Thursday, August 19, 2010

Farm Subsidies, Did You Know?

So I have been doing some internet research this week around some legislation surrounding nutrition and kids, etc. While I was poking around the internet I found this great article on Yahoo that was from 2007. But now I can't find it, so that makes me look a little less credible. I did find other another one though that says very much the same thing.

I had downloaded the 2008 Farm Bill a couple years ago after I had read Michael Pollan's An Omnivore's Dilemma. The book made me curious. The topic of subsidies as addressed in the bill was complicated and I didn't read it all. There were some interesting bits of legislature regarding organic farms and what initially looked like tax breaks to small farmers that only fueled my unfunded dream of having a hobby farm in the Hudson River Valley. But I haven't read any of the Bill in a long time.

I had heard that the bill was up again recently. Pollan and his colleagues and their ideologues have kicked up quite a stir of interest in the politics behind the crummy junk food so many of us have built our diets around for the last 30 years. It seems that a number of new Freshmen Democratic senators from farm states were all set to vote against the Farm Bill because the subsidies program once again centered around Corn, Soybean, and Wheat growers, precisely the commodities that go into making processed foods, devoid of most nutrients.

When Nancy Pelosi caught wind of the intentions of these freshmen senators, she became concerned that they would lose their seats in the elections that November and therefore the Democratic party would lose their majority in the Senate. So she worked to convince all those senators to pass the Farm Bill rather than have a real open discussion about where the subsidies are going and who is profiting off them and who is suffering as a result of them.

And so I say to everyone reading, when will we the voters send a message to Washington that we want subsidies to go to growers who grow broccoli and green beans and carrots and sweet corn (because the corn getting all the subsidies is 'number 2 corn', or field corn which is not terribly delicious for humans and indigestible for many other animals but fed to cattle, chickens, pigs and now sadly even farmed salmon). The idea that an open discussion about Farm Subsidies was quelled because of the fears of a political party that they would lose their majority makes me stark raving mad! Yes, Big Corn and Big Beef interests are powerful lobbies in this country so I am not surprised. But how many people are going to have to get sick with heart disease and diabetes before our law makers start to stand up for us? How many Americans died of smoking related illnesses before we started to make real progress against tobacco companies and fund anti-smoking campaigns and teach kids about the dangers of smoking? In my mind all this liquid-corn-soda and corn-on-legs-beef is no different.

The issue of personal responsibility versus public health is a subjective one. Marion Nestle discussed just that in a recent post about food safety on her blog Food Politics. Also, a Table of Promise reader recently mentioned a parent's responsibility to feed their child(ren) healthy food instead of fast food or junk. I agree, parents are responsible to feed their children healthy food. But now that I am a parent I realize just how vulnerable children are. For kids, what they eat isn't so much about personal responsibility because they aren't cooking or shopping for themselves. I am speaking not only about a government that serves substandard food in school lunches, but also about parents who are serving their kids junk food because the are under-educated about nutrition. Note, I am not talking about uneducated people here, there are plenty of people who go to college who are under educated about nutrition. I believe that by subsidising commodity crops like corn and soybeans and wheat, all the wrong foods to make up the base of our food pyramid, our government is suppressing prices for junk food and making it that much easier for working Americans (and parents) to consume. Think about it, if you were on a limited fixed income working full time with two kids, would you buy the cheaper ground beef and tater tots that you knew your kids would eat with no fighting? Or would you spend your only free hour shopping at the farmer's market across town buying $4 a pound organic heirloom tomatoes?

Subsidies have created a food economy that makes cheap beef and soda available at every grocery store and convenience store across the country. This issue of availability is what makes the fight between governmental responsibility to public health and personal responsibility so gray. Is it the fault of the working poor that unhealthy food are so much cheaper and ubiquitous? Do we, as a culture, expect everyone to suck it up and drive or take public transportation to the one healthy grocery store in the good part of town? I actually believe that if beautiful produce were available to all people in both wealthy and disenfranchised neighborhoods that more produce would be eaten.

