Does The U.S. Government Subsidize Junk Food?
The U.S. government is perpetuating the childhood obesity epidemic by subsidizing the commodity crops that make junk food junk, according to Mike Russo of the U.S Public Research Group (PIRGs) Education Fund. Russo’s new report, Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food, says between 1995 and 2010 , out of the $260 billion in agricultural subsidies, $77.1 billion went to corn production. About $7.5 billion went directly to corn-based sweeteners and starch, the report says.
If agriculture subsidies went back to the people, Americans would receive 19 free Twinkies per person per year, Russo says. However, with the $262 million that go towards the production of apples, we would be rationed about a quarter of a red delicious apple per person per year. One in five children ages six to 11 are obese. In January, the USDA published a report announcing that they were embarking on a campaign to educate children about healthier eating. Russo further discusses the reality of the American agriculture business and how the American people can help change the industry.
Neon Tommy: Could you comment on how the agricultural subsidies are affecting this country?
Mike Russo: If you look at where the agricultural subsidies are going, billions of subsidies are spent on crops and a big piece of that is junk food. All the trends are really scary in terms of what it means for our health, for our health care system, and how much we’re looking to pay or to deal with those issues. So for the purpose of this campaign we’re really focusing on just saying that taxpayer’s dollars shouldn’t be going to these services, that we should get rid of this wasteful spending on these counterproductive subsidies.
There is certainly a lot of other stuff that needs to be done in order to really reverse the obesity epidemic, and these whole lot of other causes that are into why there is all of that cheap junk food available including what consumers like to buy, to what the food processing industry looks like, to the way that marketing and packaging have gone through, and you know those are all pieces of the puzzle when you are talking about how to address the broader issue of obesity.
MR: Well I think that is by far the most important thing. The fact of it is, we don’t really have any additional say about where tax dollars go. So regardless of what kind of food you want to eat, how you raise your kids, how much exercise you do, and so on, all of us are paying tax dollars that are going to these giant agribusinesses. So making sure that people know that and weighing it for Congress and saying that’s not how things should be. That is the most important thing.
NT: How would you respond to people who say that junk food is not nearly as unhealthy as people like you claim it to be?
MR: I mean I think there are certainly lots of arguments you could make. Everybody knows that nothing is really bad if it’s a once-in-a-while thing, if you eat it in moderation. I mean I think that the problem is we’ve realized that that’s not what’s happening. There is a ton of this stuff out there and it’s being fueled by the easy availability of really cheap sweeteners and fats which are made from these subsidized crops. So you can’t always say that this is the one Twinkie that broke the camel’s back.
NT: Why now? Why has the obesity epidemic come down on our society now?
MR: I think there are a lot of things going on. A lot of it is people are not cooking as much as they used to – snacking more -- the rise of packaged foods that are very high in fat, high in calories, high in sugar, and being marketed as convenient food. And especially being marketed to kids, which was something that a lot of the industries started figuring out around the 70s, mid-80s, and the availability of a lot of cheap ingredients made the difference too.
A lot of change happened in the mid to late 70s as a lot of the industry, especially the soda industry, switched from sugar to high fructose corn syrup because it was a little cheaper, a few cents cheaper per pound, which again the subsidies make a pretty strong role in the very small margin decisions which is what the companies base big decisions on.
NT: A large part of the obesity issue is that a sizable amount of the population cannot afford to buy organic, fresh food. How would you address that problem?
MR: I think those are all good questions and PIRG isn’t necessarily advocating for any particular solution for those things. I think looking for those issues lacks more at what’s happening at the farm end than what’s happening in those communities, which is probably more where a lot of that change needs to happen. There’s all sorts of concerns about food deserts -- places where there’s a 7-11 and gas stations and you can buy Twinkies and Tostitos there but not the fresh fruits and vegetables. So you know it’s not even a question of organic versus non-organic, but can you get that or are you just stuck with Cheezits?
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