Subsidizing Junk Food


        Why is junk food often cheaper than healthy food options, like fresh fruit and vegetables? The cost of many processed snack foods is kept low because ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and soy oils have been highly subsidized in the past, largely by means of the Farm Bill. The first Farm Bill was passed during the Great Depression to help struggling farmers, and Congress has passed an updated version of the bill every five or so years since. Through its allocation of government subsidies, the Farm Bill has played an instrumental role in keeping the price of junk food lower than fruits and vegetables.

In 2010, the consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG Education Fund released the study, “Apples to Twinkies,” detailing how government farm subsidies promote junk food over fruits and vegetables. The study found that billions of tax dollars directly subsidize the production of corn syrups and soy oils, which are used to cheaply sweeten and add fat to many junk food products.

        Understandably, many food justice and health advocates have expressed their outrage over farm subsidies that promote junk food over produce, some decrying the hypocrisy of Michelle Obama’s campaign to reduce childhood obesity while the federal government pays big bucks to keep the price of junk food low. This issue got enough attention to end the $4.5 billion yearly payments to agribusinesses in the 2014 version of the Farm Bill. Unfortunately, agribusinesses will continue to receive huge amounts of aid from tax dollars in sneakier, less direct ways. The new Farm Bill accomplishes this by increasing the amount of subsidies paid to farmers in crop insurance. Journalist David Dayen explains how the new insurance subsidies favor agribusinesses and put billions of taxpayer dollars back into their hands, in a less obvious way than cash payouts. Indeed, the new Farm Bill continues to incentivize growing corn and soy, keeping the costs of junk food lower than fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, by replacing cash payouts to farmers with increased government subsidies for crop insurance, it is harder for the public to see where their tax dollars are going and the results of the subsidies on market prices.

While the 2014 Farm Bill is disappointing in its continued support for agribusinesses and indirect subsidies to corn, do not become too overwrought with despair. Funding for local food projects nationwide has been increased by $4 million, and the new Farm Bill also supports healthier school lunch programs and school gardens. The fight for policy to truly promote health and wellness will surely continue with future versions of the Farm Bill and other legislation. In the mean time, keep fighting for health and wellness in your own kitchen by prioritizing fresh produce despite the low prices of processed snack foods.