In a recent article, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel took author and journalist Michael Pollan to task for blaming the farm bill for the sizable price difference between junk food and fresh vegetables. She wrote:
“…Pollan, whose work I’m a fan of, held up a package of Twinkies (which cost 99 cents) and a bunch of carrots ($2.99). The Twinkies are a complex food with 39 ingredients, and the carrots are ‘a very simple bunch of roots,’ he said. So why do the carrots cost so much more?”
Haspel added: “The idea that wholesome foods are expensive and junk foods are cheap because of the system of subsidies in the farm bill pervades the conversation about food policy. But that idea has one very big problem. It’s false.”
She points out that vegetables would cost more to produce than the corn and soy in junk foods, regardless of the federal subsidies determined by the farm bill. According to one of the economists with whom Haspel spoke, those subsidies account for only “a penny and a half” of the cost of the Twinkies and three cents worth of the cost of the carrots.
This point is worth examining—and it points to a much larger, more complex set of facts about our food system. As Pollan and other farm policy reform advocates routinely point out, the impacts of government farm programs reach far beyond those that can be easily translated into quantities and prices.
Government-subsidized crop insurance, farm loans, tax credits, agricultural research and education, as well as environmental and public-health exemptions for farming have all helped shape the basic structure and function of the agri-food industry.
The Twinkie-carrot example is simply a convenient, accessible entry point to those who are new to learning about our nation’s many misplaced public policy priorities. And treating it as the beginning and end of the discussion distracts from useful public discourse.