In our ongoing conversation about obesity, health, and food policy, fellow Upstate NY blogger, Brian F, takes on the notion of taxing the bad stuff – as in Governor Paterson’s proposed “soda tax” – to make people eat healthier.
First, the systemic problem: less healthy foods are cheaper because they’re the most heavily subsidized. He points out this terrific graphic from Atlantic magazine’s Andrew Sullivan, comparing federal subsidies to the food pyramid:
Isn’t that just plain crazy?
Brian’s conclusion is this: rather than raise the price of empty calorie foods like soda, we need to make fruits and vegetables and whole grains cheaper.
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.
The local food movement, for example, is engaged in a constant struggle to price its nutritious produce at a point that more people can afford.
Here’s the problem. According to a study by University of Buffalo professor, Len Epstein (reported on by NPR), people used savings on things like broccoli to buy…guess what?
Since the healthful items now cost a lot less, the moms had money leftover. Esptein says they used it to buy more junk food.
“When you put it all together, their shopping baskets didn’t have improved nutrition,” says Epstein — they had the same amounts of fats and carbohydrates.
Now, a lot people will say government should have no role whatsoever in shaping how we eat. But as the subsidies vs. food pyramid graphic hits home, the government already does shape what we eat – and that policy has led to the most obese population in the world.
Obesity is fueling health care costs. And health care costs are fueling debt. So the question – cheaper broccoli or more expensive soda? – is one America should be thinking a lot more about.