Food Policy

Let Them Eat Cake

Of the many causes of the Great Depression, perhaps none became so engraved in the American memory as the agricultural collapse. Images from the “Dirty Thirties” of poor, migrant-farm-workers wearing tattered clothes and raking dry, barren land haunt the American imagination like specters trapped by unfulfilled promises of prosperity. Likewise, some of the most memorable policies to result from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal programs included agricultural subsidies and market controls. Today, because of policies enacted during the Great Depression, agriculture remains one of the few markets to be left standing amidst the dismal economic climate. While agricultural stability might appear as a triumphant sign of successful government policy, it in fact illustrates corrosive bureaucratic tendencies that threaten to kill the health of American democracy as well as the health of the American people.

During the Great Depression, food insecurity was a major problem. With high levels of unemployment (up to one-fourth of the work force unemployed), many people—even working people—could not afford to purchase enough food to meet dietary minimums, and were on the brink of starvation.[i] Though economic conditions were unfavorable across the entire country, pockets were particularly bad—especially in the South. At the heart of the issue was the sharecropping system, which exploited families by extracting maximum labor out of them while depriving them of access to adequate education, health services, and food.[ii] A voice from the Thirties notes: “The South has been taking a beating for a long time, and the pain and indignity of it is beginning to tell. It can be seen any day now in the lean and hungry faces of men. It means unrest.”[iii] As this person alluded to, the problem was not simply that people were unemployed—people may have been perfectly happy not working. The real problem was that basic human needs were not being met. Unemployment implied inadequate funds to purchase food.

Under pressures to intervene, the United States government established a series of federally sponsored public works projects aimed at stimulating the economy and providing employment. New Deal Policies, such as the Wagner Act, attempted to curb trends in “underconsumption,” by realigning the balance of power in the workplace.[iv] An underlying goal of federal intervention was to enable people to earn enough to eat. As Robert McElvaine explains, “As much as most people might dislike direct relief , there was no immediate alternative if mass misery and even starvation were to be averted.”[v] No historical precedent shed light on the issue or gave people the courage to move forward, resulting in delayed government action. President Hoover’s feeble attempts at intervention were half-hearted at best.

Hoover was a stubborn moralist when it came to the relief of hunger and unemployment. Refusing to commit federal funds to supply basic needs, Hoover argued that local entities should provide relief. Federal involvement, he believed, would strike at ‘the roots of government’ and destroy the ‘character’ of its recipients. Such thinking led him to endorse a $45 million appropriation to feed the livestock of Arkansas farmers during a 1930 drought but to reject a congressional grant of $25 million to provide food for the farmer’s families. Hogs and bankers, it seemed, were in one category, farmers and the unemployed in another. [vi]

In a similarly reductive attitude, Hoover’s Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929 made $500 million available for loans to marketing cooperatives—in theory, to foster efficiency, limit surpluses, and raise prices—but without limits on production, farm prices continued to fall.[vii] Because of Hoover’s lack of an adequate or efficient response, farm incomes plummeted between 1929 and 1932, causing hundreds of thousands of families to lose their farms.[viii]

Once the federal government finally decided to intervene, so much damage had been done to the economy that recovery took exponentially longer. Many remember the New Deal policies as resounding successes. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson cite the reforms as “the paradigmatic example of the politics of renewal,” pointing out that: “Banks were regulated and consumer deposits insured. The securities industry was placed under tight new restrictions. Taxes were levied on the rich and raised over time to fund public programs in support of the unemployed and destitute.”[ix] Undoubtedly, these progressive policy initiatives improved the lives of millions of Americans. In today’s age where ‘No Deal’ has replaced ‘New Deal’ it is easy to recollect FDR’s response to the Great Depression with positive feelings.

