Bittman: Tax soda, subsidize vegetables

Foodie superstar Mark Bittman has a sensible idea that I’m sure is going to cause all kinds of hyperventilating about “nanny state” this and “I choose my choice!” that:

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

And lest you think he’s proposing some kind of prohibitive $10-a-pack-of-smokes type tax:

Sweetened drinks could be taxed at 2 cents per ounce, so a six-pack of Pepsi would cost $1.44 more than it does now. An equivalent tax on fries might be 50 cents per serving; a quarter extra for a doughnut.

So it’s not like anyone who wants to eat fries or drink a soda would be all that put out.  Besides, the cost of these things has already been going up, as have the costs of all foods.  I’m not the biggest soda-drinker, but I do have times when I would cut a bitch for a Diet Coke over ice with lemon, and I’ve seen the cost of a 16 oz. bottle of soda creep up steadily over the years.

(The cost hasn’t actually been a deterrent for me.  Instead, I found myself cutting back on full-sugar soda when I started running and I realized that I had to run two miles to burn off one 16-ounce bottle of soda.  Two miles for one soda.  It was a nice little dose of perspective.)

I’m more interested in this part of the equation:

Simply put: taxes would reduce consumption of unhealthful foods and generate billions of dollars annually. That money could be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.

Anyone with even a basic understanding of food politics in this country knows that the biggest issue with nutrition is not desire or education as much as it is access.  Consider St. Petersburg, where I’ve lived and worked for the past decade.   Midtown, which is a predominantly black and economically depressed part of town, did not have an actual grocery store for decades despite high demand, until a Sweetbay opened in 2005.

Economic analysts said the Midtown area could have supported three supermarkets, yet there was only one, on the northern edge of the neighborhood:

Thursday’s festive celebration belied the difficult effort to attract a grocery store. For years, city officials hoped market forces would attract one. The government poured more than $100-million to erect schools, a library and a health center.

But when no major chain grocery store was willing to open in Midtown, [Mayor Rick] Baker assembled land to make the location more attractive to private development.

See that?  Government – a Republican mayor, no less – had to step in to make this happen, because “market forces” were not cutting it.  Market forces, which are practically a religion in this country, failed to respond, even though an actual market was there and waiting to be served.  But until this happened, the residents of this part of town had to either leave the area, which can be difficult when  you don’t have a car and have to rely on notoriously underfunded public transportation, or they had to shop at corner stores.

This kind of behind-the-scenes engineering of demand-and-supply Bittman is promoting is not a new thing, and in fact has been in place since at least the Depression, when the government began subsidizing corn, wheat, soybeans, etc.  Those subsidies remain in place, and the result is that we are now flooded with products that consist of these things in one way or another.

(Seriously, you want to freak yourself out?  Go check out the labels of any packaged foods in your pantry or fridge and tell me how many of those products contain corn or soybeans.  I did this when doing research for my undergraduate thesis on media coverage of corn ethanol, and I nearly plotzed when I failed to find one single thing that did not contain corn.  Hat tip to Michael Pollan for raining that little epiphany down on my head.)

The government already uses subsidies and taxes to encourage or discourage certain kinds of consumption.  It’s not a some kind of immoral choice-grab put in place by socialists who hate freedom.  If you want to talk about morality, then let’s talk about morality, because the only immoral action I see here is the promotion of a food policy that makes it cheaper to eat a bag of chips than the potato from which it was made.

Bittman’s proposal isn’t a magic bullet that will solve all of the issues surrounding food and nutrition in this country, but it’s a start.

4 responses to “Bittman: Tax soda, subsidize vegetables

  1. Why target junk food? I’m serious. Recent studies have shown that commuting in a car is one of the worst things you can do, health wise, but I don’t see people lining up around the block to take away oil subsidies (which are egregious) or pay me for riding my bike. Maybe they should, but they don’t, and in my opinion focusing too hard on junk food ignores the fact that there is SO MUCH that goes into good health, not just skipping a pop every now and then. But then, junk food is low hanging fruit, and it’s easy to say that (poor) people can cut it out of their diet if they don’t want to pay an extra $1.44, or go without. Sort of reminds me of the “smoking is the root of all evil!” people. Yeah, fuck smoking, whatever, but also let he who is without sin cast the first stone. So again, why single out the food industry, when there are so many other industries that are potentially just as culpable for the horrible, horrible obesity epidemic, like the chair industry? (Or, more realistically, the car industry.)

    And also, why is this the government’s role? The comparison to tobacco laws is weak at best, because there’s not a direct link between fast food and obesity, or between obesity and poor health, just general trends. And as we agreed in an earlier thread, thin doesn’t always mean healthy either. If the government HAS to do something, I’d prefer a focus on exercise, but that would mean huge alterations to our infrastructure.

    Now, if you’re arguing against the corn subsidies, that’s another animal. Those should have been repealed decades ago. Sure, taxing and removing subsidies has the same effect on the consumer–higher prices–but one punishes the consumer directly. And are we still going to give corn subsidies while levying a sin tax on stuff that’s made out of that subsidized corn? I’m sure you can see the major illogic there. I also don’t trust these taxes to go to food access and education, they’ll just go to more tax cuts for the top 10%.

    Also, I don’t know what kind of a “foodie” Mark Bittman is, but depending on what kind of food it is, gourmet food isn’t necessarily all that much more healthful than KFC. Just because you pay top price for something doesn’t mean it’s any better than McDonald’s, or otherwise all upper-class whites would be thin.

    Basically, I think this is sort of a backpedal on your earlier “other people’s bodies are not my concern” statement. Sorry if that’s too harsh. :/

    • The reason I like Bittman’s suggestion is because he takes the current state of food affairs – subsidized junk food, whole fruits and vegetables that are too expensive for many – and flips it on its head. Why on earth DO we continue to subside corn? If we are going to subsidize any food products, why not do so for things that have actual nutritional value? Maybe you could argue that government would just get out of subsidizing food – and oil – altogether, which I’m fine with. I just don’t see the point in defending the status quo because you think there are other things that are more damaging, especially considering that the status quo is borne of outdated economic policy and has led to some pretty idiotic measures. I mean, corn ethanol is one of the dumbest things this country has ever pursued, and it is directly connected to the same subsidies that lead to extremely inexpensive junk food.

      When I refer to Bittman as a “foodie” it’s not because I mean he’s into gourmet food. Not every foodie eats foie gras or whatever. I use a lot of his recipes and they are pretty simple and interesting. He’s a food writer and journalist, which might be the more specific way to refer to him.

      Your analogy about “sitting too much will kill you” leading to attacking the chair industry…sorry but that doesn’t make sense. Assuming the study actually holds up, it seems to me that the real culprit isn’t chairs but a sedentary lifestyle that has people sitting for eight hours a day at work, then an hour in their cars, then three hours in front of computers or televisions. I’m not sure what rhetorical point you were trying to make with that statement.

      You seem to have read a huge amount of judgement into this post, in which case I’d think you’d find all structural conversations about access to and affordbility of quality food to be issuing some kind of judgement. I still don’t give a shit if someone wants to eat Taco Bell or whatever, but if that’s the only option you have and it’s all you can afford? THAT’S a problem, and I’m not being an asshole by pointing that out or by saying I like certain policy proposals that would change that.

      For what it’s worth, I agree with all of your criticisms of cars and car culture, but you know that already.

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