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U.S. Farm Bill: Dictator of the American Diet

April 29, 2011 By Rosa Perr, Guest Commentary

This is the final essay in our eight-part series on environmental policy in conjunction with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department.

According to a study by Johns Hopkins University, teenagers who come from low-income households are 50 percent more likely to be overweight than teenagers who come from high-income households.

How can we fight obesity and reform the way we eat as a country? The answer seems quite simple: eat healthier. But for many Americans and Minnesotans, healthy foods are often more expensive and tough to find.

Historically, low-income Minnesotans and Americans have suffered from consuming too few calories, but today, obesity rates tend to be higher among poor people. This is not a coincidence. People who don’t have that much money try to buy the lowest-cost foods, which in many cases happen to be the most processed, chemical filled junk food. That’s one of the main connections between poverty and obesity.

The U.S. Farm Bill has a lot to do with both the problem and the solution. It’s the federal government’s main tool for agriculture and food policy, dictating much of America’s diet. It establishes the food pyramid, provides food stamps for low income people, and subsidizes farmers who grow certain crops. In fact, billions of dollars in subsidies go to industrial farmers who grow wheat, soybeans, and corn.

Subsidies are actually good for many producers. They stabilize commodity prices and protect farmers from large market changes. As a consequence, they also tend to create an abundance of certain crops that are then used to create high fructose corn syrup, livestock feed, and highly processed bleached wheat.

This tends to flood the market with cheap but unhealthy foods. Rarely do subsidies lower the costs for immediately consumable healthy fruits and vegetables. This is part of the reason why in certain extreme rural and urban areas there’s a lack of affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. There, a bag of factory-produced cookies made up mainly of highly processed wheat, high fructose corn syrup, and a myriad of unpronounceables tends to cost less than an apple.

Direct farm subsidies wouldn’t necessarily lower the costs of fresh fruits and vegetables. Their farming is labor intensive and comparatively expensive. Compared to processed foods, with a near infinite shelf life, it is also a challenge to supply an abundance of perishable whole foods.

However, there are federal supports that would lower fruit and vegetables’ costs. Cost efficiently transporting and warehousing perishable goods is a challenge federal support might alleviate. More direct subsidies for “locally grown” campaigns would also lower prices in some areas. While this would only be a temporary solution considering Minnesota’s harsh winters, it’s step in the right direction.

Recently Minnesota farmers’ markets have seen the need to help irrigate food deserts (places where affordable fresh fruits and vegetable are hard to find) in urban areas. With Hennepin County and other service providers' help, more of these markets accept EBT cards.

The Farm Bill is an American policy with the potential to change the way we eat as a country, and therefore directly improve public health. The bill aims to fight poverty, malnutrition, obesity, and raise food security (the ability of individuals to obtain sufficient and nutritious food). Additionally, the Farm Bill could go even further to incentivize healthy eating.

The bill is renewed approximately every five years, and with the last bill in 2008, we now stand at the threshold of the 2012 Farm Bill. We can pay for healthier eating support by restructuring some of the Farm Bill’s funding. Sadly, the top 10 percent of our country’s largest growers receive almost 70 percent of farm subsidies.

Changing subsidies though is not enough, and we cannot assume people would automatically buy healthier foods if they were cheaper and more widely available. The United States Department of Agriculture must put more funding into health and nutrition education in an effort to change behavior through better information about what makes us obese.

The few positive reforms in 2008’s Farm Bill resulted from a growing “food revolution,” consisting of citizens who want to eat more nutritious food at affordable prices. It’s an effort we must continue as we approach the 2012 reauthorization. As consumers, we must demonstrate to policymakers that their efforts to educate people about eating healthy work.

The Farm Bill is important to many Minnesotans for many different reasons. We must ensure that its policies to fight hunger, promote healthy eating and maintain nutrition education standards are protected and enhanced.

You can follow the 2012 Farm Bill and learn more by visiting Ag Observatory’s online Farm Bill Watch.

Rosa Perr is a Macalester College Student

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  • Les Wes says:

    April 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Hello Rosa,

    You start this article by telling us about how the farm bill has distorted markets and flooded stores with cheap corn and soy products at the expense of fruit and veggies.  Then you end by telling us that this arrangement must be protected and expanded?
    That just doesn’t add up to me.