Yet the agricultural subsidies that began during the Great Depression, that continue to this day, might be the leading cause of obesity in America. Since the Great Depression, U.S. food policy has been the silent culprit of poor health in America. Many Americans fail to realize the crucial role that the government plays in the food system. Because food is a part of everyday life, perhaps most people consider eating to be mere routine. On the surface, food appears to be a relatively un-controversial subject: people acknowledge that food sustains life and most agree that all people should be fed. For many, the discussion stops there. After all, food seems to be a non-issue, considering that an estimated 85.1 percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2011—meaning that they had access at all times to enough food to support an active, healthy lifestyle for all household members.[x] Until the media highlights food-born illnesses, most people remain quite content mindlessly purchasing the foods they enjoy eating that they can afford.

But the government plays a huge role in determining what food is available, what it costs, and how it is produced. According to Drake University Agricultural Law Center, food policy includes “any legislative or administrative decision made by a government agency, business, or organization which effects how food is produced, processed, distributed, and purchased, designed to influence the operation of the food and agricultural system. This includes the types of foods consumers have access to, information available pertaining to place of origin, and the rules and regulations which influence many aspects of farming.”[xi] Examples of food policy include: the sorts of food offered in public schools; eligibility standards for food assistance programs; safety requirements for food-based business; food ingredient labeling; and Dietary Guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In Congress, food policy most notably takes the form of large, recurring legislative packages commonly known as the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill re-appears at five-year intervals, and contains a long list of provisions or “titles” addressing various areas of food and farm policy. Apart from nutrition assistance programs (such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—more on this later) the biggest titles in the Farm Bill are crop insurance, protecting farmers against the vagaries of weather, and commodity subsidy programs, designed to keep food prices stable and affordable.

Regardless of the government’s actual intention in subsidizing commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, current laws encourage unhealthy eating in several ways.[xii] Subsidies for commodity crops de-incentivize the production of actual food by making insurance essentially unaffordable for smaller non-commodity-crop farmers.[xiii] The inability to afford insurance leaves many vegetable and fruit farmers in a credit squeeze. Most significantly, subsidized corn and soybeans are the major ingredients in junk food, if they’re not first used as cow fodder (side note: Americans’ consumption of meat is ruining their health and the health of the environment)[xiv]. Since 1995, the government has spent $18.2 billion in subsidies to junk food, equating to 21 Twinkies© for every single American throughout that period; contrasted with only $637 million in subsidies going to apples since 1995, or the equivalent of half of one apple per taxpayer.[xv]

At a time when one-in-three kids is overweight or obese, subsidies for high-fructose corn syrup is an offense. Some quick facts on obesity: high-fructose diets impair learning and memory; for each additional can of soda drunk daily, the odds of a child becoming obese increase by about 60%; childhood obesity has quadrupled in the last 40 years; drinking one or two sugary drinks per day increases the risk for type 2 diabetes by 25%; and once an adult problem, diabetes associated with obesity is increasing among children.[xvi] Subsidies not only wreck the health of Americans, but add to the national debt; since 1995, $18 billion has been given away in subsidies to Big Agribusinesses.[xvii]

The government could end costly subsidies on junk food and reallocate the funds to more honest endeavors, such as SNAP. The SNAP program was a part of the 2008 Farm Bill and replaced Food Stamps as the primary means of assisting low- and no-income Americans. In Washington, D.C., and Mississippi, more than one-fifth of residents receive SNAP benefits.[xviii] It operates using Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), which eliminated the costly use of paper coupons, reduced the stigma for program participants, and lowered the rate of trafficking. Yet aside from these improvements, SNAP money essentially feeds corporate lobbyists. SNAP benefits can only be used to purchase food at authorized retailers to be consumed at home, and can never be withdrawn as cash. The law prohibits SNAP benefits from being used in restaurants, though allows states to make exceptions in the case of homelessness or disability (only four have chosen to do so). As a result, 82 percent of benefits were redeemed in supermarkets in 2012.[xix] Food purchased must be prepackaged; SNAP funds cannot be used to purchase hot foods (such as those found in a supermarket deli). As of January 2013, 47.8 million Americans were receiving an average of $132 per month in food assistance, with 23 million households receiving $277 per month.[xx]

