seem to be born with an almost instinctive drive to protect the American farmer, which is a healthy and wise instinct. But when the Hillsboro Argus asked U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenaur’s office for some words on the matter, his spokesperson told them:

Current Farm Bill direct payment programs provide little help to most American farmers and ranchers…. The majority of commodity payments go to a few large-scale corporate farm operations, with less than 40 percent of farmers receiving any payments at all. These payments do little to support or sustain rural communities.

In other words, if small farmers who grow vegetables for local markets are struggling, it’s their problem. Help goes to huge factory farms where monoculture crops like corn and soy are produced for the processed food industry. The writers followed up with some damning statistics. For instance, between 1995 and 2009, American taxpayers gave away $245 billion worth of agriculture subsidies, mostly to the behemoth corporations.

The wrong stuff is cheap

Going back a bit farther, over the previous 20 years, the real costs for soda, fats, oils, and sweets had actually decreased. Meanwhile, the price of vegetables and fruits increased by nearly 40%. Every time we visit the grocery store, we are confronted by the choice of paying more for genuine food that contains nutrients or buying processed semi-foods and pseudo-foods that are cheaper because we’ve already paid part of the price in the form of taxes (which were given as subsidies to agricultural giants).

In the Pacific Northwest, the The Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) went to a Portland farmer’s market equipped with the props to set up an educational display — $20 worth of junk food. The other part of the display was $20 worth of fruits and vegetables. We leave it to the reader to guess which pile contained 15,600 calories and which contained 1,960 calories.

PolitiFact Ohio studied up on how the advertising subsidy works. Just like every other business, the makers of junk food and fast food get a tax deduction for their marketing expenses. This type of figure is notoriously difficult to pin down, but various entities have estimated the value of this tax break to manufacturers of obesogenic foods at between $700 million and $3.5 billion per year. In essence, that’s how much the federal government loses annually by allowing what former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich called “a massive subsidy for the junk food and fast food industry” and “the childhood obesity subsidy.”

Meanwhile, it doesn’t look as if Michael Pollan’s prediction has come true yet.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “How Change Is Going to Come in the Food System,” michaelpollan.com, 09/11/11
Source: “Federal subsidies aiding child obesity,” OregonLive.com, 09/04/11
Source: “Dennis Kucinich says the tax code effectively subsidizes fast food and junk food marketing that targets children,” Politifact.com, 11/02/12
Image by Cory Doctorow and muammerokumus

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