Are your tax dollars making America fat?

Photo courtesy the USPRIG depicts the proportions and priorities of government subsidies.
Photo courtesy the USPRIG depicts the proportions and priorities of government subsidies.

Taxpayers have subsidized $19.2 billion dollars of junk food ingredients in the last 18 years, a new report found. During that same period, $689 million subsidized apple crops (and only a third of that subsidizes fresh apples.)

Put simply: If you gave these subsidies back to the taxpayers, earmarked for the same purchases, 146 million Americans could buy 20 Twinkies each and just half an apple each year, according to a Tuesday report by U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups. U.S. PIRG, an advocacy group that acts as a consumer watchdog, blames the priorities of the subsidies on lobbying by the big agricultural corporations.

More than a third of all American adults are obese, but many of the subsidized crops—particularly corn and soy—contribute to the health problems and healthcare costs associated with obesity.

Since 1995, $8.1 billion was spent funding the production of corn starch and sweeteners, widely regarded as a driving force in our nation’s obesity epidemic. Obesity costs Americans nearly $200 billion a year—20% of the nation’s healthcare costs, according to a 2012 report in the Journal of Health Economics.

“There is a huge discrepancy between what the government suggests we eat and what they subsidize,” the report writes. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that fruits and vegetables make up half of every plate of food.)

It “just doesn’t make sense,” report author Dan Smith said. “Obesity is a complex problem and there are lots of different solutions out there, but what most folks should be able to agree on is we shouldn’t be making the problems worse with our tax dollars.”

The farm bill squeaked through the House and cut out the food stamp program from the bill. Advocates celebrate the bill for cutting some subsidies, but critics pointed out that others were added, limiting the savings. The bill is expected to cost $195 billion over ten years. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation slammed the spending as even more lavish than previous years’ bills.

Smith said agricultural business lobbyists were the reason subsidies stayed strong.

“The ag lobbyists get very good bang for their buck,” Smith said. “They spend millions and they get billions in subsidies.”

The report also found that the vast majority of subsidies went to a select few farms, leaving 62% of farms without subsidies at all. Of the $292.5 billion of farm subsidies issued in the last 18 years, 3.8% of farms collected $178.5 billion.

During debate of the farm bill the floor of the Senate, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn painted a stark picture of how profitable farmers are funded by subsidies.

“The number one farmer in the country gets $1.9 million worth of subsidies a year,” he said on the Senate floor. “All we’re going to do is cut his subsidy to $1.6 million.”