Government heavily subsidizes junk food, report suggests

To help Americans avoid obesity, the federal Choose My Plate program recommends filling half of one’s plate with fruit and vegetables. But only a small fraction of federal subsidies support fresh produce production— the majority go into commodity crops, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

From 1995 to 2010, the  government spent $170 billion in agricultural subsidies to produce ingredients that make junk food cheap and plentiful. These crops and farm foods— corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, milk and meat— aren’t inherently unhealthy, but many are turned into inexpensive additives like corn sweeteners, industrial oils, processed meats and refined carbohydrates, the New York Times reported.

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In a study published July 5 in JAMA Internal Medicine, CDC researchers found that, of the 10,000 adults surveyed, those who had the highest consumption of federally subsidized foods had a 37 percent higher risk of obesity, the New York Times reported. This group was also more likely to have abdominal fat, abnormal cholesterol, and high levels of blood sugar and an inflammation marker.

The strong association is consistent with previous findings. Researchers noted the link does not signal a causal relationship.

“This tells us that the factors that influence the prices of our foods are an additional factor,” Ed Gregg, chief of the epidemiology and statistics branch in the CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation, told the New York Times. “We’re hoping that this information reaches policy makers and the people who influence how subsidies work.”

Congress renews the farm bill every five years, and critics argue the funding supports those who grow commodity crops, rather than small farmers who grow fruits and vegetables.

“I think it’s safe to say that what happens at the top of the food chain has an impact on what happens at the bottom,” Caroline Franck, co-author of a 2012 report in the Archives of Internal Medicine that explored the role of agricultural subsidies in obesity, told the New York Times. “Agricultural policies are just not aligned with public health goals.”

The most recent bill, passed in 2014, funds “healthy incentives” to encourage food stamp recipients to eat more fruits and vegetables, allows commodity crop farmers to use a percentage of land for produce, and provides support to organic farmers.