As with most issues in this new Gilded Age, the tale of the American diet is a story of the worst form of corporatism — the kind whereby the government uses public monies to protect private profit.
In this chapter of that larger tragicomedy, lawmakers whose campaigns are underwritten by agribusinesses have used billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize those agribusinesses’ specific commodities (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc.) that are the key ingredients of unhealthy food. Not surprisingly, the subsidies have manufactured a price inequality that helps junk food undersell nutritious-but-unsubsidized foodstuffs like fruits and vegetables. The end result is that recession-battered consumers are increasingly forced by economic circumstance to “choose” the lower-priced junk food that their taxes support.
Corn — which is processed into the junk-food staple corn syrup and which feeds the livestock that produce meat — exemplifies the scheme.
“Over the past decade, the federal government has poured more than $50 billion into the corn industry, keeping prices for the crop … artificially low,” reports Time magazine. “That’s why McDonald’s can sell you a Big Mac, fries and a Coke for around $5 — a bargain.”
Solving the crisis, then, requires everything from recalibrating our subsidies to halting the low-income school lunch program’s support for the pizza and French fry lobby (yes, they have a powerful lobby). It requires, in other words, a new level of maturity, a better appreciation for the nuanced politics of food and a commitment to changing those politics for the future.
Impossible? Hardly. A country that can engineer the seemingly unattainable economics of a $5 McDonald’s feast certainly has the capacity to produce a healthy meal for the same price. It’s just a matter of will — or won’t.
Not to mention the added burden that unhealthy diets pose for our healthcare system. Poor nutrition leads to expensive, chronic diseases like diabetes—diseases that tend to disproportionately affect the poor. When poor people are afflicted by such diseases, they’re more likely to rely on emergency room visits and other incredibly expensive ways to receive healthcare. And again, taxpayers are left footing the bill while the Agriculture, Healthcare, and Pharma industries profit.