20 Twinkies a day in junk-food commodity subsidies, study claims

A 2013 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group looks at federal commodity subsidies for crops. Photo courtesy of VPIRG
A 2013 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group looks at federal commodity subsidies for crops. Photo courtesy of VPIRG

When it comes to agriculture subsidies, the American diet – half an apple for every 20 Twinkies — isn’t very healthy.

Each year Vermont taxpayers pay more than $2 million toward federal commodity subsidies that support the chief ingredients in junk food, a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group says.

The study, “Apples to Twinkies 2013,” was released Tuesday and the name refers to the ratio between agricultural subsidies for fresh fruit compared to subsidies for commodities used to make processed food.

The study shows that Vermont residents’ share of junk food subsidies is about $2,127,159 each year on average, compared with just $76,334 in subsidies for apples.

If you look to the rest of the country, between 1995 and 2012, $19 billion in federal taxes were spent to subsidize farmers who grow the primary product used to make the four common food additives: corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch and soy oils. The amount spent per capita would buy each U.S. taxpayer 20 Twinkies a year.

In comparison, the subsidies for apples, one of the few fruits or vegetables subsidized with federal taxes, would buy each taxpayer less than one-half of a red delicious apple a year. Between 1995 and 2012, $689 million was spent to subsidize apple farmers, according to the report.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that half of the food on Americans’ plates should come from fruit and vegetables, but farmers who grow fruit and vegetables rarely receive federal subsidies.

“Our food policy has become so distorted that we’re actually using tax dollars to subsidize junk food,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Another point brought up in the study is the concentration of funding — 75 percent of commodity subsidies go to 3.8 percent of America’s farmers. Of a total of $290 billion in agricultural subsidies, $84.4 billion went to corn; $35.5 billion to wheat; and $27.8 billion to soy, according to the study.

Burns describes the high concentration of subsidies as a testament to the influence large agribusiness has in Washington.

Not much of that money finds its way back to Vermont, where only one in five farms receive federal subsidies, mainly for livestock or corn.

“Vermont farmers are scraping to get by and if we should give subsidies, it should be to these farmers,” Burns said.

The House farm bill that was passed last week did not include any major changes in direct commodity subsidies.

Rep. Peter Welch did not support the bill. His main objections were that the dairy security section was stripped and deep cuts were made in nutrition programs, said Ryan Nickel, Welch’s spokesperson.

However, the congressman does not support subsidies for commodities used to make food additives.

“Getting healthy local food from farm to table is an important Vermont initiative,” Nickel said in an email. “He (Welch) does not support direct payments for commodities such as corn, which is the main ingredient in many unhealthy foods.”

Burns said Vermont’s delegation is doing the best it can in Congress.

“We recognize that Senators Leahy and Sanders and Congressman Welch face difficult odds in trying to build support for a sensible Farm Bill and we applaud their efforts,” said Burns. “As they work to forge compromise across a partisan divide, we urge them to seek an end to these wasteful subsidies – something on which people of all political stripes seem to agree.”

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  • Hilton Dier

    Relax, Mr. Rich. No cash withdrawals are possible. From the USDA website:

    You CAN use SNAP benefits to buy:

    Foods for the household to eat, such as:
    breads and cereals
    fruits and vegetables
    meats, fish and poultry; and
    dairy products
    Seeds and plants to produce food for the household to eat

    You CANNOT use SNAP benefits to buy:

    Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco
    Any nonfood items, such as pet foods, soaps, paper products, diapers, and household supplies
    Vitamins and medicines
    Food that will be eaten in the store
    Hot foods

    I suppose SNAP recipients can buy junk food. I buy junk food myself sometimes. It shouldn’t be a big portion of anybody’s diet, but I wouldn’t call it waste, fraud, and abuse.

    Just as a comparison, last year we spent $74 billion on food assistance to women with dependent children. (The benefit is $133 a month. Whoopee.) At the same time we spent at least twice that much subsidizing the oil companies. We recently spent over 10 times as much bailing out corrupt banks. We spent over twice that much on one military program, the Future Combat System, before it was scrapped as useless. I don’t lose sleep over feeding poor kids.

    • Fred Woogmaster

      Mr. Dier: Thank you for your comment and the information you have provided.

      Mr. Rich: What is your response to that information?

  • Amelia Silver

    Hilton Dier is right. And the “real waste, fraud and abuse” are not in the money we pay for food stamps, contrary to what Mr. Rich says. The extreme imbalance in the government’s subsidization of ‘junk food crops’ compared to fruit and vegetable crops is genuinely shocking. Vermont farmers and citizens (at least, and everyone else in the country as well) should be demonstrating in Washington about this. Is VPIRG or any organization disseminating these dreadful facts and organizing a mass protest? I’ll sign up. This story illuminates again, as if we needed any more examples, how profoundly our republic has been co-opted, hijacked, and destroyed by corporate interests.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    The prejudice against the poor is so widespread. Old myths never die. The welfare mother driving up to the welfare office in her Cadillac… using ‘food stamps’ to buy drugs, beer, booze…

    Relax already. The rules are so severe that if a person uses a $3. farm coupon to buy a head of lettuce for $2.75, the farmer is not legally allowed to give the poor mother the 25 cents in change. She might use it to go to the Riviera on vacation.