In terms of aid given in 1932 to the average family living in New York—roughly $141 adjusted for inflation— recipients today earn slightly more than their early-Depression ancestors.[xxi] SNAP continues to grow each year, offering less money per person as its pool grows.[xxii] Thus, while the program undoubtedly helps in feeding people, it largely benefits corporate supermarkets such as Wal-Mart and large food corporations such as Kraft, and falls drastically short of providing people with enough nutritious food.[xxiii] And if the $74.6 billion spent in food assistance in 2012 sounds like a lot, compare it to the $526.6 billion spent by the Department of Defense.[xxiv]

The USDA reports that all Americans, regardless of income level, could benefit from a diet that focuses more on fruits and vegetables.[xxv] Indeed, unlike during the Great Depression, the rich can suffer from food insecurity right alongside the poor unless they carefully monitor their diet. Yet studies show BMI and wages to be inversely related—meaning those with low wages had an increased BMI and an increased chance of being obese.[xxvi] Other studies document that low-income neighborhoods lack access to healthy, affordable food and have fewer opportunities for physical activity; that low-income people have higher levels of stress, and go through cycles of food deprivation followed by overeating; and that low-income youth and adults have greater exposure to the marketing of obesity-promoting products.[xxvii] While obesity may be more prevalent in lower income groups, the rate of increase in obesity over two decades was faster for higher income groups; for instance, between 1992 and 2008, obesity prevalence increased by 42.3 percent for the lower income group compared to 88.5 percent for the higher income group.[xxviii] This helps explain the recent surge of diet-targeted-advertisements.

Opposite to today’s standards, being skinny during the Great Depression was an unattractive indicator of poverty. The ideal woman had enough money to have some meat on her bones. For example, in a 1930’s advertisement promoting sex appeal (Figure 1), the marketer suggests gaining twenty to thirty pounds. Dozens of products existed claiming to be an easy way to gain bulk, circumventing any work on behalf of the woman, including exercise, overeating, or the wearing of uncomfortable figure-filling-pads.[xxix] Then, the majority of women, being poor and skinny, were made to feel insecure about their body image, and were encouraged to consume figure-altering pills in order to “better” themselves. Food insecurity—more specifically, the lack of food—resulted in skinny people; then as now, the prescription was pills.

Just as in the Great Depression, food insecurity has helped to shape modern body insecurities. However, the problem has essentially been flipped on its head. The problem today is not that people cannot afford food, but rather that the food that is affordable is high in calories and low in nutrients. Yet just because people can afford to eat does not mean their food contains the nutrients needed for optimal health. Loaded with preservatives and packed with fillers, food has been incorporated into a system of mass production, produced as cheaply as possible, and made for the worker who is too busy working multiple jobs to have time to cook food from fresh produce. As workers have been made to work increasing amounts of hours in order to pay the bills, their diets have suffered, resulting in record numbers of obesity—a modern indicator of poverty.

Despite the fact that Mrs. Obama launched the Let’s Move! Campaign in an effort to tackle childhood obesity, amending food policy in the United States proves incredibly challenging. As Occupy Wall Street lamented, the government has been bought by the rich, who seek to benefit their lots at the expense of the American public.[xxx] In 2008, big agribusinesses spent $200 million on lobbying and campaign contributions.[xxxi] Monsanto spent $8.8 million that year alone in lobbying expenditures.[xxxii] Considering the fact that most Americans, despite working hard, do not have enough money to buy their own lobbyist, money’s influence on politics threatens to corrode democracy:

When markets operate in damaging ways, the natural temptation is to turn to politics to correct the imbalance. And yet market participants have strong incentives to resist government regulation and democratic intervention. What’s more, they usually have considerable resources to do so. Without strong protections of political equality, without firewalls between the market and democracy, those who have the most power in the market may also have the most power in politics, undermining the basic ideal on which democracy rests.[xxxiii]

Representatives no longer work for the American public, but for those who can afford to fund their next campaign. Current legislations protect the profits of large industries at the expense of public health. Most people recognize the pharmaceutical industry’s power in government, but many people argue that the agriculture lobby holds the most power in D.C.[xxxiv]  If agribusiness CEOs, their lobbyists, and the politicians in their pockets would disappear, healthy food could easily be more affordable for everyone. Unfortunately, there is no sign of that happening any time soon, meaning that people will most likely go on eating subsidized junk foods, getting sick, racking up medical bills, and either dying or going into debt, or both.

