Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the past 30 years, an alarming public health development that is contributing about $150 billion a year to the overall cost of U.S. health care. Almost one in five children aged six to eleven are seriously overweight, making them highly vulnerable to heart disease, diabetes and other serious illnesses.
At the same time, Congress and the Department of Agriculture are spending more than $1.28 billion annually to subsidize the crops that are used as additives in manufacturing cookies, candies, soda pop and other highly popular junk food that arguably are among the primary contributors to childhood obesity. The sweet, fatty and calorie-rich Hostess Twinkies alone contain 14 ingredients made with highly subsidized processed ingredients, including corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and vegetable shortening.
What’s wrong with this picture?
A new report released on Wednesday by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a consumer advocacy group, highlights often tragic consequences of long-standing federal agriculture policies that have showered hundreds of billions of dollars on a small handful of crops including corn and soybeans that are processed into additives. They are the mainstays of the junk food industry.
Of the $277 billion spent on farm subsidy programs since 1995, about $81.7 billion went to subsidize corn and $26.3 billion went for soybeans. In a sign of the political clout of the biggest producers, 75 percent of the all those subsidies have gone to just 3.8 percent of U.S. farmers. In contrast, the government has provided only $637 million for apples or vegetables.
The study concluded that “our own government policy” is responsible for promoting obesity-fueling empty calories,” adding that “even as nutritionists and researchers tell us to cut down on junk food in order to end the childhood obesity epidemic, federal agricultural policy is busily underwriting the problem.”
Indeed, the Department of Agriculture which simultaneously administers the farm subsidy program and attempts to promote healthy eating has yet to connect the dots. For example, the department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) conducts research and sponsors programs to improve Americans’ dietary behavior and combat obesity, but rarely if ever examines the consequences of the federal farm subsidy program – which heavily influences the public’s eating habits.
In the bifurcated world of the agriculture department, the Agriculture Marketing Service oversees the subsidy program and the Economic Research Service does the economic analysis of the impact of the subsidies on food prices. “The way that the department is set up, our cut of the pie is coming up with healthy diets – that is our mission here,” John Webster, the CNPP’s director of public relations and governmental affairs, told The Fiscal Times on Wednesday.
By 2030, half of all Americans will be overweight, adding tens of billions of dollars more to the annual cost of treating them. Obese children have arteries so thick that they resemble those of 45-year-olds, which puts them at greatly increased risk of heart problems and diabetes. And obese adolescents are more likely to be pre-diabetic. Children and adolescents who are obese are also at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.
The report was issued while Congress attempts to rewrite the current five-year farm law which is scheduled to expire Sept. 30. The Senate last month overwhelming approved new farm legislation that will cost taxpayers nearly $1 trillion over the coming decade. The bill would eliminate the $5 billion a year in direct payments to producers of corn, wheat, soybeans and other crops, but shifted some of those savings to the already highly subsidized federal crop insurance program, which was created to protect farmers against drought and flooding or precipitous drops in crop prices.
Meanwhile, the House version of the legislation has become bogged down by internal Republican political squabbling, and it is unclear whether the chamber will act before the long August recess.