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Health Policy Solutions
Danny Katz

There was good news and bad news in a recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the state of obesity in our country.  If you are a glass-half-full person, you would have been pleased that Colorado continues to be the thinnest state in the country. If you are a glass-half-empty person you would be disappointed that a No. 1 ranking means ONLY one in five Coloradans are obese.

In fact, despite being number one, Colorado is actually fatter than the fattest state 15 years ago, Mississippi.  This means that despite being number one, over the last 15 years, Colorado has experienced a rapidly rising rate of people who are overweight and obese and a rising rate of type-2 diabetes, heart disease and the other health problems that come with it.

The causes of our rising obesity rates are multifaceted, and so are the solutions.

One of the easiest steps America can take to fight this epidemic is to stop subsidizing junk food, which has helped push the cost of junk food down and the cost of healthy food up. This results in too many of our cups being either half full or half empty of things like corn syrup.

Here’s how it works. Since 1995, Congress has spent over 245 billion in tax dollars on agricultural subsidies primarily to grow just a handful of crops, over one-third of which go to growing just corn and soybeans. Very little of that corn and soy is grown for people to eat. Most of it is used to make ethanol, livestock feed, and food additives like corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Let’s be clear. These dollars are not going to struggling family farmers, the original intent of these subsidies. Over 70percent of all subsidies go to just 4 percent of all farmers – typically the largest agribusiness operations in the country.

Giant food companies figured out a long time ago that they could use these subsidized, cheap food additives to flood the market with huge portions of incredibly sweet, fatty foods – all on the taxpayer dime.

Thanks in large part to these subsidies, the price of soda in real dollars dropped more than 20 percent between 1985 and 2000. Meanwhile, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables (which are not subsidized) rose by over 40 percent.

According to one study, a 2000-calorie-a-day diet of just junk food can cost just $3.56 per day. At that price, it’s easy to understand how we got in this mess.

We all want to live long, healthy lives. And the obesity epidemic is a complex problem that won’t be solved by cutting subsidies alone. But as long as our food supply is skewed toward the production of cheap junk food, which is saturating our markets, we’re fighting an uphill battle.

With the Super Committee in Congress charged with reducing our deficit by over $1 trillion, this is an excellent opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to come together around common ground and end this wasteful spending for the health of all Coloradans.

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