Modern food insecurity, ironically, manifests as obesity. As people continue to work longer hours for less pay, they must resort to low-priced food in order to survive. The food they can afford has, most likely, been made from subsidized commodity crops, and will eventually kill them. Even though they may be twice the size of a healthy person, their bodies lack vital nutrients needed for survival. They are starving to death with full bellies, unlike their Great Depression counterparts who starved with empty bellies. Meanwhile, politicians receive huge paychecks from agribusiness lobbyists, essential paying them to wreck the health of their citizenry, and in doing so, violating the fundamental pillars of democracy: that all people should have equal access to government. Politicians need to stop promoting unhealthy diets, switching “Let them eat cake!” to “Let them eat vegetables!”.


[i] Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1984), p. 338.

[ii] Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, You Have Seen Their Faces. (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1937), p. 6.

[iii] Caldwell & Bourke-White, op. cit., p. 1-2.

[iv] Roy Rosenzweig, Nelson Lichtenstein, Joshua Brown, and David Jaffee. Who Build America? Working People and the Nation’s History. Third Edition. (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008), p. 446.

[v] McElvaine, op. cit., p. 153.

[vi] Rosenzweig, et. al., op. cit., p. 406.

[vii] Ibid., p. 406.

[viii] Ibid., p. 402.

[ix] Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2010), p. 88.

[x] Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews, and Steven Carlson, “Household Food Security in the United States in 2011,” Economic Research Report No, (ERR-141). Sep 2012.

[xi] “Questions Most Frequently Asked About Food Policy Councils,” Drake University. Web accessed May 6, 2013 : http://www.statefoodpolicy.org/?pageID=qanda#WhatIsAFoodPolicy .

[xii] Some might argue the government’s true intention is to service agri-corporations like Monsanto in order to receive campaign financing during their next election.

[xiii] “Ensuring the Harvest: Crop Insurance and Credit for a Healthy Farm and Food Future,” Union of Concerned Scientists. (2012), web accessed May 7, 2013 : http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/solutions/expand-healthy-food-access/ensuring-the-harvest.html .

[xiv] For an example of research proving this, see: Polly Walker, and Robert S. Lawrence, “American Meat: A Threat to Your Health and to the Environment,” Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, Article 12. (2004), web accessed May 7, 2013 : digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjhple/vol4/iss1/12

[xv] “Apples to Twinkies 2012: Comparing Taxpayer Subsidies for Fresh Produce and Junk Food,” U.S. PIRG Education Fund. (July 25, 2012), web accessed May 7, 2013 : http://www.uspirg.org/reports/usp/apples-twinkies-2012 .

[xvi] www.uspirg.org/issues/usp/stop-subsidizing-obesity

[xvii] according to the U.S. Fund for the Public Interest : http://www.uspirg.org/issues/usp/stop-subsidizing-obesity

[xviii] www.fns.usda.gov/ora/SNAPCharacteristics/DC/DC.pdf ; http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/SNAPCharacteristics/Mississippi/Mississippi.pdf .

[xix] “The Facts about SNAP Benefits and Where They are Used,” Food and Nutrition Service: United States Department of Agriculture (Jan. 2013), web accessed May 6, 2013 : http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/rules/Memo/pdfs/Fact%20Sheet_011613.pdf .

[xxi] Data taken from Rosenzweig, et. al., op. cit., p. 408.

[xxii] In October 2010, 43.2 million Americans received an average of $133.75 per month.

[xxiii] In 2012, the USDA allocated an additional $4 million towards establishing more connections with Farmers Markets. The result of this initiative has yet to be seen, because funds did not become available until 2013. For more on this, see : http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/rules/Memo/2012/FM_051112.pdf .

[xxiv] www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2014/assets/defense.pdf .

[xxv] “Diet Quality of Low-Income and Higher Income Americans in 2033-04 as Measured by the Healthy Eating Index-2005,” United States Department of Agriculture: Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. (Dec. 2008), web accessed May 7, 2013 : (www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/NutritionInsights/Insight42.pdf

[xxvi] D. Kim and J.P. Leigh, “Estimating the effects of wages on obesity,” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 52(5), (2010), pp. 495-500.

