Why we’re fat (and what to do about it)

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.

18 Comments on “Why we’re fat (and what to do about it)”

  1. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    Given the power of agri-business and its control in Washington, is there ever a remote chance that these subsidies can be reversed? Given the importance of dairy here in the North Country, and the subsidies it enjoys (and still small and medium sized dairy’s struggle), would we be for reversing this triangle? Again, an issue of be careful what you wish for.

    The PBS show POV broadcast an excellent episode entitled “Food, Inc.” a few weeks ago that dealt with this ever increasing problem. Bad food made cheap all to profit huge agri-business.

  2. Brian says:

    First off, thanks for the mention.

    Second, I heard that NPR report as well. And I think as long as you’re dealing with humans, they will engage in imperfect behavior. However, the scenario the professor describes still results in an overall benefit. A lot of people now can only afford to buy crap. If healthy food is cheaper, they may buy more good food and use the savings to continue to buy crap. But they’re still adding good food to their shopping cart that wasn’t in their cart before or at least not in sufficient quantities. It still means people are eating more good food.

    When I lived in West Africa, I was struck by how the pricing is reversed from here. Fresh fruits and vegetables were very cheap while processed and fast foods were relatively expensive. Not coincidentally, I saw very little obesity over there… except from the high-ranking, more well-paid bureaucrats who could afford the junkier foods and saw them as a sign of status.

  3. Bret4207 says:

    Get rid of subsidies and price controls altogether. Milk prices are based on an archaic formula based on distance from Chicago (IIRC) by rail. Add that to the monopolistic tendencies of Kraft/Dairylea/etc. and it’s no wonder farmers are getting mid 1970’s prices for milk.

  4. Hillbilly says:

    It IS the responsibility of the government to make sure we eat correctly.

  5. mary says:

    cooking is like reading….. BORING.

    And how is the government supposed to change that attitude?

  6. JDM says:

    “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.”

    Then we’re just shifting the health care cost to grain subsidies. Not a winning solution.

  7. anon says:

    Why not have both? Soda taxes to subsidize produce. Corn syrup tax to subsidize greens. Lower cost of healthier items, higher cost for less-healthy items. And no, when you get diabetes strictly from poor diet, and it drives up everyone’s health-care costs, and creates more people with disabilities that have to be subsidized, sugary food abuse is not victimless.
    To govern is to choose.
    We’re making stupid choices right now.

  8. Bret4207 says:

    The stupid choice is additional taxes! How about no taxes on foods, no subsidies to producers, no monopolies and we let the free market work with participation from free people? Asking Government to determine what foods you eat? What’s next, letting some faceless, nameless bureaucrat determine what you think?

  9. anon says:

    How about no taxes to pay for cops, or their pensions?
    What next, ask government to protect and to serve?

  10. JDM says:

    A fundamental flaw with taxes is that it discourages the practice of whatever is taxed.

    In simpler terms, the more you tax something, the less people use it.

    Expecting the use of something to remain the same while increase the tax on it violates some natural law. It just don’t work.

  11. Bret4207 says:

    Anon7:29, you can be more creative than that! Give it a try!

  12. PNElba says:

    Why we’re fat? In my case because I love to eat and eat too much.

    What to do about it? Eat less (I’m trying).

  13. anon says:

    “A fundamental flaw with taxes is that it discourages the practice of whatever is taxed.
    In simpler terms, the more you tax something, the less people use it.”

    Why is that a flaw? Isn’t that a good thing when it comes to things that have costs to society that aren’t paid for by the market, like, say, tobacco? Or alcohol? Or soda?

  14. anon says:

    Unless you meant “law.” Which would make more sense.

  15. Bret4207 says:

    Let me get this straight- the same group (Democrats) that is all for making illegal aliens “legal” (as long as they vote Dem), providing health insurance to those who in many cases, NOT ALL CASES, choose not to provide for themselves, that is for legalizing drugs or all sorts, for legalizing certain sex acts now illegal, that is pro-CHOICE wants to take away our CHOICE in the foods we eat, to make certain foods “illegal” or to inflate their costs through taxes, etc.?

    Wow, makes perfect sense to me…

  16. anon says:

    Bret,
    Believe it or not, many if not most issues demand practical, not ideological, solutions. Not everyone has an all or nothing check list. Yours seems to be anything supported by a Democrat is on its face evil. But there are more than a few GOPers who believe in immigration reform, and are for legalizing some drugs (ever heard of libertarians? or St. Wm. F. Buckley– and name one Democrat, by the way, who is for legalizing drugs “of all sorts”), and who in fact hire Rentboys to, um, tote their luggage (OK, cheap shot, sorry).
    And who said anything about making foods “illegal”–and what do your scare quotes mean?
    Actually, I don’t really care about that last one.

  17. Bret4207 says:

    You should be able to see where the use of quotation marks adds to the tone of the post. Nothing “scary” about them that I can see.

    I’m a libertarian, right up to legalizing drugs. We part ways there. There are many on the left and moderate Repubs who are are for all things I listed. To be clear- MOST things from the “left” I do oppose. Yup, that’s true. But a practical solution to the rising cost of food isn’t adding TAXES to it. Sorry, can’t buy that idea any more the I can buy the idea Gov’t should be dictating what I eat, purchase, use or enjoy. This is a simple invasion of my free will and choice. You want to smoke or eat till you can’t breathe and weigh 600lbs, fine, go ahead. But the rest of us shouldn’t have to bear the costs of that. The problem is we do and we will more than ever if this crazy health care “reform” keeps moving forward. So what will the answer be to that problem? Less choice, more taxes, less freedom, more costs, more intrusion, less privacy- all for our own good of course.

    Do you follow the line of thinking here? We create these “benefits” or we legislate things to help people and in turn it ends up creating a whole new problem that requires more intervention, regulation and taxation.

    You want kids to lose weight? Turn off the TV, the computer and the Game Box. Send them outside, have them play, wash the car, rake the yard, split wood. Don’t buy the crap food if you don’t want them to eat it. WATER is better for them than soda and cheaper too. Personal responsibility will fix this better than any tax or subsidy.

  18. BSS says:

    I didn’t see hear the NPR report But I want to take on the original premise that the unhealthy foods are cheaper . I just went shopping and oranges were 30 cents-the snickers bar was 89. Hamburger was $3/lbs while the broccoli was 1.49/lbs. I have many other examples.

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