Are federal funds feeding obesity epidemic?

More than $18 billion in federal funding that subsidizes corn and soybean crops, which are changed into the main ingredients in junk food, ultimately are contributing to the country’s obesity epidemic, according to a public interest research group.

The data was laid out in a new report by WISPIRG, a Wisconsin public interest research group, called “Apples to Twinkies 2012,” which uses junk food and fruit to demonstrate the disparity in funding for different kinds of crops. For example, in Green Bay, those subsidies ultimately covered 2.8 million Twinkies but only 75,000 apples, the group said during a press conference on Wednesday.

“At a time when America is facing an obesity epidemic, the last thing we should be doing with our tax dollars is subsidizing junk food. Right now, we’re spending over $1 billion every year to subsidize it,” said Bruce Speight, director of WISPIRG.

WISPIRG’s report found that while billions of dollars are being spent on junk food ingredients, $637 million is spent to subsidize apple crops, which are the most subsidized product of any fresh fruit or vegetable. A bulk of subsidies go toward “commodity crops,” such as corn and soybeans, which later become four common junk food ingredients: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and hydrogenated oils.

“Most commodity crops aren’t eaten just as-is. Among other uses, food manufacturers process them into junk food additives like high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils,” Speight said.“These additives then provide a cheap dose of sweets and fat to a wide variety of junk food.”

According to the report, if the money was returned, each taxpayer would receive $7.58 to purchase junk food and 27 cents to purchase apples.

Debra Pearson, a nutrition scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, said the report reflects a disconnect between government efforts to promote healthy eating and agricultural policies.

“Farmers are not the the bad guys, they’re just trying to make a good living,” Pearson said. “Yet, subsidy programs don’t tend to encourage fresh fruits and vegetables to make them more price competitive so that the average person doesn’t have to go to the grocery store and look at the high prices of fruits and vegetables next to the relatively low prices of nutrient-poor food.”