The food industry is everywhere. The halls of Congress are no exception. Profit, not health or safety, is the bottom line. Some of the worst food guidelines and policies come straight out of Washington, and we all suffer. How? Either we pay with our taxes or our health.
Eight agencies oversee the government’s food-related policies. Most of their food and agriculture policies undermine public health and drive a disease-creating economy (not to mention climate change, social inequities, and a host of other bad consequences that I’ve written about in my new book Food Fix). While many Big Food companies claim to be good stewards of public health, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Washington so they can block policies that hurt their profits and promote policies that make them money—regardless of whether the outcomes are harmful to society. Big Food’s influence reaches far and wide. And it all starts behind closed doors.
Lobbyists meddle with our food
In the past decade, billions of dollars were spent in lobbying across the whole government to influence food and agriculture policies. Lobbyists for Big Food, Big Ag, and Big Pharma spent $500 million on influencing the 2014 Farm Bill alone. Food industry lobbying occurs at every level of government, from city and state capitols to the halls of Congress, the White House, the USDA, and the FDA, and extends globally. The lobbyists’ goal is to protect the food industry’s profits at all costs. Big Food has what the vast majority of Americans do not: deep pockets and access to the highest levels of government. And they use those to capture the agencies and lawmakers that are supposed to regulate them.
Lobbyists and food companies accomplish this in many ways. They shower politicians with campaign contributions, causing lawmakers to alter the wording of bills or add lucrative earmarks [there are no more earmarks. Please fix ] that favor their donors. Another lobbying tactic involves the use of political action committees (PACs), which pool money from companies and large donors to fund candidates and political parties. So corporations and special interest groups are free to inject unlimited amounts of money into elections without publicly disclosing it.
Even worse is the revolving door between lobbyists and government officials. They cycle back and forth between jobs in the industry and jobs in the government. It is a notoriously corrupt practice that industry insiders take advantage of to pull strings for corporations and special interests. For example, the USDA hired a sugar lobbyist to work on the 2020 dietary guidelines.
Let me give you a glimpse of how tangled this web really is.
Why you need to know about the Farm Bill
We’ll start with the Farm Bill, something you’ve probably never thought much about. Why would you? After all, what does the Farm Bill have to do with you? Once you know where your tax dollars are going and why, the Farm Bill you will realize may be the most important legislation we have. For the harm it causes and the benefits that come from fixing it.
The Farm Bill doles out billions of dollars’ worth of commodity supports for corn, wheat, and soy which are the building blocks of processed food that globally kills over 11 million people a year. These farm supports for commodity crops (in one form or another) have been in place since the Great Depression, when the government began providing aid to farmers to ensure that the country had a steady food supply and to protect farmers from price fluctuations and weather. Fast-forward almost a century later, and the Farm Bill that passed in 2014 authorized nearly a trillion dollars in spending—$956 billion to be exact—through 2024.
Archer Daniels Midland, Bayer (which recently purchased Monsanto), Cargill, DuPont, Tyson, Syngenta, and other Big Food and Big Ag corporations have the lobbying power to mold the Farm Bill to their liking. It’s no accident then that the commodity support program is structured to favor large agribusinesses. Stick with me. I doubt you’ll like what you learn, but hopefully it’ll motivate you to stand with me against the unhealthy influence of Big Food.
The Farm Bill determines which crops farmers choose to grow. It influences the cost of groceries and the foods we eat. Whether you realize it, the Farm Bill plays a direct role in agriculture and your diet. And it has enormous health consequences for the entire nation.
According to government data, the foods that make up the top sources of calories in the American diet are grain- and sugar-based snacks such as cakes, cookies, doughnuts, and cereal. Not far behind them are bread, sugary drinks, chicken dishes, pizza, pasta, and “dairy-based desserts” (in other words, ice cream). All of these come from just a handful of crops and farm foods—corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, milk, and meat—that Uncle Sam heavily subsidizes.