[xxvii] Claims taken from a variety of research articles chronicled by : “Why Low-Income and Food Insecure People are Vulnerable to Overweight and Obesity,” Food Research & Action Center, web accessed May 7, 2013 : frac.org/initiatives/hunger-and-obesity/why-are-low-income-and-food-insecure-people-vulnerable-to-obesity/ .

[xxviii] G.K. Singh, M. Siahpush, R.A. Hiatt, and L.R. Timsina. “Dramatic increases in obesity and overweight prevalence and body mass index among ethnic-immigrant and social class groups in the United States, 1976-2008,” Journal of Community Health, 36(1), (2011), pp. 94-110.

[xxix] For more examples of advertisements from this era telling women how to avoid looking skinny, see the following website: http://www.marieclairvoyant.com/beauty/body-politics-bloggers/1930s-1950s-ads-tell-women-how-to-avoid-looking-skinny .

[xxx] Voices From the 99 Percent: An Oral History of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, edited by Lenny Flank. (St. Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2011).

[xxxi] www.uspirg.org/issues/usp/stop-subsidizing-obesity

[xxxii] “Lobbying and Advertising: 8 Ways Monsanto Fails at Sustainable Agriculture—#6,” Union of Concerned Scientists. (Jan, 2013), web accessed May 7, 2013 : http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/lobbying-and-advertising.html .

[xxxiii] Hacker and Pierson, op. cit., p. 75.

[xxxiv] “The 9 Foods the U.S. Government is Paying you to Eat,” mercola.com (Aug, 2011), web accessed May 7, 2013 : articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/08/03/the-9-foods-the-us-government-is-paying-you-to-eat.aspx .

Works Cited

“Apples to Twinkies 2012: Comparing Taxpayer Subsidies for Fresh Produce and Junk Food,” U.S. PIRG Education Fund. (July 25, 2012), web accessed.

Caldwell, Erskine and Margaret Bourke-White, You Have Seen Their Faces. (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1937).

Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews, and Steven Carlson, “Household Food Security in the United States in 2011,” Economic Research Report No, (ERR-141). Sep 2012.

“Diet Quality of Low-Income and Higher Income Americans in 2033-04 as Measured by the Healthy Eating Index-2005,” United States Department of Agriculture: Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. (Dec. 2008), web accessed.

“Ensuring the Harvest: Crop Insurance and Credit for a Healthy Farm and Food Future,” Union of Concerned Scientists. (2012), web accessed.

“The Facts about SNAP Benefits and Where They are Used,” Food and Nutrition Service: United States Department of Agriculture (Jan. 2013), web accessed.

Hacker, Jacob S. and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2010).

Kim, D., and J.P. Leigh, “Estimating the effects of wages on obesity,” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 52(5), (2010), pp. 495-500.

“Lobbying and Advertising: 8 Ways Monsanto Fails at Sustainable Agriculture—#6,” Union of Concerned Scientists. (Jan, 2013).

McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1984).

“Questions Most Frequently Asked About Food Policy Councils,” Drake University. Web accessed.

Rosenzweig, Roy, Nelson Lichtenstein, Joshua Brown, and David Jaffee. Who Build America? Working People and the Nation’s History. Third Edition. (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008).

Singh, G.K.,M. Siahpush, R.A. Hiatt, and L.R. Timsina. “Dramatic increases in obesity and overweight prevalence and body mass index among ethnic-immigrant and social class groups in the United States, 1976-2008,” Journal of Community Health, 36(1), (2011), pp. 94-110.

Voices From the 99 Percent: An Oral History of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, edited by Lenny Flank. (St. Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2011).

Walker, Polly, and Robert S. Lawrence, “American Meat: A Threat to Your Health and to the Environment,” Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics: 4.1.12. (2004).

“Why Low-Income and Food Insecure People are Vulnerable to Overweight and Obesity,” Food Research & Action Center. Web accessed.

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