Today, approximately 17 percent of children in the U.S. between the ages of two and 19 are obese. The number is much higher for adults, hovering around 36.5 percent. Obesity rates have risen steadily over the past 30 to 40 years. Not only has the recent rise strained healthcare infrastructure in the U.S., it has also had detrimental effects upon the quality of life and long-term health of those who suffer.
Obesity has received more attention than ever in recent years. Schools, parents, doctors, and politicians are encouraging healthy eating habits and physical exercise. Thanks to Michelle Obama’s 2010 “Let’s Move” campaign, fighting obesity has become a national effort.
However, recent initiatives have focused on combating only a few of the factors contributing to the obesity epidemic. They tend to ignore the persistent, systemic causes at the root of America’s alarming national weight gain.
On the Let’s Move campaign website, the causes of rising obesity rates are identified as increased screen time, less physical activity, larger meal portions, and fewer gym classes in schools, to name a few. Although these trends are pertinent to the issue, the Let’s Move data lacks what most mainstream political conversations on obesity do as well: a comprehensive look at federal agricultural subsidies and their effect on the relative prices of healthy and unhealthy foods—an underlying issue that is a major driving force behind America’s obesity problem.
A McDonald’s Big Mac meal, which includes fries and a drink, costs just under six dollars and contains 930 calories. To get the same number of calories from green peas, a high caloric vegetable, one would have to spend over $20. That, in addition to the amount of time required to purchase fast food compared to the amount of time required to cook healthy food, makes fast food far more efficient and cost effective.
Therefore, persons of low-socioeconomic status are especially susceptible to obesity. According to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 2014, obesity disproportionately affects low-income women and children. Since 2000, obesity rates amongst these communities have jumped from 14 percent to 15.9 percent, outpacing increases in all other categories. Low-income men do not follow the same trend because they often work jobs that are physically demanding, burning off most of the calories that they consume.
In order to address the issue in earnest, healthy food must be cheaper and more accessible. This issue begs the question, why is healthy food so much more expensive than fast food in the first place? There is no apparent reason why raising, killing, processing, and cooking a cow into a cheeseburger should cost less than planting, harvesting, and serving a vegetable. That is where agricultural subsidies come in.
Subsidies for the meat and dairy industries make up 73.8 percent of total federal agricultural subsidies, even though those food groups represent less than a third of a well-balanced diet. Subsidies for grains account for just 13.2 percent of total federal subsidies even though they make up 40 percent of a balanced diet. Fruit and vegetable subsidies combined make up a whopping .37 percent of total federal agricultural subsidies, even though, as every first grader knows, they’re healthy.
It is not clear why this is the case. One popular theory is that as farming has become industrialized, small farms have folded and massive corporations now dominate the market. These agricultural corporations have powerful lobbying machines, giving them the freedom to affect federal subsidy allocation as they please. Such manipulation is most common in the meat industry. According to a report by the Grace Communications Foundation, “in 2007, four corporations slaughtered 83.5 percent of the nation’s beef, 66 percent of the pork and 58.5 percent of the poultry.” As a result, these corporations are monopolizing the industry.
Regardless of how it was born, if the U.S. intends to deal with its obesity epidemic, agricultural subsidy reform must be included in the agenda. Reallocating subsidies for fruits, vegetables, and grains would go a long way in making a healthy lifestyle more affordable for every American.
And yes, we need to continue to encourage kids to make nutritious dietary choices and get outside every day as well.