What are your tax dollars funding?You may not realize when you pick up that $3 box of Twinkies at the grocery store that the reason it’s so cheap is you’ve already paid for part of the product.
By: Tracy Frank, Forum Communications
FARGO — You may not realize when you pick up that $3 box of Twinkies at the grocery store that the reason it’s so cheap is you’ve already paid for part of the product.
American taxpayers have been subsidizing some of the ingredients that go into junk-food at an exorbitant rate compared to fresh fruits and vegetables for human consumption, according to a September report.
Out of the $260 billion taxpayers spent on agricultural subsidies between 1995 and 2010, $16.9 billion went toward four common food additives: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils, according to the “Apples to Twinkies” report by U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy group.
During that same timeframe, only $262 million was spent on subsidizing apples — the only significant federal subsidy of fresh fruits or vegetables for human consumption, according to the report.
In fact that entire box of Twinkies costs about the same as one Honeycrisp apple, one of the more expensive apple brands.
“The difference between which foods are subsidized and which nutritionists recommend for a healthy diet is stark,” the report stated.
Of Twinkies’ 37 ingredients, at least 14 are made with federal subsidies, including corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and vegetable shortening, the report stated.
The most common commodity crops receiving subsidies are corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton. The subsidized corn is not the sweet corn people eat, but is used for animal feed, biofuels or processed into food additives, the report stated.
To estimate how much money taxpayers spend on supporting junk food ingredients, the report analyzed the amount of corn and soybeans processed into corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils.
Farmers are receiving incentives to plant crops used in junk food instead of fruits and vegetables at a time when obesity is reaching epidemic proportions, the report shows.
More than one-third of adults and 17 percent of children and teens aged 2 to 19 years are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends Americans consume at least two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day, but a 2007 Johns Hopkins report found only 11 percent of adults did so. And people with lower incomes are less likely to meet the guidelines.
People on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the former federal Food Stamp program, often buy processed food because it’s cheaper, said Tammy Walhof, Bread for the World senior regional organizer for the Upper Midwest and Plains Regional Office in Minneapolis.
In addition to being more expensive, fruits and vegetables are also less accessible than processed foods, which can be found in every gas station convenience store and grocery store, said Ben Lilliston, vice president for programs of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.
“We feel like our farm programs are backwards,” he said. “They’re not reflecting what many consumers would like and certainly not what many people concerned with public health would like.”
Noreen Thomas farms near Kragnes, Minn., and sells her produce to restaurants such as Green Market and HoDo in Fargo as well as Sydney’s Health Market in south Moorhead.
She said there are no incentives for fruit and vegetable farmers other than their incomes and the only insurance they can get is the USDA’s Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance to producers of non-insurable crops when low yields, loss of inventory or prevented planting occur due to natural disasters.
Thomas said that doesn’t cover much of anything.
“The risk is a pretty big risk versus growing wheat or something where I could get crop insurance,” she said.
Because of that, fruit and vegetable farmers have a hard time getting financing. Banks that give farmers loans encourage commodity crops because they feel they’ll be paid back even if things don’t go well, Lilliston said.
In fact, crop insurance, disaster assistance, and loan and conservation programs are not designed to address the characteristics of fruit and vegetable production and marketing, according to an August report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a New Jersey-based philanthropy devoted to health and healthcare.
Doyle Johannes, North Dakota Farm Bureau President, who operates a diversified farm of corn, wheat, barley, and soybeans along with a cow/calf operation north of Bismarck, said most farmers don’t even support direct subsidies anymore.
“We just cannot defend those in light of increased crop prices,” he said. “They’re not justifiable anymore and they’re indefensible to the general urban public.”
Johannes gets about $8 an acre in subsidies.
“In the scheme of things when we’ve got $300 an acre costs to plant crops, $8 is nothing,” he said. “It doesn’t make or break you.”
A good crop insurance plan would do more to protect the family farm, he said. While that’s also a type of subsidy, it protects farmers’ way of life in the event of a disaster, Johannes said.
“It has to be broad and cover a lot of different areas,” he said. “And with the government helping to subsidize that, it helps the country to be able to produce a very healthy, safe food supply.”
Subsidizing the ingredients that go into processed foods was never the intent of the Farm Bill, Lilliston said. But right now there’s a big disconnect between our farm programs and making the healthiest food available and accessible for everyone, he said.
“Farmers who grow corn and soybeans are making very rational, logical choices because it’s a risky endeavor no matter what and subsidies take a lot of the risk out of it,” he said. “The outcome is that we have a lot of commodity crops out there and over time, food companies have looked at this and they like these commodities because they can turn them into multiple products.”
Our nation doesn’t even grow enough fruits and vegetables to meet the USDA’s recommended daily allowance, said Walhof of Bread for the World.
“If we diverted just one percent of the program crop acres to grow fruits and vegetables, we could increase fruit and vegetable production by a third,” she said.
Because more fruit and vegetable farmers mean more competition and lowered prices, Bread for the World suggests increasing demand while incenting farmers to grow more produce by tying school food programs to the fruits and vegetables grown locally, Walhof said.
In his March address to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack talked about government programs to increase healthy food access.
He also said regional and local markets play a role in increasing access to healthy foods.
“Local food is one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture, with direct consumer sales doubling in the past decade to reach close to $5 billion in 2008,” he said.
There are good programs in the Farm Bill to encourage healthier eating, such as programs that allow SNAP participants to spend their dollars in farmers’ markets and programs that help schools serve healthy meals using locally produced foods, but those programs are very small, Lilliston said.
The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry is working on the 2012 Farm Bill, which will govern federal farm and food policy.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., serves on the committee and said she worked to help pass additional support for fruit and vegetable producers in the 2008 Farm Bill by providing kids with healthy school lunches and supporting research to help organic and specialty crop producers.
“As we work to pass the 2012 Farm Bill I will fight to make sure that we support policies that increase the productivity of our fruit and vegetable producers and provide consumers healthy options at local markets and grocery stores,” she said.
Legislators are talking about shifting away from subsidies and toward insurance, but Lilliston isn’t sure that’s the best solution, either.
“From our view, that’s not a positive development necessarily,” he said. “Our concern is that it doesn’t get to the underlying problems.”
Farmers who grow commodity crops are deeply invested in equipment geared toward those crops, he said. What farmers need is help transitioning to different crops with adequate insurance coverage, access to financing, and facilities to process those crops, he said.
“Farming is a very risky business and so if we’re going to change the incentives that support farming, we need to make sure it’s still economically viable,” Lilliston said.