Understanding The Government’s Role In Keeping Your Junk Food So Cheap


Information on healthy eating has never been more plentiful. Thousands of sites are devoted to teaching you how to eat right, where to shop for the best produce, and what foods to blend together for a super powered smoothie. But even with all those tips and recipes just a swipe away, America remains mired in an obesity epidemic that shows no signs of slowing down. But is it completely on us that we’re not eating more salad (spoiler alert: you should be eating more salad), or are there other factors at play?

According to The New York Times, one reason that Americans are so into carb-filled confections glazed with tons of sugar comes down to simple economics. Junk food is cheaper, we all know that, but why? As it turns out, the same government that urges you to eat healthily and classifies a granola bar as a dessert also subsidizes the growth and production of ingredients that make “cheat day foods” more and more readily available. The money from those subsidies comes from tax dollars that we pay every year. So, if you want to tease the logic out a little further, you could say, “We’re paying to finance our obesity.”

The crops and foods that the government subsidizes — “corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, milk, and meat” — may not seem so bad. Soybeans can be good for you! Corn is healthy, right?

Unfortunately, many of these raw products get funneled straight into snack food production. From The New York Times:

Between 1995 and 2010, the government doled out $170 billion in agricultural subsidies to finance the production of these foods, the latter two in part through subsidies on feed grains. While many of these foods are not inherently unhealthy, only a small percentage of them are eaten as is. Most are used as feed for livestock, turned into biofuels or converted to cheap products and additives like corn sweeteners, industrial oils, processed meats and refined carbohydrates.

junk food

While subsidies have long been a part of supporting American agriculture, those critical of this funding have pointed out the problems with the fact that while the government’s seemingly all about making you live your best life (by eating as many vegetables as you can stack on a plate), it’s also making it easier and easier for all the foods it decries to sneak onto that same plate (assuming you eat Doritos on a plate). People vote with their checkbooks, as the saying goes, and items that benefit from subsidies and are therefore cheaper, making them more attractive to folks without much disposable income. In fact, The New York Times points out that in 2012, a report from an independent consumer advocacy group actually accused the government of mandating “taxpayers to pay for the privilege of making our country sick.”

While that’s upsetting enough, a new study led by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in connection with Emory University has uncovered some even tougher-to-swallow information: the disconnect between what the government says and what actually happens. Researchers surveyed over 10,000 people about what they’d eaten in the past 24 hours in order to analyze how many calories came from products subsidized by taxpayer money.

The findings? Not so great. From MPR News:

“Higher consumption of calories from subsidized food commodities was associated with a greater probability of some cardiometabolic risks,” the authors conclude. For instance, they found a higher probability of both obesity and unhealthy blood glucose levels (which raises the risk of Type 2 diabetes) among people who consumed the most calories from subsidized foods.

So what does this mean for the future? While some will demand that the government cut all subsidies that promote the creation of junk food (because we have proven time and again that our decision-making skills aren’t that great when it comes to food), Dr. Rajeev Patel, a research professor at the University of Texas, Austin, believes that subsidies aren’t the heart of the issue. In an essay that ran beside the study, he argued that advertising is the real problem, especially when it comes to marketing junk towards children.

While the study is important, the researchers agree that it’s not perfect, nor does it prove a causal relationship. Farmers, for instance, get only a small part — around 15 percent, according to MPR — of the money that comes from subsidies.

The rest? Well, it’s all about getting you to buy it:

“If the price of corn doubles, the price of cornflakes may go up only 10 percent,” says Robert Paarlberg, an adjunct professor of public policy specializing in agricultural policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

The rest of the retail price is set by packaging, processing, shipping and advertising. “Some economists have argued that the cardboard box costs more than the corn inside the box,” Paarlberg says. So, 85 percent of what we pay for food has nothing to do with commodity prices.

And what happens once all the outrage about our own government making it easier for us to stuff our faces with Bugles dies down? Patel states that we need to embrace a “national food policy.” This would ensure not only that farm workers be paid fairly and more people would have access to food, but also that the “government’s nutrition recommendations and agricultural policies are aligned.”