Cut the Bloat: Ours as Well as Washington’s


The intersection between government policy and food has been a hot topic these days. At the same time, President Obama and Republicans in Washington are engaged in a struggle over how to resolve trillion-dollar annual deficits. The two are connected.

Needless to say, there is no single or simple and certainly no painless solution to our deficit problem. The good news, however is that getting the federal government out of the food subsidization and distribution business would be good not only for our bloated government, but good for our bloated waistlines as well.

Even in the budgetary never-neverland that is Washington, $16 billion in annual spending is real money. This is the amount the federal government gives out every year in agriculture subsidies. Under current law, a vast majority of those subsidies are given to corn for meat production, with wheat, rice, dairy, and sugar all receiving significant subsidies. Notice the absence of subsidies for fruits and vegetables.

Congress supports these crops, not in support of the public interest or because of any particular logic. Rather, big-commodity agriculture has the money to pay for lobbyists while actual “family farmers” don’t.

Agriculture subsidies are not the only way in which the federal government manipulates food policies for the worse. According to a recent report from the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, the federal government’s school lunch program contributes to childhood obesity.

Similar concerns have been raised about the federal food stamp program including a report by Jay Zagorsky, a scientist at Ohio State University, who calculated that, controlling for socioeconomic status, women who received food stamps were more likely to be overweight than non-recipients. They gained weight faster while receiving assistance than when not.

Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget would block grant food stamps (known as SNAP) at an annual savings of $12.7 billion over the next 10 years, thus allowing the states to manage their own food stamp programs. Similar policies could and should be applied to the school lunch program as well.

Block grants, while they generate outrage from those who benefit from the status quo, would allow states to experiment and attempt new models that have had great success, for example in welfare. According to the USA Today, In the 12 years since caseloads peaked at 5.1 million families in 1994, millions have left the welfare rolls for jobs. Earnings for the poorest 40 percent of families headed by women doubled from 1994 to 2000, before recession wiped out nearly half the gains. Poverty rates for children fell 25 percent before rising 10 percent since 2000.

Simply put, the same thing can happen to food welfare programs. Again, these reforms can be “win-win.” We simply don’t have the money as a nation to continue them in their current form. Giving states more flexibility to manage their own affairs could result in reduced obesity and overall nutrition improvement.

Smoking cigarettes used to be the number-one preventable health risk factor in America. Now it is obesity. Today, one in 10 Americans is diabetic. If current trends continue, that number will be one in three by 2050. Some researchers estimate that one third of all expenses for health care service can be linked to obesity.

Statistics show that obesity is concentrated in the poorer segments of our population. Two reason for this are 1) unhealthy foods are cheaper and more available; and 2) the vast majority of mainstream media advertising by ‘Big Food’ entices people to eat highly processed, sugar-laden, preservative-added foods.

A reduction is our peoples’ waistlines would not only cut costs of health care but would increase national productivity. To put it bluntly and in the most politically incorrect phrasing possible, who is more productive: an American weighing 400 pounds who has diabetes and cannot stand for long because his knees need replacement, or a 125-pound Asian man who hasn’t seen a doctor in years?

Obesity stands intersection of fiscal policy and health policy. At present, Washington is subsidizing ‘Big Food’ to addict us to foods that make us obese. We believe that individual choice must be preserved in a free society, but under a block grant proposal states would have the freedom to experiment with innovative ways to promote health, including the promotion of fruits and vegetables. Imagine the impact on those receiving government food support if apples were cheaper, more available and more attractive than Cheetos.

Policymakers can reform the federal role as it relates to food, thus creating a win-win in reduced costs and increased productivity.

Paul Gessing is the president and Deane Waldman, MD-MBA, is on the board of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.