WASHINGTON — Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and the government tells them they should eat better.
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But it doesn’t put its money where their mouths are.
The government will spend $17 billion subsidizing farmers this year. Rather than focusing on the producers of good-for-you fruits and vegetables — half its subsidies go to grain farmers, whose crops feed animals for meat, milk and eggs and become cheap ingredients in processed food.
“Obesity. That’s clearly the problem, if you look at the outcome in today’s society,” said Andy Fischer, executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition, a Venice, Calif., advocacy group.
Since two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, it’s clear people are getting the calories they need and more. Diet and disease experts say, however, that they’re not getting enough nutrition.
The Agriculture Department published in April its food pyramid, which tells people how, what and how much to eat, with the aim to improve people’s health. It recommends fewer calories and more fruit, vegetables, lowfat milk and whole grains. It tells people to avoid foods made with partially hydrogenated oils and sweeteners.
Federal farm programs, on the other hand, aim to maintain the financial health of American agriculture. Subsidies encourage an abundant supply of corn, wheat, rice and soybeans. Much of the corn and soybeans is fed to livestock. Some also is turned into nutrition-poor ingredients in processed food for people. For example, toaster pastries contain partially hydrogenated soybean oil for that flaky texture and high-fructose corn syrup for a sweeter fruit filling. That translates to lots of calories, lots of artery-clogging fat and little or no healthful fiber.
Link farm policies to nutrition goals
As those foods, commonly called “junk food” in the United States, become progressively cheaper, the prices of fruit and vegetables rise, said Adam Drewnowski, professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington.
“If we tell a family, ‘You really ought to be eating more salads and fresh fruit,’ and this is a low-income family, we’re essentially encouraging them to spend more money,” Drewnowski said.
Many groups are pushing to link farm programs, which are due for an overhaul in 2007, more closely to government nutrition goals.
“Here we are as a society, talking constantly about obesity and diets, and yet our farm policies are not structured to encourage the kind of diet that the food pyramid suggests we should adopt,” said Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust, a group that advocates conservation on the farm.
Here is what the food pyramid says should be eaten for a 2,000-calorie daily diet:
- 3 cups of fat-free or lowfat milk or cheese
- 2½ cups of vegetables
- 2 cups of fruit
- 6 ounces of grains
- 5½ ounces of meat or beans.
The plate would look quite different if it matched farm subsidies. The breakdown of the $17 billion that the Congressional Budge Office says they will cost this year includes:
- $7.3 billion for corn and other feed grains
- $3.5 billion for cotton
- $1.6 billion for soybeans
- $1.5 billion for wheat
- $1.5 billion for tobacco
- $686 million for dairy
- $626 million for rice
- $271 million for peanuts.
The Agriculture Department doesn’t just hand out subsidies to farmers and tell people what they should eat. It operates school lunch and food stamp programs and the special nutrition programs. It also runs the Forest Service and oversees land conservation.
With 100,000 employees and a $95 billion annual budget that includes the farm subsidies, the department has many other objectives, said Keith Collins, the agency’s chief economist.
Farm subsidies are intended to provide some income stability and financial assistance to producers, Collins said, but climate and market prices are much bigger factors when farmers choose what to grow.
“You’re not going to find corn in California,” he said. “You’re not going to find wine grapes in other areas like you find them there.”
He pointed out the government does help fruit and vegetable growers: They have access to federal crop insurance, and the department spends more than $400 million a year buying produce and other commodities for the school lunch program.
What the department doesn’t do, however, is write the farm bill, which dictates where subsidies go. Congress writes that, and that’s where the influence of the major farm groups comes in.
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