The Real American Fat Farm

Why does America have an obesity problem?

Because junk food is cheaper than health food, and when your average American is on a budget, especially a tight one, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly – and get fat.

Why are a pair of Twinkie’s cheaper than a bunch of carrots?

Because most junk food is a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans, and wheat – crops that are typically overproduced relative to American needs. Thus, these foods can be produced more cheaply than other foods.

Why do farms grow so much corn, soy, and wheat?

Well, despite what you might think, it’s not another biofuel blunder – but a blunder of the most basic kind. Policy. The current farm bill supports five commodity crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton and agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these commodities. Basically, the current farm bill cuts farmers a check based on how many bushels they grow rather than by supporting prices and limiting production. This results in a food system awash in added sugars (from corn) and fats (from soy) as well as cheap meat and milk (from soy and corn). In comparison, it does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Between 1985 and 2000, the real price of fruits and vegetables increased by nearly 40% while the price of soft drinks (liquid corn) dropped by 23%.

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives.

But that’s only part of the problem! The farm bill also impacts what children get served at school. The state-of-affairs is such that a lunch program that tries to prepare a healthy meal with fresh food is likely to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories, but if the same program dishes up a lunch of chicken nuggets and tator tots, the inspector smiles and cuts a check. In other words, American children are the human disposal unit for all the unhealthy calories the farm bill encourages American farmers to overproduce. So, as the New York Times points out in their article You Are What You Grow, America does have a Fat Farm – the public school system!

Fortunately, the public-health community has recognized this and, along with a number of other communities, is endeavoring to do something about it. Let’s hope they succeed, and that you give them your support, or they may have to rewrite the pledge of allegiance to “… one nation under God, indivisible, with twinkies and ho-hos for all!”.

P.S. Kudos to Aptium Global’s Tony Poshek for bringing this article to my attention.