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.