August 25, 2007

Influence Of Laws And Us Department Of Agriculture Rules On Dietary Habits

The more I have studied the issue of obesity, the more convinced I am that one of the highest leverage points in attacking the problem is getting agricultural food subsidies changed.

We tend to blame individuals for their eating habits, particularly obese poor people. What we fail to take into account is the extent to which their eating habits are dictated by the relative costs of different foods, particularly the costs of unhealthy vs. healthy foods. We fail to understand that both the availability and cost of foods is heavily influenced bylong-standing agricultural subsidies baked into federal laws and U.S. Department of Agricultural regulations.

I first learned about this in reading an article in my local newspaper, the Darien Times, about a lecture in Westport, Connecticut, at which Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, among others, commented on the influence of agricultural subsidies on producing more sugar and grain-based foods. She and others commented that fruits and vegetables are considered “specialty foods” which are not given subsidies and therefore more expensive.

However, beyond what was discussed at that lecture, there are specific agricultural regulations that affect what shows up in our schools through school lunch programs. Much of the unhealthy food our children are forced to eat during required school attendance is driven by Department of Agriculture policies that increase the use of grains and sugars in lunchtime meals. I suspect that the same problem probably applies to breakfasts as well.

The author Marion Nestle, in her well-written and informative book Food Politics, extensively documents how much politics dictates subsidies and, therefore, what many Americans eat. In fact, she goes beyond that and points out that the food pyramid which is used to help all of us guide what we eat is also heavily shaped by political lobbying.

It’s about time that we start to look more closely at the damage these subsidies are doing to our health and to the health of our children. We do not have the luxury of ignoring this problem any longer.