Between 1995 and 2013, the Farm Bill doled out more than $170 billion to farmers and large agribusinesses to support the production of these foods. Farmers were motivated not only to produce these foods, but also to overproduce them. This helped to drive down the commodity prices, ensuring that fast food, soft drinks, and other junk foods are cheap and plentiful. During this period, the price of sugary drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup fell nearly 25 percent, and American children increased their consumption of soft drinks by 130 calories a day. At the same time, the cost of fruits and vegetables rose almost 40 percent.
In 2016, researchers at the CDC published a study that examined the direct impact of subsidies on America’s health. They found that people who had the highest intake of federally subsidized foods had a nearly 40 percent greater likelihood of being obese. They were also significantly more likely to have metabolic disease—with higher levels of belly fat, blood sugar, cholesterol, and C-reactive protein, a sign of inflammation. The irony is that the USDA, which oversees the Farm Bill, also publishes the national dietary guidelines, the very ones that recently recommended we should fill half our plates with veggies and fruit. The CDC researchers concluded: “Nutritional guidelines are focused on the population’s needs for healthier foods, but to date food and agricultural policies that influence food production and availability have not yet done the same.”
What about fruits and veggies?
In contrast to huge subsidies on the crops that will end up in junk food, the percentage of federal subsidies that are actually allocated for nutritious foods is trivial. Apples are the only fruit or vegetable that receives significant subsidies (other than corn), and the amount allocated for apples between 1995 and 2010 was less than 1 percent of total government subsidies. Much like corn, a lot of the apples grown in America are not eaten as whole foods. They are processed into less nutritious foods like apple juice and applesauce, which are often sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
Uncle Sam gives farmers very little incentive to grow fruits, nuts, and vegetables. In fact, the government has long discouraged it. Many versions of the Farm Bill referred to these foods as “specialty crops” and stipulated that farmers who took subsidies for commodity crops were barred from growing fruits and vegetables—otherwise, they faced stiff penalties. If they took a 5 acre plot to grow vegetables on 5000 acre farm they could no longer receive any government support. So thanks to federal subsidies for corn, soy, and grains, junk food is now cheaper than ever (with the help of taxpayer money), and consumers are exposed to a conveyor belt of empty, disease-producing calories.
Targeting the most vulnerable
Ironically, the second and most costly component of the Farm Bill is the food stamps program. In fact, nutrition programs have historically accounted for a majority of the Farm Bill funding. The government created the food stamps program, known as SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in 1964 to help malnourished Americans. SNAP provides important benefits to more than 40 million low-income Americans each month at a cost of tens of billions of dollars a year. Yet nutrition plays no role in SNAP. In fact, it promotes the opposite.
The most pressing food problem for low-income households is not a lack of calories—it’s a lack of good calories. The food stamp program actually increases the likelihood of the most vulnerable Americans consuming an unhealthy diet. The Harvard School of Public Health found that SNAP participants were in dire need of nutrition interventions. In another study, the researchers found that children living in SNAP households consumed high levels of empty calories, soft drinks, and processed meats.
If you were to try eating on a SNAP budget for a week, think of what you could buy with only $40. Since SNAP doesn’t allow you to buy hot foods, you can’t get a $5 rotisserie chicken, but you can stock up on 2-liter bottles of 7Up and frozen chicken nuggets. So is it any surprise that the most popular purchases for people on SNAP are cheap foods that come in large quantities: big bottles of soda, boxes of cookies, bags of potato chips, processed meats, sugary breakfast cereals, Wonder Bread?
A 2017 study by Dariush Mozaffarian and his colleagues at Tufts followed almost a half million adults over a decade and found that SNAP participants had substantially worse health than other Americans: twice the rate of heart disease, three times greater likelihood to die from diabetes, and higher rates of metabolic diseases. SNAP beneficiaries account for at least 65 percent of the adults on Medicaid and 14 percent of people on Medicare.
