July 9, 2007

Fruits and Veggies Need Your Help

The United States has the highest incidence of obesity in the developed world. We scarf down Big Macs, barbecue potato chips, stuffed-crust pizzas, and 32-ounce Big Gulps as if we get bonus points in heaven for most calories consumed.

Part of the problem is the cost of this so-called food. It's dirt cheap. And that can be directly attributed to a behemoth piece of federal legislation commonly known as the farm bill. The 2007 farm bill currently is slowly winding its way through the House and Senate committees that oversee agriculture issues, committees chock full of legislators from "farming states" who, in years past, have developed this extremely important bill with little outside scrutiny.

To be very honest, I understand very little about the farm bill, including the most recent one passed in 2002 that some members of Congress want to renew as is.

But I do know a few things about it. For example, as a result of the 2002 farm bill:

- $67.6 billion in subsidies was doled out to support the production of just 5 crops, or, as they are often called, “commodities”: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. In the case of corn, much of it will undergo significant processing and end up in various forms (high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, pectin, and a disturbingly long list of other additives) in a can of Pepsi, a box of Lucky Charms, or a package of Scooby Doo (not-so) fruit roll-ups. [The majority of it will end up as cattle feed, but that's another topic for another post.]

- Growers of fresh fruits and vegetables receive NO subsidies.

The outcome (free registration required)of this gross, entirely criminal discrepancy:

Between 1985 and 2000 the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables increased nearly 40 percent, while the price of soft drinks decreased by almost 25 percent, adjusted for inflation…

Now, combine that with the results of a study by obesity researcher Dr. Adam Drewnowski that Michael Pollan recently discussed and you start to see something truly devious at work:

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods--dairy, meat, fish and produce--line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

As a rule, processed foods are more "energy dense" than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them "junk." Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly--and get fat.

In other words, beside the documented environmental impact of the monoculture farms that raise most of these “commodities” – it takes nearly 10 times the amount of calories of fossil fuel energy to grow and process the corn that is used in sodas and chicken nuggets, etc. for every calorie of actual food (if you want to call a chicken nugget that!) produced – the government is shelling out billions of dollars to make Americans fat!

Is it any surprise, then, that obesity is an epidemic in this country and America, by far and away, has the fattest populace in the world?

So what’s the impact of our national girth? I'll let the leadership of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) explain:

Obesity and unhealthy eating constitute a national crisis, with $117 billion per year in estimated treatment and indirect costs. The epidemic of child obesity, however, promises a worse crisis in the making – these children will have more heart disease, diabetes, cancer and stroke, in some cases not long after they become adults.

The IATP also has a great primer on the farm bill.

Sadly, the farm bill reportedly is well understood by just a handful of legislators, mostly from states whose farms – again, mostly big agri-businesses – receive most of its taxpayer-funded largess.

As I already acknowledged, I know little about the farm bill. But the fact that there are no subsidies for fruits and vegetables is enough to suggest it is a truly misguided piece of legislation.

Enough groups and people finally are now coming together to try to make important changes to the farm bill, including supporting a proposal put forth by Rep. Ron Kind (D) from Wisconsin that would slash many farm subsidies and boost funds for land conservation and rural development.

One way to get our government to make supporting affordable, safe [a related topic also deserving of its own post], and healthy food a priority in the farm bill is to call or email your elected representatives and tell them to support any measures in the farm bill that reduce subsidies for crops that make us fat and that promote the production of fresh fruits and vegetables and, very importantly, sustainable, local food systems.

UPDATE: To keep up to date on the most recent happenings with the farm bill, both the IATP and Environmental Working Group (EWG) maintain portions of their Web sites dedicated to the farm bill.

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