Subsidizing Sickness – U.S. Tax Dollars at Work

Twinkie lovers can thank U.S. taxpayers for helping keep the price down on their sweet treat. To show how that works, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) has published a new report: Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food.  It argues what critics have been saying for a long time: “Americans’ tax dollars are directly subsidizing junk food ingredients.”

According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2011 Farm Subsidy Database, Americans forked over $261.9 billion between 1995 and 2010. Huge industrial farms benefited most from this largesse, with 74% of the subsidies going to 4% of U.S. farmers. Commodity subsidies gobbled up $167.3 billion. Some of the money went to dairy and livestock operations, but the largest share was spent for corn and soybeans.

According to the USPIRG report, most of the U.S. corn and soybean harvests end up as “additives like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and vegetable oils that provide a cheap dose of sweetness and fat to a wide variety of junk food products.” Apples to Twinkies blames these manufactured ingredients and the subsidies that support them for contributing to the obesity epidemic.

As a cultural icon, Twinkies are a good illustration. With at least 14 of 37 ingredients made with federal subsidies, “Twinkies are sweet, fatty, and calorie-rich but utterly lacking in nutritional value. And they’re cheap, too, in part because consumers have already made a down payment on many of the ingredients with their tax dollars.”

Putting these expenditures into perspective, “If these agricultural subsidies went directly to consumers to allow them to purchase food, each of America’s 144 million taxpayers would be given $7.36 to spend on junk food and 11 cents with which to buy apples each year—enough to buy 19 Twinkies but less than a quarter of one Red Delicious apple apiece.”

Ty Higgins, an agriculture-industry writer for Ohio’s Country Journal, takes issue with the report. He counters that a three-inch apple has the same amount of sugar as a Twinkie, 19 grams. He also claims corn sugar, the industry’s new name for high fructose corn syrup, is no more harmful than any other sugar, that three quarters of the Farm Bill supports child nutrition, and that parents are responsible for child obesity. (For a good overview of HFCS, see “High fructose corn syrup: just another sugar?“)

These are standard industry arguments and are a bit like hospitals claiming that selling junk food in vending machines and gift shops or inviting fast-food vendors to set up shop is only a tiny part of what they do. Hospital dollars should support health. Farm Bill dollars should support agriculture that, in turn, supports health. Neither should be spent on manufactured edible junk.

The “nanny state” critics will probably jump on the commodity bandwagon and dismiss the report. What they cannot dismiss is taxpayer collusion in the increased health care costs linked to diet-related illnesses. Apples to Twinkies calls it like it is: “Taxpayers are paying for the privilege of making our country sick.”

Related Care2 Stories

Tax Junk Food and Subsidize Healthy Alternatives

Simultaneously Eating and Starving to Death: Obesity in America

Photo credit: Photo from Christian Cable via Flickr Creative Commons

53 comments

Charmaine C.
Charmaine C.4 hours ago

I don't understand why the handful of farmers worldwide, by comparison in number to the 7.5 billion people who now exist on this planet actually need subsidies? Feeding that many people with the right farming practices should ensure that farmers are amongst the richest people on the planet. If that were true and governments did not ruin farming for their nations food growers by unfair subsidies, derivatives, and futures, many more people would take to farming and the one billion hungry people every day would dwindle to nothing. Take the poisons the big chemical companies are forcing on farmers out of the equation and things would get even better. Spend the water fracking now uses to grow fruits and vegetables instead. Keep the Big Mac and give me the bag of delicious, pesticide free red delicious apples.

a             y m.
g d c.3 years ago

hmmmm

a             y m.
g d c.3 years ago

hmmmm

K s Goh
KS Goh4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Dianne Robertson
Dianne Robertson4 years ago

The REASON for Government is to support the NEEDS of the CITIZENS. Food is obviously a need HOWEVER the explosion of factory scale farming has completely changed the dynamics.Lawyers and lobbyests are now regular staff in agriculture.Instead of corn being a vegetable it is now an additive.We need to COMPLETELY OVERHAUL the outdated subsidy system.Not only does it seem STUPID to subsidize Junk but we're subsidizing huge corporations at the same time.I'd like to start by taxing NON-NUTRICIOUS ITEMS at the grocery store the same way they now tax can openers and plastic bags. The Fresh fruit and vegetables should be subsidized. Food stamps should emphaze fresh fruit and vegebles and stear away from all the boxed "Helpers",processed meats and chips. WIC need to eliminate the emphasis on FRUIT JUICE and exchange real fruit. The POVERTY diet is not only a disservice to the taxpayers who pay for it but the children who are eating three times as many calories as they need and getting NO NUTRITION.It isn't fair to THEM to let them grow up unwell . We need to get our priorities straight.

sandra m.
Past Member 4 years ago

Thanks

Msq Howard
jo Howard4 years ago

This is something that I have always believed - all the food that gets subsidies - but not good healthy food - NOW CAN YOU SEE WHY ORGANIC IS SO EXPENSIVE?

Thomas A.
Thomas A.4 years ago

The answer to the poll is of course "no"; but the question is stupid. That's not the point.

The point is that Agribusiness has managed, over the decades, to get money flowing in their direction (or at least pay out less) for their products, which includes the typical staple crops of corn and soybeans.

What they do with those crops, such as making high fructose corn syrup, is just that - their business. It is not a gov't decision or rule that makes them do it. It is not a condition of the subsidies to "make junk food."

The questions that need to be asked (and this is true for any gov't program) need to be the following:

1) What were those subsidies for?
2) Are they still serving those purposes?

If they are serving no useful purpose, then they must be eliminated. If they are serving some purposes, but others are no longer useful, then the rules need to be changed accordingly.

Thomas A.
Thomas A.4 years ago

The answer to the poll is of course "no"; but the question is stupid. That's not the point.

The point is that Agribusiness has managed, over the decades, to get money flowing in their direction (or at least pay out less) for their products, which includes the typical staple crops of corn and soybeans.

What they do with those crops, such as making high fructose corn syrup, is just that - their business. It is not a gov't decision or rule that makes them do it. It is not a condition of the subsidies to "make junk food."

The questions that need to be asked (and this is true for any gov't program) need to be the following:

1) What were those subsidies for?
2) Are they still serving those purposes?

If they are serving no useful purpose, then they must be eliminated. If they are serving some purposes, but others are no longer useful, then the rules need to be changed accordingly.

Marie W.
Marie W.4 years ago

Get the corporations out of GOVT- that is the real problem.