Everyone knows that America has an obesity problem, and that our weight — perhaps even more than smoking or drinking — is causing an epidemic of heart disease, diabetes and other life-threatening illnesses. And we also all know the cause of obesity: making poor nutritional choices and lack of exercise. I am far from innocent, with much of my life wasted idling in the drive thru. But what you might not know is that our tax dollars are funding the very things that make us fat. Even if we make the right lifestyle decisions, our paychecks are still funding the foods that kill us and hidden subsidies make it harder to make the proper grocery trip decisions.
We should understand what we mean when we toss around the word “obese”. Obesity is defined by having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over thirty. To express that visually, a male at the average height of 5’10” is obese if he weighs more than 210 pounds, and the average woman of 5’4” becomes obese when her weight rises above 175 pounds. There is a difference between being overweight and being obese — the former is not perfect, but not necessarily unhealthy. The latter should raise red flags to anyone concerned about their well-being. (If you happen to be curious, I fall in the overweight range.)
What is really scary is the increase in childhood obesity: the rates have tripled in the last thirty years, with 20% of children aged 6-11 now considered obese. While some are more obese than others, we should be alarmed that 1 in 5 children have these health problems.
Childhood obesity may lead to life-threatening conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep problems, cancer and liver disease. A 2008 study by the University of Kansas City School of Medicine found that obese children have arteries so thick that they resemble those of 45-year-olds, and they have the cholesterol to match! Lesser problems might be early puberty or menstruation, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, skin infections, and asthma or other respiratory problems. These do not even include emotional or psychological problems that might develop from low self-esteem or teasing (being “the fat kid”). Depression might not be the killer that diabetes is, but it is nothing to wish upon our children.
Not surprisingly, increased obesity rates have transalted into increased medical expenses. The nation’s medical bills have gone up hundreds of billions of dollars and will continue to rise with the obesity rates. Projections show a $66 billion increase in obesity-related medical spending by 2030. To give you an idea of how serious these costs are to the average person, keep in mind that medical bills are one of the top three reasons that people file for bankruptcy.
Avoiding these health problems could be as simple as making “baby step” changes in your diet (or your child’s diet). A 2005 study of 548 children over a 19 month period found that the likelihood of obesity increased 1.6 times for every additional soft drink consumed per day. And CBS investigative journalists in 2010 determined that out of 3000 combinations created from popular items on children’s menus at fast food restaurants, only 13 meet the recommended nutritional guidelines for young children. In short, avoiding Mountain Dew and McDonalds might be all it takes to improve your long-term health. (Exercise helps, too — get off the couch!)
But while making the proper decisions is always the responsibility of the individual or the parent, the government is not completely blameless — the policies in effect make it far too easy for us to choose the wrong path.
The Farm Bill
The first farm subsidies originated during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl as rescue programs to help small, family-owned farmers keep their doors open. Since the 1930s, we have had variations of this original bill, with the current one (passed in 2008) a large, messy list of funding that includes not only agriculture for food but also for use in biofuels and more. But the ethanol subsidy is outside the scope of this column.
Between 1995 and 2011, American taxpayers have given a total of $277 billion in subsidies to agriculture. Much of it went to essential crops: cotton and wheat, for example. However, $18.2 billion in tax dollars subsidized four common junk food additives: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils (which are processed further into hydrogenated vegetable oils). And even the useful wheat crop may be called a junk food additive if we consider “enriched” wheat flour to be a junk food (which we should).
The term “enriched” implies an improved product. In some ways, this is true: bread that has been enriched has a longer shelf life and is more resistant to insects. But these advantages are gained by actually removing the nutrients, and we are left with a product that is absorbed quickly in the blood. On top of lacking the vitamins and minerals it should, this new form causes quick highs and lows in your blood-sugar level which can lead to type-two diabetes. Is an extra day on the shelf worth a lifetime of insulin injections? But, I digress.
In contrast, since 1995 taxpayers spent only $637 million subsidizing apples (one of the few fresh fruits or vegetables that have a significant federal subsidy). Consider this: If subsidies for junk food ingredients went directly to taxpayers to allow them to purchase food, each of America’s 141 million taxpayers would receive $7.58 to spend on junk food and 27 cents to spend on apples each year — enough to buy 21 Twinkies and just half of one Red Delicious apple. The Twinkie is a great product example because of its 37 ingredients, at least 14 of them are made with federal subsidies, and none of them have any nutritional value. An apple has one ingredient — the apple itself.
* 75% of the federal subsidies go to 3.8% of the total farmers, not surprisingly the ones with large operations involved in processed foods. Not only are these the farms in least need of financial assistance, but it is not unheard of for the larger farms to use the subsidies to buy out smaller farms. In effect, a program that was created to save family farms is now indirectly causing their destruction.
* 9.64% of all American corn is turned into junk food ingredients. This does not include the corn that goes into things like corn chips.
* Milwaukee’s share of junk food taxes: $2,054,432 (which buys 5,560,032 Twinkies). Their share of apple taxes: $71,911 (148,194 apples)
* Wisconsin’s share of junk food taxes: $19,627,169 (53,118,184 Twinkies). Our share of apple taxes: $687,008 (1,415,782 apples)
Maybe you do not like apples and prefer oranges. The point is: why are we making Twinkies and other junk food artificially cheaper? If a bag of apples was $2 and a bag of chips was $10, we might be eating a whole lot more apples and far fewer chips.
Is the proper solution moving subsidies from junk food to health food, thus making it easier to make the right choices? Or perhaps we should not be subsidizing farms at all. Regardless, the one thing we should all agree on is that there is no reason to fund high fructose corn syrup and other additives. We are funding our own deaths; paying our taxes with such policies in effect is a slow suicide.
Gavin Schmitt (firstname.lastname@example.org) looks forward to your comments… let’s chew the fat.