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Fall River Herald News
Deirdre Cummings

It’s hard to imagine a worse use of our taxpayer dollars than subsidizing junk food. Yet we’ve spent billions doing just that.

Last year, over $1.28 billion in taxpayer subsidies went to junk food ingredients, bringing the total to a staggering $18.2 billion since 1995. As documented in our recent report, Apples to Twinkies 2012, these dollars went to subsidize four common junk food additives: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils, which are processed further into hydrogenated vegetable oils.

To put that figure in perspective, $18.2 billion is enough to buy 49 billion Twinkies. Placed end-to-end, they would circle the globe 125 times.

In contrast, very little has gone to subsidize fresh produce.  Apples are the only fresh fruit or vegetable that receive significant taxpayer subsidies, but these funds pale in comparison. Only $637 million has gone to subsidies for apples since 1995.

Here in Massachusetts, our share of the cost for junk food subsidies is about $22.6 million  each year on average, compared with just under $800,000 in subsidies for apples. That’s enough to buy 61 million Twinkies, but only 1.6 million apples.

Between 1995 and 2011, American taxpayers spent over $277 billion in agricultural subsidies. Most subsidies went to the country’s largest farming operations — 75 percent of subsidies went to just 3.8 percent of farm operations — mainly to grow just a few commodity crops, including corn and soybeans.

Most of these commodity crops are not simply eaten as-is. Among other uses, food manufacturers process them into additives like high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils that provide a cheap dose of sweetness and fat to a wide variety of junk food products.  

At the same time, childhood obesity rates have tripled over the last three decades, with one in five kids aged 6 to 11 now obese. Obesity puts kids at greater risk for developing heart disease and diabetes later in life, undermining the health of our country and driving up medical costs by hundreds of billions of dollars.

The rise in obesity has many causes, but one of the most important is the increased prevalence of high-fat, heavily sweetened junk food. And current federal agricultural policy is making matters worse.

With the federal Farm Bill that contains these subsidies about to be reauthorized, there is an opportunity to end this waste. Not only do public health experts and small farmers want to reform our agricultural policy, conservative taxpayer groups are pressing for change as well.

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