It seems obvious to anyone who's ever paid money for something: Make things cheaper, especially things people absolutely need, and you'll sell more of them. And yet it seems the U.S. government has yet to grasp that lesson. For decades now, America has been struggling with rising obesity, but rather than invest in subsidizing healthy foods for citizens, the government has instead dumped tens of billions of dollars into corn subsidies. What that's done is give rise to vast stockpiles of corn syrup, corn chips and soda, all on the taxpayer's dime. Whereas more than $15 billion in subsidies went to corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans in 2009, only $825 million went to fruits and vegetables. We're not just getting fat, we're paying to do so out of both hands (once with our taxes and once at the store).
A new report (PDF) from the U.S.D.A.'s Economic Research Service outlines exactly how damaging these subsidies are on America's children. Working on behalf of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign against youth obesity, a team was able to ascertain that just a 10-percent decrease in the price of lowfat milk for one quarter was associated with a .35-percent drop in children's BMIs. Similarly, lowering the cost of dark green vegetables by 10 percent saw a .28-percent BMI drop. And the effect worked both ways: When the price of sweets fell, BMIs increased.
It's important to note that BMI is often attacked as a bad way to measure a person's health, but until there's a better metric that can be applied generally in these types of studies, BMI will have to do. Also, if you're thinking that a .35-percent drop doesn't seem like a lot of weight, you're right. But it's an important start, and one whose impact could be larger if we enacted subsidies cutting health-food prices by more than just 10 percent.
Let this be a reminder that poor people, who are more overweight than the wealthy, shouldn't be written off as pigs who stuff their kids full of empty calories every night. The simple fact is that unhealthy food costs less, and cost is of primary importance when you're on a very limited budget.