New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent proposal to ban sugary drinks in certain forms and sizes has created quite a stir across the country. It was formally submitted to NYC’s Board of Health for a review and comment period before it can be made official. Whether or not it succeeds, it has created a lot of debate on all sides of the issue, and generated discussion around other important and related topics such as food choices, obesity and personal freedom.
We can all agree that having the ability to make our own decisions is crucial for personal freedom and successful democracy. In order to make decisions, there need to be options. But when it comes to food, geography and socio-economics often dictate what your options are, thereby limiting choice. The cheapest and most easily accessible calories are the most unhealthy. Whether it's a burger, fries, and soda from a fast food chain or chips and candy bars from a vending machine, your body will not thank you for their consumption. There is a fast food chain in even the smallest and most obscure corners of our country. When it comes to urban areas, the less wealthy neighborhoods are littered with bodegas, but you would struggle to find a Whole Foods supermarket (or the equivalent thereof). It is a seriously uphill battle to find healthier and affordable options. Yet much of this situation can be attributed to government subsidies.
When it comes to food, most government policies overwhelmingly favor big agribusiness. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year to influence government policy, and it has been successful. Corn and soy are two of the largest crops grown and the largest subsidy recipients. Most of the crops go to livestock feed, while some goes to create high fructose corn syrup and other similar processed food additives. Cheap livestock feed means more animals, which creates meat and dairy products that are artificially cheaper than they should be and thus more frequently consumed than they should be, while cheap corn syrup does the same for soda, candy and chips.
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, "63% of domestic food subsidies supported crops grown for feed or livestock directly." Less than 1 percent was spent on fruit and vegetable subsidies. Graphic courtesy of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. It should be common sense that eating more plant based foods is better for your health; in case it isn't, the USDA's Dietary Guidelines make this recommendation. If subsidies were allocated differently, perhaps the local bodega would carry local produce instead of factory processed junk food, or a salad would be cheaper than a burger at your local fast food chain.
Policy makers need to ignore the lobbyists and create policies that make sense for the public and public health. Preventive medicine is the cheapest health care, and eating well would go a long way to reduce health care costs. Citizens need to get informed and make better food decisions when possible, and sometimes that will mean going out of your way or spending more than you would like.