There’s something new to worry about in your food. It’s linked to obesity, higher levels of unhealthy fat and inflammation, and although few other countries have to deal with it, it’s almost impossible to remove from our diet because it’s baked into the way we eat in America.
The new troublesome additive? Federal subsidy.
A recent study published by the American Medical Association traced several commodities supported by the Farm Bill — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock — and linked their consumption to several cardio metabolic risks.
This news isn’t, however, a stone on which budget-slashers can sharpen their knives in the name of public health. The primary recipients of the Farm Bill’s subsidies have long been America’s farmers and the poor. The latest Farm Bill will cost $956 billion over its 2014-2023 lifespan, and $756 billion of that will go to ensuring that America’s poor have food assistance, or SNAP, benefits to help them survive poverty.
These benefits aren’t too high — in fact they’re far too low. More than 80 percent of SNAP recipients report the roughly dollar-per-meal benefit runs out within the first two weeks of every month, and in general the benefits are too meager to allow the purchase of healthy food items.
There’s a connection between the Farm Bill’s primary farming and food-deprived beneficiaries. Commodity subsidies help farmers survive debt and food-insecure families survive poverty. The bill’s secondary beneficiaries, however, do much better. These are the companies and industries to whom the Farm Bill’s payments trickle up from the primary beneficiaries — and for them, subsidies are very healthy.
Around 18 percent of SNAP benefits are spent at Walmart, which stands to see $136 billion in revenue as a result of food subsidies. And it’s not just retailers who do well. Consider the commodities we subsidize. Other than some livestock, we rarely buy these foods raw. These commodities are grown to be processed, ultimately finding their way into a full range of ultra-processed and packaged food and drink, as well as other industrial uses such as corn ethanol fuel.
The ultimate beneficiaries of food subsidies are neither the farmers nor low-income families, but the food companies that profit from low costs and a ready market for their products. The result is that federal and market subsidies encourage cheap food with high social and environmental costs.
Even if we were to cut all federal subsidies to farming, the food industry would still be subsidized. Agricultural laborers earn an average salary of less than $20,000 a year and lack legal bargaining power, benefiting the industry in which they work.
The children of some agricultural workers exposed to pesticides have IQ scores 7 points lower than nonexposed peers. The environmental damage from industrial agriculture is also vast — we pay for cleanup, remediation, and dead-zones in our oceans — but rarely do these costs appear at the check-out.
How do we solve the problem of America’s working poor unable to afford high-quality food, and America’s family farmers hooked on producing unsustainably? There’s no nutritional additive we can sprinkle on existing policies to make them magically healthier, but a few avenues are clear.
We need actual living wages for all workers — especially in the food industry, where 7 out of the 10 worst-paying American jobs are to be found. How else to ensure that those whose hands make our food can afford to eat it? There also needs to be more healthy food to purchase. That means more support for sustainably grown fruits and vegetables, so that those family farms ready to lead can feed the country, rather than its gas tanks.
These two ideas would need to be part of a national food policy, with elements ranging from the restriction of food corporations to market their goods to children, to debt-forgiveness for young farmers.
It is a long wish list, but when problems are as complex as this, those peddling simple solutions haven’t worried about what’s in their food nearly enough.
Raj Patel is a research professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin and recent recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Award.
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