Your taxes pay for the bad food they eat and then the cost of their medical care.
Why not just reform the SNAP guidelines to ban sugary drinks and junk food and provide incentives for produce and whole foods? Well, the lobbyists have something to say about that. Junk-food companies are acutely aware that a policy change such as sugary-drink restrictions on SNAP would wipe away billions of dollars of their annual revenue. So behind closed doors, lobbyists go to work with lawmakers and government officials to stop that from ever happening. Instead of prioritizing public health and the interests of society, lawmakers and government agencies are often forced to do the bidding of Big Food. If lawmakers were required to wear the logos of their corporate sponsors, they would look like NASCAR drivers sponsored by Big Food.
Promoting bad food in school
SNAP is just one of many government food policies that suffer from a systemic problem. School lunch guidelines are another. As a physician who’s on the frontlines fighting chronic diseases and obesity, knowing Big Food stands in the way of our children’s health is deeply disturbing and threatens our children’s future.
Public health officials have long tried to make school meals more nutritious. But the food industry stands in the way. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act mandated that 100,000 public schools provide healthier foods to their students. It did this by granting the USDA the power to create new nutrition standards for school lunches for the first time in decades.
The law accomplished some good: It essentially banned much of the obvious junk foods from school vending machines, like soft drinks, cookies, M&M’S, gummy bears, and sugar-laden sports drinks such as Gatorade. It created standards for school meals that prioritized whole grains over heavily processed carbs, lowered sodium, and required at least a minimal amount of vegetables per meal. But that’s about all the legislation got right because food industry lobbyists were intimately involved in shaping it.
More than 111 food companies, trade groups, and industry organizations registered to lobby on the bill. They were led by the misleadingly named School Nutrition Association (SNA), an industry-funded lobbying organization. About half of the SNA’s $10 million budget comes from big food companies, among them Kraft, Coke, Conagra, and Domino’s Pizza. The SNA watered down their criteria for what could qualify as nutritious and pushed for a clause that allowed schools to opt out of the standards. The school lunch lobby fought to ensure that tomato paste would count as a vegetable, making pizza legally a vegetable, and that starchy potatoes—code word for French fries—would be favored in the standards. By the time the nutrition standards were finalized, the foods allowed to be sold in schools included toaster waffles with syrup, tater tots, Uno pepperoni pizza, chicken nuggets, funnel cakes, chocolate “muffins,” and sugar-soaked Slush Puppie beverages.
How could we even teach kids to make better choices when those are the options in front of them?
With assistance from the food industry, the USDA also created a Trojan horse policy it called Smart Snacks in School. The idea was to hold snack foods to higher nutrition standards. But the nutrition criteria for the Smart Snacks program provided an easy workaround for the industry. To meet the Smart Snacks standards, PepsiCo offered schools reduced-fat Nacho Cheese and Cool Ranch Doritos, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and Quaker Breakfast Cookies Oatmeal Raisin. Pepperidge Farm introduced lower-fat chocolate, vanilla, and “whole-grain” Goldfish crackers. General Mills created reduced-fat strawberry-yogurt-flavored Chex and a line of Fruit Roll-Ups. This should shock you. It certainly shocked me.
Harm at multiple levels
The USDA isn’t the only government agency influenced by the lobbying power of Big Food. Even the FDA, the very agency that is supposed to protect us from questionable ingredients and practices, has ceded much of its regulatory power over food additives to food manufacturers, thanks to aggressive lobbying. Untested additives, chemicals, and antibiotics contaminate our food supply while the FDA simply allows the food industry to police itself voluntarily. Meanwhile the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) takes millions of dollars in funding from the soft drink industry to launch obesity campaigns that ignore nutrition and focused exclusively on exercise. The Federal Trade Commission gives Big Food permission to prey on children, allowing them to market billions of dollars’ worth of junk foods that cause weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver in kids.
