Walk along the isles of many corner stores in Minneapolis and you will see an abundance of unhealthy foods such as chips and sodas. If you take a closer look, you’ll notice all are pretty cheap. And, if you happen to see fruits and vegetables at a corner store they are often expensive and low-quality. Not many people would choose a bruised, old banana that’s selling for as much as a soda or a bag of chips.
Why is this junk food so cheap? Part of what drives these low prices are government food subsidies. In order to prevent food shortages and to protect farmers from the high-risk business they are in, the government gives farmers money to grow certain “staple” crops that are high in calories. In 2009, the government spent 12.9 billion in subsidies (Danello 2011). Currently, the top foods the government subsidizes are corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, milk, and beef (Danello 2011). These are all versatile crops that are used for more than just junk food, but it’s a fact that most junk food contains a high amount of these subsidized foods. Subsidies are not inherently bad – used wisely they can stabilize prices, help farmers establish market share, and promote crops and farming practices that provide social and environmental benefits. A problem with farm subsidies, however, is that they lead to artificially low prices on crops that are then mass produced and turned into highly processed foods, which are then sold to a vulnerable population that are reliant on these low prices. Chips, for example are wheat or potato-based which are heavily subsidized crops. Sodas contain large amounts of high fructose syrups made from corn, another government subsidy recipient (Franck et al. 2014).
Studies have shown that marginalized communities are most likely to have a diet high in subsidized foods. In one study, participants were given a ‘subsidy score’: the more subsidized foods a person ate, the higher their score. The study found that “younger, less educated, poorer, and Mexican Americans had higher scores” (Siegal et al. 2015). Eating high amounts of these foods can lead to health problems such as obesity and cardio-metabolic risks (Aubrey 2016).
How does the distribution of food subsidies in the U.S. line up with the U.S. government’s nutritional recommendation? Actually, not well. Government nutritional recommendations are represented by the “food pyramid”, an easily recognizable image that has, for years, provided a guideline for healthy eating in the US. The food pyramid has changed since it was first introduced in 1992, but the basic principle remains the same- fruits, vegetables, and whole grains should be the main focus of a healthy diet, proteins and dairy should come next, and oils and sugars should take up a relatively small portion of your diet (Welsh et al. 1992). If you compare this food pyramid and the list of government subsidies side by side, you notice a glaring problem. If food subsidizes were designed to maximize the health of citizens, they should be designed to help promote the production and consumption of fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. Fruit and vegetable farmers only receive a small amount of subsidies, and some farmers are even penalized for growing “specialty crops” (such as fruits and vegetables) if they have received federal farm payments to grow other crops (Franck et al. 2014). Some farm products that are currently heavily subsidized, including wheat, corn, rice, milk, beans, and even meat, can in fact be part of a healthy diet- but only when eaten in moderation or in relatively unprocessed forms.
How can we fix this situation? Subsidies in general could be used for good and shouldn't just be thrown aside. Instead, we should increase the amount of subsidies available for vegetable and fruit producers. According to Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the Carolina Population Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “We put maybe one-tenth of one percent of our dollar that we put into subsidizing and promoting foods through the Department of Agriculture into fruits and vegetables” (Welsh et al. 1992). Some argue that “revision could take the form of decoupling income supports from program-specific crops, and rewards for agricultural diversification” meaning we could encourage farmers to grow more than one specific crop like corn in favor of growing a variety of fruits and vegetables. Funding can also be given to creating awareness around healthy eating- imagine if we invested more not only in producing, but advertising and education surrounding healthy foods?
It is difficult enough to encourage healthy eating, but it is even more difficult when unhealthy foods are being sold at prices that are so artificially low due to government support. There should be a better connection between what foods the government suggests people eat to be healthy and what foods the government subsidizes.
Brightside is an organization that tries to address this problem by supplying corner stores with reasonably priced fruits and vegetables. Low income families may be encouraged to buy healthy foods if they see that it is around the same price as junk food. But this work would be a lot easier and more effective if it was accompanied by government policies that supported healthy eating, especially in low income communities where food prices have such a big impact on consumer behavior.
Aubrey, Allison. (2016) “Does Subsidizing Crops We're Told To Eat Less Of Fatten Us Up?”. NPR. 18 July.
Danello, Chris. (2011) “The 9 Foods the U.S. Government Is Paying You to Eat”. The Atlantic.
Franck, C, Grandi SM, Eisenberg MJ (2014) “Agricultural Subsidies and the American Obesity Epidemic”. American Journal of Preventative Medicine.
Siegal, Bullard, Ali and Stien. (2015) The contribution of subsidized food commodities to total energy intake among US adults. Public Health Nutrition. Cambridge University Press. 2015.
Welsh S, Davis C, Shaw A. (1992) A brief history of food guides in the United States. Nutrition Today November/December:6-11.