Trimming the Fat Off Fast Food Subsidies?

If you’re like a lot of Americans, you just made a New Year’s resolution to eat more healthily in 2011, possibly by swearing off fast food. But guess what? The U.S. government is using your own tax dollars to undermine those good intentions. The New York Times recently reported that an organization called Dairy Management, created and funded in part by the United States Department of Agriculture, spent $12 million helping Domino’s design and market its new “Wisconsin 6 cheese” pizza. This monstrosity offers four varieties of cheese on top, two more in the crust, and fully a third of the average daily serving of saturated fat in one slice.

Dairy Management is charged with getting rid of the nation’s cheese surplus, a surplus due to overly productive dairy farmers, and also to changes in consumer taste. Prodded by public health campaigns over the years, American consumers increasingly opt for low-fat milk. This results in vast residues of milk fat skimmed from the nation’s dairy supply, which are then processed into cheese … that the USDA sees fit to market. In addition to the “Wisconsin 6 cheese” pizza, Dairy Management has also helped develop Burger King’s “Cheesy Angus” bacon cheeseburger (10 grams of saturated fat – half your daily serving) and Taco Bell’s steak quesadilla (12 grams of saturated fat).

This is, of course, government waste at its finest. Michelle Obama wages a war against childhood obesity, while the Department of Agriculture (also part of the executive branch) is busy helping expand the frontiers of fast food extravagance. USDA policy here is not only counterproductive and inane, I’d like to submit, but also cruel.

A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation last year ranked the states according to obesity rates, and revealed that our thinnest state in 2010 (Colorado) has a higher rate of obesity than our fattest state in 1991 (Mississippi, which still ranks No. 1). This is mind-boggling — especially when you consider how the past two decades have seen a boom in diet products, exercise crazes, competing diet regimes and general calorie consciousness. What is going on here?

A good deal of blame is owed to our long-standing, wrongheaded federal farm policy, of which Dairy Management is only the latest and most grotesque symptom. Our government has long subsidized overproduction of corn and soy, the building blocks of processed and fast food. As a result, the number and variety of those foods have proliferated over the years, and the cost to consumers seems to plummet ever lower.

Nearly every fast-food chain offers a dollar menu these days. Wendy’s includes a double cheeseburger for 99 cents. Burger King offers a four-patty burger for under $5 (the “BK quad stacker”) – with 28 grams of saturated fat. The 7-Eleven’s shelves are weighed down with two-liter sodas, often on sale for less than a dollar apiece. Thanks to our farm policy, cheap calories rush at the consumer from all sides, and unfortunately they are too often the wrong kinds of calories. Fruits and vegetables are not privy to the same government generosity as corn and soy.

It’s no wonder, then, why low-income families opt for processed and fast foods – especially in a recession. This also explains why we are the first society in history whose poor suffer disproportionately high levels of diabetes, obesity and hypertension, formerly afflictions of the overindulgent upper classes. Furthermore, it’s a travesty that these afflictions bear down on those most likely to lack health insurance.

Beyond the poor, though, we are growing fatter as a nation. Nearly every socioeconomic group in America is seeing a rise in health concerns due to diets high in fat, sugar and sodium. And if these health concerns are not enough to get everyone’s attention, perhaps the budgetary implications will.

As the new session of Congress opens, members of Congress and the president are engaged in a showdown over spending reforms to reduce the federal budget. Hot-button topics include expiring tax cuts and trimming military expenditures. Federal food and farm policy gets hardly a mention, probably because that spending is diffuse and difficult to put a finger on; also because the farm bill, for example, is relatively modest in the scheme of things ($288 billion over five years).

But this policy has dire ramifications down the line.  It clearly impacts the fortunes of Medicare and Medicaid, which already strain the federal budget and are forecast to expand as the Baby Boomers move into old age (the first boomers turned 65 this week). Budgetary negotiations will be a long, bloody process, no doubt, but reforming food and farm policy would make for a healthy start – and a New Year’s resolution that we can all stand behind.??

FIRMIN DeBRABANDER is a Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.