We all want to eat healthy, right?
We know that fruits and vegetables are good for us, and that organic is even better. We know that junk food, fast food and packaged, processed foods are not so good for us. Generally, most of us are aware of this.
But we’re at the supermarket, and we can’t fail to notice how that head of cauliflower is four times the amount of the veggie flavoured rice cakes. We move to the snack section, noting that the organic cashew bites are twice the price of the Quaker granola bars – and that the amount of granola bars in the box is twice that of the cashew bites. And then on to the frozen aisle, where we note that the Dannon sugar filled yogurt is a fraction of the cost of the organic coconut kefir.
It’s not always easy to shop mindfully when the price of junk food (yes, granola bars are junk food) is often a fraction of the price of higher quality, environmentally friendly and ethically sourced goods.
What many of us are unaware of, however, is how the government is not making it any easier.
Despite their daily recommendation that 50 percent of what’s on our plates should be fruit and vegetables, they are in fact putting their dollars in the opposite direction.
The government spent $277 billion in agricultural subsidies between 1995 and 2011 on seven types of crops and farm foods: rice, corn, wheat, soybeans, milk, meat and sorghum.
That doesn’t so bad, right? Corn is supposed to be healthy, isn’t it?
Unfortunately only a fraction of the seven types of crops are actually eaten as is. Most of them go through heavy processing – pummelled with preservatives, chemicals and other refining processes, your original rice, corn and soybeans are thus converted into additives like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oils and refined corn starch.
Voila – your ‘food’ is thus transformed into ‘junk food’!
The initial intention with the subsidies was to help support struggling farmers and to protect against food shortages. Sadly, the original intent has gone wayside, with farmers getting less than 15 percent of the subsidy and the rest of it going towards the advertising, packaging, processing and shipping of the product.
For example, if the price of corn doubles, the price of cornflakes may only go up 10 percent. Many economists argue that the cardboard box costs more than the corn inside the box. Eighty five percent of what we pay for food has nothing to do with commodity prices.
If we take a look at the subsidy program, we can see how it is further skewed:
Small farmers who grow fruits, nuts and vegetables represent three quarters of the country’s cropland but receive just fourteen percent of government subsides, while large agribusinesses that specialize in growing the major commodity crops – aka, junk food crops – represent only seven percent of the cropland but receive about half of all subsidies.
Another way to look at it: if subsidies went directly to American taxpayers, it would work out to $7.58 to spend on junk food and 27 cents to spend on an apple each – enough to buy 21 Twinkies but just half of one Red Delicious apple.
Though it was not the subsidy program’s initial intent, it is inadvertently a great strategy to make sure junk foods are cheap and plentiful.
We’re in a time where almost three quarters of the country is overweight or obese and the risk of diabetes, cardiac disease and cholesterol related illnesses are rising, which is ultimately costing the health care system – and yet we’re funding junk food subsidies.
As taxpayers, we are paying for the privilege of making our country sick.
There is clearly a disconnect between the nation’s health and nutritional recommendations and the agricultural policies.
A big part of the problem also comes down to consumer education and the marketing of unhealthy food (remember how only 15 percent of that box of cornflakes is for corn, but the rest goes in to the advertising – the getting you to buy it).
Here’s where we can do something about it:
- Get your fruit and vegetables from farmer’s markets. That way you know your money is going directly towards the farmer, and is also saving on wasteful packaging. Bring your re-usable canvas bags to stock up each week. Jams, nuts, baked goods and other snacks can also be found at these local market gems. And don’t forget to invite friends and family along too!
2. Support locally sourced organisations and community agriculture programs to get other products like rice, pasta and ethically sourced meats (if you can’t find them at the farmer’s market, that is).
3. Eat as many whole foods as possible – ie, if it doesn’t have a package or a label (aka, fruits and vegetables), then it is most likely a whole food. If having foods that do come with a label, challenge yourself to find foods with the fewest ingredients.
4. Find more ways to get involved in your community about healthy food initiatives and policies. Talk to your local government rep about the food and agricultural policies in your district.
5. Spread mindful consumer education. People are more likely to make mindful choices if they know the why behind it. Health is not merely what we put in to our mouths – it includes education and empowering others to make choices that reflect maximum vitality.
Practicing mindful consumerism and challenging the current agriculture and food marketing system can be done one step at a time.
Bite by bite, we can practice putting our money where our mouths are.
Originally published on Elephant Journal.