why does a salad cost more than a big mac?

03/13/2010 § 2 Comments

the massachusetts senate recently passed a bill to ban junk food and sugary drinks from public schools.  the effort responds to the growing (grown) health crisis of american childhood obesity.  its a good move following district level reforms in boston and lawrence.

it reminds me of being a middle schooler in urban sf east bay.  the cafeteria sold a warm frisbee size chocolate chip cookie for a $1.  cookies and chicken cup-o-noodles for $0.79 was probably half of the total student lunch consumption.

unhealthy foods handicap student alertness and learning, and has long term health and health-cost implications.  so any local attempts to curb the rush of junk into low income youth are laudable.

but looking broader, the physicians committee for responsible medicine produced the image above (recently reposted by alternet).  it compares the allocation of federal food subsidies to the recommended nutritional pyramid.  the “farm bill” is a 5-year $288 billion food program that covers the federal food stamps and school lunch programs and a $43 billion subsidy to agribusiness that dictates the prices of our national menu.

the farm bill subsidizes 5 main commodities: corn, wheat, soy, cotton and rice.  because the primary input for animals is feedstock, paying for cheap grain with tax dollars enforces a high supply of artificially cheap meat and dairy.  since the 70s, these subsidized commodities also allowed for the full flood of high fructose corn syrup (cheap fake unhealthy sugar) and partially hydrogenated soybean oil (unhealthy transfats) into the US food suply.  in contrast, fruits and vegetable growers get no assistance.

michael pollen sites “the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (aka liquid corn) declined by 23 percent.”

so there’s a clear reason why u can eat at burger king for $3 but cant find fresh affordable vegetables anywhere in the hood.

clearly the national menu is an ass-backwards health nightmare.  but the payment structure of the farm bill also ensures that tax dollars are going straight to large agribusiness.  10% of the largest industrial food producers end up receiving 66% of the total $43 billion.  so like all other aspects of american capitalism the biggest corporations get handouts while small farmers and ranchers get priced out.

so the school junk food ban is a step, but its clearly just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce).   to beet america’s obesity epidemic, we need a radical restructuring of food and agricultural policy.

it reminds me of an exasperated south african activist who noted that america was the only country on earth where the poor and hungry are overweight.  it may be more anecdotal than true, but to me its a manifestation of a severe imbalance in the upset belly of the beast.

towards a democratist economy, could a farm bill be subject to participatory budgeting?  what if subsidies were targeted towards cooperatives, small farms and urban agriculture?  could we promote farmers’ markets, CSA’s and carbon-saving regionally based food systems?

if we are what we eat, then lets set our food free


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