Little Falls Community High School
Little Falls, Minnesota
“Dinnertime!” shouts mom as the kids come running downstairs to get their eats. “Let’s see,” she adds, “I’ve made some pork tenderloin with a baked potato and a side of broccoli and cauliflower.” There’s mom, dad, 2.5 kids, and the dog all gathered around the dinner table for a nutritious home-cooked meal. If only, if only. Today, mom, dad, and the kids all have their own busy work and school schedules and can’t possibly be together at the same time for a home-cooked meal. Instead, mom and dad grab a coffee and scone from Starbucks while the kids hop over to McDonald’s for a Big and Tasty. The whole family is eating well-preserved, well-fattened, processed food loaded with artificial flavorings and additives. With their stomachs full, the family sees each other just as they go to bed only to wake and repeat the rat race all over again. Scenes such as this play out all across the nation today as cheap and easy fast food purveyors pop up at every exit ramp and buttons pop on pairs of pants. Consumers can be incentivized to make healthier choices while being provided access to information necessary for a sound economic decision.
A walk down a grocery store aisle reveals the multitude of choices a shopper faces. There are goods that are canned, boxed, frozen, and dehydrated all for the consumer’s convenience. However, such convenience comes with a very high cost in both nutritional value and social costs. Convenient, processed foods are cheaply produced because of their readily available ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, an artificial sweetener and preservative. With the scarcity of sugar resources in this country, food makers have turned to this alternative made from a crop grown in abundance close to home. The New York Times reported that the 2002 farm bill appropriated $67.6 billion to subsidize the planting of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton while fruit and vegetable growers received no subsidies. Subsidized agriculture has helped make high fructose corn syrup inexpensive for use in nearly all beverages and processed foods. The article also cites a study by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy which discovered that fruit and vegetable prices have risen about forty percent from 1985 to 2000 whereas soft drink prices fell by twenty-five percent. The subsidization of corn for high fructose corn syrup has driven down the cost of producing unhealthy snacks while fruits and vegetables have been allowed to rise in price, thus rendering them unaffordable for many Americans. Subsidies are necessary for affordable food, but the priority needs to be redirected toward enhancing public health by making natural produce less expensive. Consumers will respond positively when healthy choices become affordable.
In addition to promoting healthy eating with lower costs, government can recover some of the negative spillover effects of poor food choices. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine proposed an excise tax on all beverages containing caloric sweetener to the tune of one cent per ounce in order to reflect the true cost of unhealthy choices on the rest of society. Consumers make a rational choice based on the price of the product relative to their needs. Choosing inexpensive soda pop over orange juice, which can vary in price greatly, is a rational decision. However, the prolonged consumption of soda pop and other inexpensive snack food has far more negative health impacts. These contribute directly or indirectly to such problems as tooth decay and obesity, especially among children. An excise tax would lay the burden on producers and consumers as both are contributing to a culture which accepts poor nutritional standards. This tax on beverages is one step toward recovering at least some of the costs society bears from everyone’s unhealthy choices. Often, these costs manifest themselves in the form of higher health insurance premiums and the over-utilization of shrinking health service resources. By taxing unhealthy choices, government can internalize their negative effects and allocate the revenues toward investing in the future of the nation’s health, especially by educating youth.
Childhood obesity can be considered the gateway drug to adult health issues. As reported by the journal American Family Physician, diseases once seen only in adults are now appearing in children. The report points to a terrible trend; type 2 diabetes now accounts for over half of the new cases of diabetes reported in children. In addition, obese children are very likely to become obese adults where the risk is higher for cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, and hypertension. Obesity is developing earlier life; therefore, prevention needs to be focused on the young. After-school activities such as sports and clubs have been facing the budget ax in recent years. State and local governments have seen funds dwindle for health and gym classes. Increased revenue from a sin tax on artificially sweetened beverages and high-fat foods can be allocated to this cause. Even if consumption is not curtailed by the tax, at least consumers will be paying a price closer to the true cost of their unhealthy decisions.
The family once again settles down to a home-cooked meal where all the major food groups are represented. Father carves the tenderloin as mother and children look on eagerly. In reality, society will never return to the idyllic scenes of the past. What can change, however, is a new incentive for parents to purchase healthy foods while children learn the virtues and follies of what they choose to eat. Americans are known for their healthy love of eating but someday can be known for their love of healthy eating.
Brownell, Kelly D., Thomas Farley, Walter C. Willet, Barry M. Popkin, Frank J. Chaloupka, Joseph W. Thompson and David S. Ludwig. “The Public Health and Economic Benefits of Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages.” New England Journal of Medicine 361.16 (2009). Web. 14 Mar. 2010.
Burros, Marian. “The Debate Over Subsidizing Snacks.” The New York Times 4 July 2007. Web. 14 Mar. 2010.
Rao, Goutham. “Childhood Obesity: Highlights of AMA Expert Committee Recommendations.” American Family Physician 78.1 (2008). Web. 15 Mar. 2010.