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Bachmann Controversy Raises Larger Farm Subsidies Question

By Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.
July 20, 2011

They’re calling her the “farm welfare queen.” Members of the media say that while Congresswoman Michele Bachmann calls for deep spending cuts, she and her family seem to have received tens of thousands of dollars in federal farm subsidies.

Bachmann’s detractors and defenders have debated this issue for weeks. But as a nutrition researcher deeply concerned about the food being grown for America’s tables, I think there’s a more important question at stake: Is it time to overhaul taxpayer-funded farm subsidies—or even end them altogether?

Whatever payments Bachmann may have received, the vast majority of subsidies go to extremely wealthy farmers who do not need them. And most subsidies either directly or indirectly support the production of foods that contribute to our nation’s already high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems.

Our current system of agricultural subsidies stems from efforts to stabilize very small family farms during the Great Depression. America’s farms have changed dramatically since then. But the subsidy system has not evolved to take those changes into account. Eighty years after the Depression, the vast majority of food is produced by big corporations or other major operations that should be able to withstand changes in crop prices.

In 1932, there were 6.7 million farms, with a quarter of the population farming. In 2002, about 2 percent of the population was involved in farming, and there were about 2.1 million farms. Despite this massive shift, the government continues to hand out billions of dollars every year to massive farming operations.

Between 1995 and 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributed more than $246 billion in subsidies. Ten percent of subsidized farms—the largest and wealthiest operations—have raked in about three-quarters of all subsidy payments, according to the Environmental Working Group’s analysis of federal data.

We see similar stagnation in the federal government’s advice about nutrition and decisions about which foods to subsidize and funnel into school lunch lines. In 1933, the government issued family food plans specifying which foods to eat at different cost levels, aiming to prevent malnutrition or starvation. The government also initiated the school lunch program in the 1930s with two goals: to prevent nutritional deficiencies among children, and to dispose of agricultural commodities.

The government was careful to support farmers producing meat, dairy products, and other foods high in fat to help fight hunger. Today, our nation’s main nutrition issue is not hunger—it’s obesity. One in three Americans is overweight or obese, and low-income populations are much more likely to suffer from these and other diet-related chronic diseases. But the subsidy system still supports the production of those same high-fat foods.

It’s clear that we don’t need any more cheeseburgers or sausages in our diets. The USDA has finally put out a new food diagram recommending that Americans fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables to help fight obesity and stay healthy. But less than 1 percent of agricultural subsidies for domestic food products in recent history have supported fruit and vegetable production. More than 60 percent have directly and indirectly supported meat and dairy production.

Government officials need to look at the big picture of food, nutrition, and health in our nation. It’s not wealthy agribusiness corporations that need help—it’s consumers. Many people in low-income areas don’t have access to fresh, healthful foods. Cash-strapped school lunch programs are forced to keep feeding kids pepperoni pizza, hot dogs, and other unhealthy foods that put young people at risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other serious health problems.

Congress needs to end agricultural subsidies or reform them so they address our nation’s current health crisis—not one we experienced nearly a century ago.

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., is the director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.

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