Dieting an Obese America

Miguel Santa Maria

It was a Wednesday. As I rounded the vegetable aisle on my weekly grocery shopping routine, I noticed something very disturbing. $1.25 for a Yellow Bell Pepper. That is 25 cents more than a McDonald’s cheeseburger. A single vegetable cost more than a full burger. Rather than focusing on subsidizing the fruit and vegetables industry, the government heavily subsidizes the grain industry, handing fast food companies access to cheap ingredients. By relying on subsidies, fast food companies can massively increase their output and subsequently lower their prices, giving poorer Americans a large incentive to buy fast food over healthy food. In addition, there are not enough markets to supply produce in the first place, causing fast food to become a norm for poor Americans. With both of these factors combined, a third of Americans are now obese. The government should realize that its farm subsidy policies are fattening the country and should work to promote healthier food.

Although some critics argue that fast food is a cheap and more accessible way for poor people to obtain food, fast food is only cheaper through unfair distribution of agriculture subsidies and has more expensive long-term costs. Since the rise of obesity in 1980, the price of fruits and vegetables has risen by approximately 40% while the price of fast food has decreased by approximately 40% (A Place At The Table). Fruits and vegetables cost more than fast food because of poorly distributed agriculture subsidies. Originally, farm subsidies were meant to help struggling farmers during the Great Depression. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Agriculture Adjustment Act was passed in 1933. The act paid farmers not to grow crops on certain parts of their land as a means to balance crop prices in the market. This act also made the government buy surplus grain from farmers, which were to be released into the market if farmers were not producing enough crops. However, this temporary solution became a permanent problem when Congress decided to make the act into a farm bill that would be updated every five years. Farmers became dependent on the subsidies, as can be seen after the passing of the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, which temporarily removed price support and grain management by the government. Once government help was removed, crop prices began to fall and the government was forced to pass several new farm programs. Among these programs included direct payment subsidies for farmers and requirements for farmers to enroll in crop insurance programs. These programs would eventually prove disastrous.

Although these new reforms were meant to help struggling farm families, they have been “reshaped” to help giant farming operations such as Monsanto and Cargill corporations (Materson 1). These giant operations are among the 3.8% of farms that receive 75% of the government agriculture subsidies, and most of these giant operations are corporate interests in junk food products (Etherson, Russo, Nasima 4). Essentially, taxpayer money is not helping the small farms that were in need of help, like the legislation intended. Although attempts at reform are made, big corporations lobby the government to keep their advantage on subsidies. In 2008 alone, food corporations spent $200 million dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying to prevent attacks on commodity food subsidies (Masterson 1). Agriculture subsidies today “only benefit the biggest players” and “encourage industrial agribusiness practices without any benefit to public health” (Etherson, Russo, Nasima 4). Essentially, agriculture subsidies provided by taxpayers mainly benefit industrial farm giants that promote unhealthy products.

A study by the United States Federation of state Public Interest Research Groups found that the government has spent $292.5 billion on agriculture subsidies since 1995, subsidies that are wasteful and are potentially dangerous. Of that total, $84.4 billion went to corn and $27.8 billion went to soy. Corn and soy are “potentially dangerous to the public health” when converted into common junk food additives such as high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oil (Etherson, Russo, Nasima 4). For example, vegetable oil, the oil that accounts for 65% of all American ingested oil is made by adding hydrogenated soybean liquid. While this liquid preserves the shelf life of certain food products, it creates “increasing risks of heart disease and elevating cholesterol levels” (Etherson, Russo, Nasima 8). In addition, high fructose diets promoted by fast food additive products like high fructose corn syrup can “impair learning and memory” (Etherson, Russo, Nasima, 4). Both soy and corn additives impair the health of the American populace. Despite this, the U.S has spent a whopping $19.2 billion on fast food since 1995 on additives like hydrogenated soy liquid (Etherson, Russo, Nasima 3). In comparison, the U.S has spent only $689 million dollars on apples, the only fruit or vegetable to receive a sizeable subsidy among the $292.5 billion total (Etherson, Russo, Nasima 3). Worse, only a third of the $689 million dollar apple subsidies goes to fresh apples, the rest go to products such as apple juice, which are heavily sweetened with corn syrup additive. This shows that the government has not even spent a percent of the $292.5 billion total on healthy foods. This backing of commodity crops produced by industrial farms is detrimental to the American public.

