Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Is the Farm Bill Making Us Fat?

Michael Pollan recently wrote a piece titled "You Are What You Grow" for the New York Times Magazine in which he argues that the Farm Bill is the root of the American obesity epidemic. He maintains that the Farm Bill's disproportionate support for 5 grains (corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice) makes food such as Twinkies (made from corn, soybeans, wheat and a variety of chemicals) cheaper than carrots. Therefore, consumers can get the most calories for their dollars if they avoid fresh foods and stick with the prepackaged, calorie-dense meals. This helps to explain why poverty is the number one predictor of obesity in the U.S. Poor people rationally pick the cheapest foods, which are also the most fattening. We have created a truly perverse food system.

I agree with the Pollan entirely. I think that the Farm Bill has helped to make us fat and the pricing system does steer poor Americans towards worse food decisions. But, there must be something else going on too. Obese Americans must have made some fattening decisions that are not attributable to congressmen from Iowa. Right? For one, if you are getting fat or are fat, you are spending too much on calories regardless of how poor you are. Consumers probably have a hard time modifying their buying patterns for a variety of reasons. For one, consumers probably do not go through the supermarket like a researcher attempting to maximize calories per dollar. People buy what they like and what they grew up, in addition to considering price. Most Americans like chicken nuggets, potato chips, mayonnaise and Oreos. These are American comfort foods and part of our cultural identity. France has amazing pastries; the Middle East has falafel; Italy has spaghetti; and we have hot dogs and Oreos. If you grew up poor eating the worst of American comfort foods, it is probably even harder to change habits or recognize the problem.

My question is, if the Farm Bill started subsidizing carrots and tomatoes instead of corn would Americans lose weight? I'm guessing that someone would figure out how to make Twinkies out of carrots. I have infinite faith in American innovation.

My faith in the American love for Twinkies and other processed foods does not stand in the way of my belief that the Farm Bill needs to be reformed. Pollan points out the school lunch program still rewards lunch programs for feeding kids processed, calorie dense food, exactly what our kids do not need. Furthermore, I think the subsidies need to be reformed even if reforms resulted in a weird Twinkie-carrot hybrid.


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