Subsidizing Obesity

It has been said that when bureaucracy gets out of control, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. And it is true that in large governmental operations, the officials in one agency are sometimes totally unaware that the officials in another agency are working to accomplish the exact opposite goal. Then there are cases when the respective agencies are aware that they are actually taking steps that are at odds with each other, but continue doing so anyway.

On the one hand, the U.S. government has, for some time, taken up the good fight for healthy eating. With help from Michelle Obama, it has come to recognize the claims of public health experts that there exists a direct link between sugary and fatty foods and the national epidemic of obesity.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture proudly informs visitors to its website that it “led the effort to pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, historic legislation to allow us, for the first time in 30 years, the chance to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for nearly 32 million children who eat school lunch each day and the 12 million who eat breakfast at school … USDA encouraged more schools to promote healthy eating and exercise through the HealthierUS School Challenge, which has made awards to over 6,526 schools for … improving the school nutrition environment.”

Yet, at the same time, the federal government itself has been subsidizing farmers across the country to grow crops that fuel the nation’s eating disorders. The federal farm bill provides more than $5 billion annually to grow such crops as corn and soybeans, along with wheat, rice and sorghum. These are the essentials for cattle feed — also known as the cheap, high-fat meat supply — and the raw materials for sweeteners for high-calorie drinks, and filler for fatty packaged foods.

The subsidies make the end products cheaper and more affordable for the poor who spend their food stamps (known officially now as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits, or SNAP) on them. An estimated $4 billion of SNAP money is being spent on soda, not a food but a sugar-laden enticement that has been identified as a leading cause of obesity. In other words, the federal government is subsidizing obesity.

These are not the allegations of wild-eyed, radical nutritionists or anti-agribusiness ideologues. The data to support this contention was gathered and published by the U.S. government itself.

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in JAMA Internal Medicine, tells the story: More than half the calories consumed by Americans now come from federally subsidized food. Compared to people who ate the least amount of subsidized food, the people who ate the most had a 37 percent higher risk of being obese, the study found.

“In the U.S. and many other places, an excess of subsidies in these areas ends up leading to a conversion into foods like refined grains and high calorie juices, soft drinks with corn sweeteners and high-fat meats,” according to Dr. Ed Gregg, chief of the CDC’s epidemiology and statistics branch in the diabetes division.

Fortunately, solutions to the problem are available, and to some extent are already in existence. The obvious rectification would be to reduce the federal subsidies on the culprit crops named above. As Gregg suggested, “one potential policy lever for addressing this need may be to shift agricultural subsidies toward the production of healthier crops, such as fruits and vegetables.”

Alternately, on the consumer’s end, some have suggested that the use of food stamps to purchase junk food could be curtailed. Sugary products can be made ineligible for SNAP, just as are alcohol and tobacco.

Some policymakers are reluctant to tamper with SNAP, fearing that it could render the program more vulnerable to other cutbacks, which would be very counterproductive for the poor and the hungry.

A less intrusive approach would be to encourage the consumer to choose life rather than imposing it on him. New York and several other cities have taken the initiative to raise the value of food stamps when used at farmers’ markets. It’s an incentive that could be adopted by the federal government itself.

Admittedly, it does not promise the large-scale change in the short term that the situation calls for, but with full backing and promotion nationwide, and perhaps in combination with a modest shift in subsidies from bad crops to good, it could make a big difference.

But one way or another, the time has come for the right hand to not only know what the left is hand is doing, but to be doing the same thing.