Another example of how commodity crops are detrimental to America can be found by examining the Twinkie. Within the 37 ingredients inside a Twinkie, 17 are subsidized additives like corn syrup. Despite containing a plethora of fattening calories, the Twinkie contains “no health benefit” (Etherson, Russo, Nasima 5). With the subsidies for corn and soy since 1995, the government could buy 52 billion Twinkies, enough to feed the entire U.S. population for twelve days or encircle the Earth 132 times (Etherson, Russo, Nasima 5). Essentially, the U.S. government is spending $19.2 billion dollars providing empty calories, unhealthy, and potentially dangerous products to the public. That is $19.2 billion dollars that could be spent on subsidizing fresh fruit and vegetables or on new healthy food programs.

The rise of fast food is promoting obesity and the diseases associated with obesity. Obesity is the state in which a person possesses so much body fat that they are at a high risk of hurting their health. Foods with high sugar content, such as Twinkies, are filled with corn syrup and other unhealthy additives, which is a primary reason for the rise of obesity in America. In addition, a typical fast food meal is loaded with masses of fattening calories. A Wendy’s Bacon Deluxe Double has 880 calories and 52 grams of fat (Muntel 2). Add that to a Wendy’s Large Frosty with 540 calories and 9 grams of fat and one gets a meal with around 1500 calories and 60 grams of fat (Muntel 2). Essentially, one meal at a typical fast food restaurant contains almost all the calories necessary in an average man’s 2,000-calorie daily diet as well as almost 1/8 of a pound in fat. As Dr. Lisa Young, a nationally recognized nutritionist wrote in her article, “Fast Food Still Unhealthy: What You Can Do,” fast food meals “loaded with fat and salt” can subsequently “raise” the chance of chronic diseases and “contribute to a diet of poor quality” (Young, 1). Diseases such as Type Two Diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and osteoarthritis are linked to obesity, which is heavily spread by easily obtainable and extremely fattening fast food. A real life example of this problem can be seen in Tremonica, a Mississippi second-grader shown in the documentary A Place at the Table. Tremonica has asthma and is overweight, but her mother consistently feeds her fast food because it is cheaper than buying produce. As a consequence, Tremonica’s health declines as she gains more weight from empty calories. Worried for Tremonica’s health, her mother says she’ll buy fruit if its “on sale” but she continues to buy her daughter cookies because cookies are much cheaper than fruit (A Place at the Table). Cheap and easily obtainable fast food promotes an unhealthy diet and subsequently creates health problems for fast food consumers.

Over the past few decades, obesity has surged within the American populace, paralleling the rise in fast food. Starting in 1970, the number of active fast food restaurants has doubled, now numbering 300,000 establishments (Muntel 1). During approximately the same period, the obesity rate has doubled. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the obesity rate doubled from 15% of adults in 1980 to 30% percent of adults in 2000. This trend has only been going up. As of 2009 and 2010, another study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 35.7% of American adults to be obese. In addition to this, the study found that only 25% of adults in the United States eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables. As the government places the majority of subsidies in the hands of large commodity businesses and less in fruits and vegetables, a third of the American population has become obese. That is a third of the American population at a dangerous health risk and who are unable to work in the military or participate in labor jobs to strengthen America. Another finding by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that Obesity costs the American economy approximately $52 billion in direct health costs. In 2003, this number increased to $75 billion and is continuing to rise as obesity and fast food surge. By subsidizing commodities for fast food and subsequently obesity, the government is weakening the U.S. economy. Obesity propagated by fast food is weakening the United States by fattening the populace.

Fast food is known to be a primary factor in obesity and has many long-term costs, yet fast food composes the meals of millions of poor, desperate Americans in ‘food deserts’ or places without access to fresh produce. Americans living in food deserts are often miles away from the nearest produce offering grocery store and instead turn to nearby convenience stores, which are often stocked with fast food products. This lack of market produce supply “correlates with high rates of obesity and diabetes” and essentially traps poor Americans in a fattening trap (Bornstein 1). Sadly, even if more markets were offered to food desert areas, obesity would not go down without a change in produce prices. As Professor Drewnowski, a professor of epidemiology at University of Washington says, if we tell a low-income family to buy more fruits and vegetables, “we’re essentially encouraging them to spend more money” (“Farm Subsidies Not In Sync With Food Pyramid” 1). In A Place At The Table, Barbie, a poor Philadelphia mother, is forced to feed her kids unhealthy commodity food because commodity food can “stretch” or last longer for cheaper (A Place At The Table). Barbie is constrained by a food stamp budget and subsequently chooses obesity promoting commodity food over produce because she needs more food to feed her kids. Americans are not eating unhealthily for the sake of eating unhealthily. Like Barbie, they are desperately trying to save money in a society where healthy food is priced as a luxury good. As junk food prices continue to fall because of heavy subsidies, underfunded produce prices rise alongside obesity rates.

