Subsidizing Fat: How the 2012 Farm Bill Can Address America’s Obesity Epidemic
On a bus in West Philadelphia, a woman feeds her baby an artificial orange beverage from his bottle. The drink costs much less than baby formula, partly because it is mostly comprised of corn—the largest beneficiary of U.S. agricultural subsidies. Currently the least expensive food available is also the most caloric and the least nutritious: a dollar’s worth of cookies or potato chips yields 1200 calories, while a dollar’s worth of carrots yields only 250 calories. A savvy shopper seeking to satiate her family will naturally seek out these more caloric but less nutritious items. The sticker price is a small fraction of the true cost of highly processed foods, which contain excessive amounts of sodium, fat, and calories that contribute to an estimated $147 billion in annual healthcare costs. Moreover, these products are artificially cheap because their production is subsidized with tens of billions in taxpayer funds each year. Federal agricultural subsidies have provided Americans with high-calorie, low-nutrient processed foods that are less expensive and more readily available than whole grains and produce. Until very recently, poverty was associated with emaciated faces and rail-thin limbs, but today malnutrition persists despite an abundance of cheap calories. Our nation is in the midst of an obesity epidemic that is not only a question of weight, but also implicates serious health conditions caused by poor nutrition such as heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancers. The next generation of Americans may be the first in history to have a shorter lifespan than its parents.
The national obesity epidemic is a multifaceted crisis with many factors that go beyond the scope of this Comment. Similarly, the 2008 Farm Bill is omnibus legislation spread across more than a dozen titles in the United States Code, spanning everything from food stamps and school lunches to environmental conservation and agricultural research. This Comment evaluates how programs intended to support farm prices and income influence producers and consumers. Commodity production is at the core of the obesity epidemic because highly processed foods and meats are mostly comprised of subsidized corn, soy, and cereal grains.14 While domestic production and food price are not the only factors contributing to the problem, this Comment questions the value of using the third-largest federal benefits program to reduce the cost of commodities that contribute to $147 billion in annual obesity-related health costs. The issue of obesity has been well addressed by social scientists and natural scientists, by writers and food advocates. Yet legal scholarship on agriculture has focused entirely on environmental or international trade issues without addressing how federal legislation impacts what farmers decide to plant and what people choose to eat. This Comment recommends legislative action for the 2012 Farm Bill to make fruits, vegetables, and whole grains comparatively less expensive than unhealthy processed foods and meats.
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Kathryn A. Watts