In my working life, I do a little business. Everyone in my industry understands one simple principle, even if they understand nothing else. If you put a certain item on sale you will sell more. And if you can hit the right low prices you can tap into different groups of consumers who have less discretionary income. Do we think that food is exempt from this basic economical law?

I say subsidize the vegetable growers, give incentives to organic farmers, put money not only in school lunches to provide healthy meals for kids, but also fund home economic style wellness programs that teach kids about nutrition and how to cook simple healthful meals. When we have done everything that we can as a culture to promote health then we can start talking about 'personal responsibility'. For now we need to start talking 'public health'.

Who is ready to march on Washington with me? Let's tell our politicians that we think that it is high time we start to subsidize healthy foods rather than soda and hamburgers.


  1. Amen! Wonderful post. It is very hard to convince people about what is really happening with food in our country. Whenever I try to talk about it, I feel like some kind of conspiracy theorist! People don't want to believe how serious the situation is. Thanks for helping to spread the word.

  2. I grew up with my grandmother owning a Health Food store. It baffles me what some people feed themselves and their children. I'm no saint, but when I do take short cuts, I try my hardest to find the "healthies" option. To go along with your post, I am still baffled that there isn't anything that can be done about all the fast food restaurants that crowd the lower income neighborhoods. Healthy food should be affordable and available to everyone!

  3. Thank you for articulating this complex problem so well!

    It's unbelievable how many highly educated people are completely ignorant when it comes to nutrition. I see it in the fridge at work when I open the freezer door to get ice. There are stacks of Hot Pockets and Lean Pockets in there. It's by far the most popular thing my coworkers bring for lunch. I'm talking people with MBA's, many from Ivy League and other prestigious schools. The ones eating Lean Pockets think they're eating healthy because they're consuming the lower calorie version. These are the same people who bring in Activia yogurt which is advertised as a food that will keep you regular. Lovely. That's just the information I want to know about my coworkers. The people consuming Activia don't even know enough to realize that any yogurt with active cultures will give them the same benefits at half the price without the weird chemical additives and made from milk produced without hormones and antibiotics.

    My coworkers call me a foodie because I once brought in a leftover steamed artichoke for lunch. Most of them didn't even know what it was and they wanted to know how I learned how to cook and eat it. Their eyes glaze over if I try to talk about buying locally produced food or supporting sustainable farming practices. They don't understand why anyone besides farmers would care about those things.

    I'm afraid this is a tough battle up a very steep hill, but it's important to keep on supporting this movement until enough people care about demanding real improvements in our country's food system.

  4. Everyone-thanks for the comments. I was unsure if the political stuff would resonate or just sound preachy. I am so passionate about this, but not everyone wants to hear about it.

    Kim-So funny about your co-workers. My company is similar except it is alot of trader joe's meals or annie's organics in the freezer which are better, but still processed foods in my opinion. I am also considered 'the natural girl' in my office since there are far greater foodies (those that patronize all the swanky Manhattan restaurants I don't have the time or money to go to) than myself at my company. However, a couple years ago I told my entire division that I was going to boycott bottled water for an entire year and I started bringing those Sigg bottles to work. My teammates all kind of laughed it off like 'there she goes again with that all natural BS'. But I stuck to it, except for a bad coughing fit at the US Open and a delayed flight in Atlanta when I was 4 or 5 months pregnant, I didn't drink any bottled water for an entire year. And do you know, now everyone in my office is drinking from glass or sigg bottles. I am NOT saying that I did it or that I am some major trend setter. But more to your point about this being an uphill battle-For those of us who are passionate about change, we must be an example and spread the word. The more we talk the more people google search what we are talking about and the more they talk to their friends. We can change this system, I truly believe it!

  5. Thank you for this post. I work in an elementary school and am completely appalled at our school lunches, but even more concerned about many of the home-prepped lunches I see our budding learners eating.