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How Government Food Policy Contradicts Itself

There is an apparent contradiction between the foods the US government subsidizes and the foods that the US government recommends we eat. Although the USDA creates lofty dietary goals, like recommending that 50% American’s diets should consist of fruits and vegetables, the government doesn’t back it up on the policy side. US agriculture policies have focused “on financing the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock” since WWII. Between 1995 and 2010, around $170 billion was spent on these seven commodities, a policy decision that incentivizes farmers to grow cash crops over fruits and vegetables. One of the reasons that unhealthy packaged foods filled with sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup are so much cheaper than leafy greens is that fruits and vegetables receive less than 1% of farm subsidies in the US, making them more scarce and therefore more expensive.

A study conducted by the CDC looked to evaluate the association between the consumption of these foods and the health of Americans. The researchers found that "higher consumption of calories from subsidized food commodities was associated with a greater probability of some cardiometabolic risks...they [also] found a higher probability of both obesity and unhealthy blood glucose levels (which raises the risk of Type 2 diabetes) among people who consumed the most calories from subsidized foods.” Given that obesity costs Americans $147 billion each year in healthcare expenditures, it would make more financial and logical sense for the US government to invest in prevention, rather than waiting for millions of Americans to develop a chronic illness before acting.

Although restructuring food subsidies to favor fruits and vegetables will make a positive difference, it won’t solve the entire problem. Robert Paarlberg, an adjunct professor of public policy specializing in agricultural policy at Harvard's Kennedy School says “if the price of corn doubles, the price of corn flakes may go up only 10 percent. The rest of the retail price is set by packaging, processing, shipping and advertising. Some economists have argued that the cardboard box costs more than the corn inside the box.”

In addition to restructuring food subsidies, our country needs to look into other solutions: municipal governments should also tax unhealthy foods, hospitals should prescribe healthy foods instead of pills, and insurance companies should incentivize healthy eating through insurance rebates. A tax on sweetened beverages in Philadelphia and Mexico both prompted a decline in the sales of sugary drinks. At the Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, doctors measured blood pressure, insulin levels and weight and at the end of the appointment, prescribed Health Bucks—vouchers that can be exchanged for produce at 140 farm markets in the city. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that rebates on healthy food purchases lead to significant changes in what people put in their grocery carts. When South Africa’s largest insurer decided to offer 10% and 25% cash-back rebates to members of its health promotion program on fruits, vegetables, non-fat dairy and other healthful foods at one supermarket chain, shoppers increased spending on healthful foods by 9.3% with the 25 percent rebate and 6% with the 10 percent rebate.

By adopting these measures, our country can save money in healthcare expenditures and promote a higher general well being.


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