In order to help resolve the obesity epidemic in America, we must lower the costs of healthy food by lowering the subsidies on fast food commodities and increasing the subsidies for produce. The government should redirect the $19.2 billion in subsidies to fast food commodity giants to small producers of fruits and vegetables. By doing so, fresh produce would become less costly and fast food would subsequently become more costly. Lowering costs for produce and increasing costs for fast food would create more demand for produce and less demand for fast food. With more demand for produce and less demand for fast food, more people will be consuming healthy produce on a daily basis versus consuming obesity producing fast food. To further this plan, the government should introduce and support markets for fruits and vegetables in food deserts throughout the United States. An example would be Sterling Farms, a healthy food grocery company that sets up stores in food deserts. By hiring employees from the locality and providing affordable healthy products to impoverished areas, Sterling Farms is able to give residents both jobs and healthy choices of consumption. By providing jobs to locals in impoverished areas, Sterling Farms helps combat crime, as “jobs are the first step in prevention of a negative lifestyle (“N.O. actor, businessmen open healthy grocery in under-served area”). In addition, putting more people to work bolsters the economy and reduces the number of people unemployed. Further, the option of healthy affordable food makes it easier for the poor in food deserts to maintain a healthy lifestyle, reducing health costs. By subsidizing the growth of healthy markets like Sterling Farms, the United States government can combat American crime, obesity, and unemployment on a countrywide scale. Transferring corporate commodity subsidies to produce subsidies would promote American health over corporate interests and thereby would have more worth to American taxpayers. Additionally, lowering obesity rates by promoting healthy eating would reduce American healthcare costs associated with obesity.

Contrary to what some argue, this plan is not a tax on unhealthy lifestyles. It is simply a reallocation of subsidies that would have gone to commodity products towards healthy food like fruits and vegetables. To put it simply: Tax money that would have gone to fast food products will instead go towards healthy foods that can benefit the populace as a whole. Arguing that the redistribution of subsidies is un-American because it makes fast food products more expensive for fast food consumers and producers is an invalid argument. Let’s flip the argument: Is it any more valid to make vegetables and fruits more expensive in order to fund fast food? At least investing in healthy produce can lower the obesity rate and increase overall health in America. Investing in fast food crops is harming America’s populace with obesity and other health concerns. In addition, it does not make sense to allocate taxpayer money to entities that are not in need of them. The subsidies were placed in order to help struggling farm families, not corporate factories. Subsides are created by the government to help struggling entities that are of help to the United States. Since funding massive corporations was not the intent of the government, and since fast food brings no health benefit to the country, the commodity subsidies are a waste of taxpayer money. Secondly, while the revenue brought in by America’s fast food companies are arguably assets to the American economy, they are also a detriment to the American people. Aside from the health costs previously mentioned, massive fast food subsides strangulate the growth of healthy produce industries that otherwise could benefit the economy. Funds that would have helped the growth of produce companies like Sterling Farms are instead redirected towards gigantic fast food companies. Imagine large American produce industries that help reduce healthcare costs by creating supplies of healthy food while also contributing revenue and reducing unemployment. There would be both a benefit to the economy from reduced health costs and new produce industries. Imagine an America where a third of the country is not obese, which could save billions a year on healthcare costs, and where a person in a rural area could buy yellow bell peppers for less than a McDonald’s cheeseburger. By promoting produce in food deserts, lowering subsidies on commodity goods, and increasing subsidies on produce, America can diet obesity.

Works Cited

A Place At The Table. Dir. Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media, 2012. Final Press Notes.

Bornstein, David. “Conquering Food Deserts With Green Carts.” Opinionator Conquering Food Deserts With Green Carts Comments. The New York Times, 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.

Etherton, Laura, Mike Russo, and Nasima Hossain. Apples to Twinkies 2012, Comparing Tax Payer Subsidies for Fresh Produce and Junk Food. N.p.: U.S. PIRG Education Fund, 2012. Print.

“Facts About Obesity In the United States.”, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.

“Farm Subsidies Not In Sync With Food Pyramid.” NBCNews. 11 august, 2005. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.

Masterson, Kathleen. “The Farm Bill: From Charitable Start To Prime Budget Target.” NPR. NPR, 26 Sept. 2011. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.

Muntel, Sarah. “Fast Food- Is It the Enemy?” Your Weight Matters Spring 2012: n. pag. Print.

“N.O. Actor, Businessmen Open Healthy Grocery in Under-served Area.” WWLTV News, 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2014.

“Obesity and Overweight.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 May 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.

Young, Dr. Lisa. “Fast Food Still Unhealthy: What You Can Do.” The Huffington Post., 10 May 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.