THE NEW GREEN: Making organic foods affordable
Earlier this month, a new Farm Bill was signed into law which slashes SNAP benefits ("food stamps"). According to MSNBC, the provisions in the Farm Bill reduce a family's food assistance by an average of $90 a month, affecting about 850,000 households. This federal action will undoubtedly worsen the phenomenon of "food deserts" - neighborhoods where fresh and healthy food is unavailable because the low-income consumers simply cannot afford it. Relying on state assistance for food not only means going hungry for much of the time - it also means that when you do eat, you have no choice but to consume cheap and nutritionally-poor junk foods. Cheap processed food is also almost always worse for the environment, because it is largely composed of ingredients that are grown in monocultures (like corn and soybeans), a hugely inefficient farming practice that requires enormous amounts of water, land and pesticides. Monocultures also ravage the soil of its nutrients and weaken the soil structure, creating mass soil erosion and virtually useless land.
It begs the question - if junk foods, or even conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables, are bad for our health and costly to the environment, why is it that they are so much cheaper than healthy organic foods? Although the poor are the most victimized by this circumstance, we are all affected by it. I have certainly found myself buying frozen spinach by the bag at Price Rite, fully aware that it is probably devoid of almost any nutritional value because of the quality of the soil that it was grown in. And yet, I simply can't afford the healthy and delicious organic produce that is for sale at the Willimantic Food Co-op (or the organic section of Stop & Shop).
The answer is that this difference in pricing is not necessarily inherent to the economic system - it is a direct outcome of government intervention and food policies. Through the Farm Bill, the federal government subsidizes conventionally-grown crops while leaving organic farms in the dust. According to environmental writer Tim Philpott: "Under the Farm Bill, the great bulk of USDA largesse flows to five crops: corn, soy, cotton, wheat and rice," and an article by Discovery News notes that: "Even if an American only buys produce at a farmers market, they still pay for processed foods with their taxes. The United States government pays farmers for growing some crops like corn and wheat, but doesn't pay as much (or at all) for others. The lack of subsidies for some crops, like lettuce and broccoli, artificially raises their market cost." According to a U.S. PIRG webpage titled "Stop Subsidizing Obesity," over $18 billion of taxpayer money was given to Big Agribusiness companies who then "turned subsidized crops into junk food ingredients".
From an health advocacy or environmental standpoint, the 2014 Farm Bill is a mixed bag. It actually does include some smart legislation; for example, it triples funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program. Still, the nonsensical subsidies, which make it difficult for Americans to eat healthy were not adequately addressed - we are still paying off rich AgriBusiness CEOs at the expense of the average citizen. This failure, as explained by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, "means taxpayers will continue to cover the majority of the cost of crop insurance premiums, even for millionaires, and continue to be kept in the dark regarding who benefits from these subsidies." Organic produce could and should be made affordable for college students, the poor and all citizens. We are already giving away billions - let's just change who is receiving it.
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