U.S. Food Policy Subsidizes Twinkies Over Apples

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

One of the many young protesters at the Aug. 3 press event at Lippitt Park letting farmers market patrons know where she stands when it comes to Twinkies vs. apples. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

One of the many young protesters at the Aug. 3 press event at Lippitt Park letting farmers market patrons know where she stands when it comes to Twinkies vs. apples. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — Since 1995, $19 billion in tax money has subsidized junk-food ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup, compared to only $688 million in subsidies for growing apples, according to a recently released report entitled “Apples to Twinkies.” That means if subsidies for junk food went directly to taxpayers, each one of them would receive enough money back to buy 21 Twinkies or half of one red delicious apple.

The report is part of the Rhode Island Public Interest Research Group’s (RIPIRG) “Stop Subsidizing Obesity” campaign. A press conference was held Saturday morning at Lippitt Park and featured some brief comments from Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., Jesse Rye, managing director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, and Corinne Winter, a canvasser with RIPIRG.

“With obesity continuing to be one of our primary public-health concerns, there is no reason for the federal government to continue subsidizing corn and soybeans to be processed into junk-food additives,” Cicilline said. “The government is spending billions to subsidize junk food and very little for fresh fruit and vegetables. Congress needs to cut off generous subsidies for large agricultural corporations and do a better job promoting good public health policies.”

But even as America faces soaring obesity rates, sequestration and tough federal budget choices, taxpayer dollars continue to fund the production of junk-food ingredients and support Big Ag. In the past 18 years, the government has spent $292.5 billion on agricultural subsidies, $19.2 billion of which have subsidized corn- and soy-derived ingredients that are used to make soda, fast food and, well, Twinkies.

To make matters — and public health — worse, most of the fruits and vegetables grown in Rhode Island are considered “specialty crops” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That means that local farmers growing fresh foods essential to a healthy diet are receiving virtually no taxpayer support, according to Rye.

The local food movement is gaining momentum in Rhode Island and elsewhere, so  improving national agricultural policies to give farmers more access to resources that allow them to grow food, not commodities, can only help to strengthen a bright spot in the Ocean State’s economy and the public’s overall health, Rye said.

While federal lawmakers are still debating the fate of the farm bill — the piece of legislation containing these junk-food subsidies — big agribusinesses are actively lobbying Congress to renew and even increase these outdated subsidies.

With today’s children three times more likely to be obese than their counterparts of three decades ago, with 31 percent of the adolescent population now overweight or obese and obesity-related medical costs reaching an estimated $150 billion a year, it’s absurd that the federal government continues to finance the production of sweeteners and oil additives, Winter said.