I could go on and on. This is just a glimpse of Big Food’s grip on our food policies that promote the production, sale, and marketing of ultra processed foods that fuel diabetes, obesity, and chronic disease. That’s why I wrote Food Fix to expose the tangled web of power and influence that Big Food has on the politics and health of our nation.
Fortunately, some Big Food companies are slowly pivoting to healthier product lines and encouraging better agricultural practices in response to consumer demand. And in 2018, a bipartisan group of lawmakers started the Food Is Medicine Working Group in the House of Representatives. The group’s mission is to sort out the chaos in nutrition policies to better the nation’s health.
The USDA has started making fresh vegetables and other healthy ingredients at farmers’ markets more affordable for SNAP participants through its Nutrition Incentive Program. Many states are also starting their own healthy food programs for SNAP participants. In 2017, Massachusetts launched a program that gives SNAP recipients extra money for every dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers. Experts at the Tufts School of Nutrition Science and Policy found the following: Providing a 20 percent incentive for fruit and vegetable purchases to Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries would prevent at least 1.93 million cardiovascular disease events and save $40 billion in health care costs.
As consumers we have to push for change at the state and local levels. These are your tax dollars at work. Are your elected leaders in the pocket of Big Food? Find out on Food Policy Action’s website if they vote for Big Food or for you. Look up your member of Congress and their voting records on food and agriculture issues. Find out if they have the courage to stand up to the big moneyed interests. And if they are failing on this issue, write to them or tell them about it at your next town hall. Tell them you want your tax dollars to be better spent on health and reducing the strain on our healthcare system.
- University of Rochester. “Campaign Contributions Influence Public Policy, Finds Study of 50 State Legislatures.” 2012. http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=4060.
- Kotch A. “Corn Syrup Lobbyist Is Helping Set USDA Dietary Guidelines.” International Business Times. February 2, 2018.
- The Editors. “For a Healthier Country, Overhaul Farm Subsidies.” Scientific American. May 1, 2012.
- Siegel KR. “Association of Higher Consumption of Foods Derived from Subsidized Commodities with Adverse Cardiometabolic Risk among US Adults.” JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Aug 1;176(8):1124–32.
- US Department of Agriculture. “Specialty Crops.” February 25, 2019. https://www.ers.usda.gov/agriculture-improvement-act-of-2018-highlights-and-implications/specialty-crops/
- O’Connor A. “How the Government Supports Your Junk Food Habit.” New York Times. July 19, 2016.
- Leung CW, Blumenthal SJ, Hoffnagle EE, et al. “Associations of Food Stamp Participation with Dietary Quality and Obesity in Children.” Pediatrics. 2013 Mar;131(3):463–72.
- Tufts University. (2017). “Americans in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Have Higher Mortality.” Tufts Now. https://now.tufts.edu/news-releases/americans-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap-have-higher-mortality.
- Mozaffarian D, Liu J, Sy S, et al. “Cost-Effectiveness of Financial Incentives and Disincentives for Improving Food Purchases and Health through the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).” PLoS Med. 2018 Oct 2;15(10):e1002661.
- Center for Responsive Politics. “Clients Lobbying on S.3307: Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.” https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/billsum.php?id=s3307-111
- Park A. “The Food Industry Lobby Groups behind the New School Nutrition Standards.” Mother Jones. July 18, 2014.
- Bottemiller Evich H. “Behind the School Lunch Fight.” Politico. June 4, 2014.Butler K. “Yes, Cheetos, Funnel Cake, and Domino’s Are Approved School Lunch Items.” Mother Jones. July 16, 2014.
- Tufts University. (2019). “Prescribing Healthy Food in Medicare/Medicaid Is Cost Effective, Could Improve Health Outcomes.” https://now.tufts.edu/news-releases/prescribing-healthy-food-medicaremedicaid-cost-effective-could-improve-health-outcomes