Friday, April 23, 2010

Fat tax vs rational farm policy

North Country Public Radio's In Box blog has an interesting discussion on 'Who's responsibility is it to protect kids from bad food?'

The essay is within the context of a controversial proposal strongly pushed by New York state's health commissioner to tax, among other things, sugary sodas, generally referred to as the 'fat tax.'

Nearly all commenters agreed it was the parents' responsibility to protect kids from bad food. This ignores the fact that parents can't control their kids every movement. If 15 year old with a few bucks wants a bag of potato chips and a Rice Krispies treat for lunch and his school cafeteria has a vending machine that sells those things, that's what he's going to eat.

But more broadly, it's hard to argue with the 'take responsibility for you and your kids' mantra. Parents DO have a critical role in shaping the nutritional habits of their children, especially when they're younger.

After all, no one wants the state stick its nose in personal decisions unnecessarily.

Except the state is already distorting these decisions via public policy... via public policy that favors BAD food.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, processed and fast food was relatively much more expensive than fresh food. Upon returning to the US, I was struck by how the situation was totally the opposite in this country. A head of lettuce at the supermarket might cost you more than two double cheeseburgers at McDonald's.

Not coincidentally, I noticed something else. In West Africa, relatively obese people were almost inevitably businessmen and bureaucrats, people from the small upper middle class. These are people on the high end of the income scale and can more easily afford processed food.

In the United States, it's the poor people who are disproportionately affected by obesity. They can't easily afford fresh fruits and vegetables and often don't have much access to them even if they could. They also can't afford things like gym memberships and are too busy working three crappy jobs anyway. But spending $4 on two double cheesburgers, an order of fries and a Mountain Dew at the Golden Arches is much more within their budget.

I wondered why it was that bad food in the US was so much cheaper than good food. Then I noticed this graphic from Andrew Sullivan's blog on

According to nutritionists, meat and dairy are supposed to be 24% of our diet and yet they gorge on nearly 74% of public farm subsidies.

By contrast, fruits and vegetables are supposed to be 36% of our diet and yet starve on not even 0.4% of subsidies.

Sugar, oil, starch and alcohol receive nearly 30 times more subsidies than fruits and vegetables.

No wonder the pricing structure of food is so irrational.

Instead of punishing people for bad behaviors (that don't harm other people), public policy should be used to encourage people to practice desirable behaviors.

The fat tax gets it backwards. It raises the price of bad food but does nothing to make more affordable the price of good food.

We offer massive public subsidies to farm products used to create unhealthy products. We should re-jigger those subsidies so they're used to support products that are good for us, including organic.

Obviously, subsidies are more about politics than health and nutrition. Meat and dairy gets most of the subsidies because meat and dairy state legislators are very powerful.

Making bad food more expensive makes everyone resentful because people still have to spend a lot on the good food to replace it. You can know something is good for you but if you can't afford it, so what?

Making our system of subsidies more sane is much better than a fat tax. It will do more than discourage people from bad food; it will encourage them toward good food.

In short, we should use less stick and more carrot (and lettuce and tomato...).

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