Saturday, June 14, 2008

How Congress Makes Us Fat

No doubt you have heard about the national obesity epidemic:

An estimated two of every three American adults, and more than one in six children and adolescents are considered overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rates have been on the rise since the late 1980s after being relatively constant in the '60s and '70s, said Dr. Cynthia Ogden, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The percentage of adults who are obese -- defined as having a Body Mass Index of 30 or more -- has doubled to 31 percent, or some 60 million people, over the past two decades, Ogden said.
While ill-suited diets and lack of exercise are mostly to blame for weight gain in individuals, it is also true that our government creates disincentives to good health.

A perspicacious editorial in today's Washington Times points out how Congress lays the groundwork for such disincentives by plying agribusiness with subsidies pulled from the taxpayer's pocket.

Notes the Times:
A Twinkie costs 15 cents, and a Gala apple at a grocery store wears a price tag of $1.25 - despite the fact that each Twinkie ingredient goes through the process of being crushed, baked, fermented, refined and/or reacted into a totally unrecognizable goo or powder with a strange name - all for the sake of creating a simple snack cake. Meanwhile, an apple undergoes two steps: plant and pick.

So why does it cost more to produce an apple than a Twinkie?

Well, your friendly Capitol Hill lawmakers persist in passing a farm bill every five years that hurts the taxpayer, grocery shopper and the small farmer.

Congress passed the proposed $290 billion farm bill on May 22, over-riding President Bush's veto and setting the rules for the American food system for the next five years. Approximately two-thirds of the bill funds nutrition programs such as food stamps and about $40 billion is for farm subsidies. An additional $30 billion goes to farmers to idle their land as part of other environmental programs.

The problem lies in subsidizing crops like corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat. Consequently, processed foods like the Twinkie - which consists of a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat - are scandalously cheap while the prices of healthy, unprocessed produce skyrocket.

The editorial asks the appropriate qui bono question:
So who actually benefits from the crop subsidies? The farm lobby likes to pretend that the small family farmer does, but that is not the case. Because subsidies are given based on level of production, mega-farms benefit the most. Though the latest farm bill attempts to limit this, it will add up to $26 billion in direct payments to mega-farms over the next five years.
It's been a long time since I've actually eaten a Twinkie -- at least the processed-food, creme-filled kind -- and I far prefer a Gala apple. (Actually, I prefer a Granny Smith or a Fuji, but Galas are tasty, too.) Now I understand why my grocery bill is so much higher now than it was when my basket was filled mostly with items from the snack aisle. (I can see the Google searches now: "cream-filled twinkie basket.")

So if anyone wants to know why the number one diet problem of the poor in America is not hunger but obesity, they need only look to Capitol Hill for an explanation.

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