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.”
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Photo credit: Photo from Christian Cable via Flickr Creative Commons