I mentioned two days ago the decision of schools to ban birthday cupcakes. Michelle Obama is essentially fighting with students to get them to change what they eat.
But what is missing from this story is the proper context. The fact is that our bad eating habits are getting encouraged by taxpayer money. In fact, the government arguably changed our dietary habits to their present behavior.
The Foundation for Economic Education came out with an article yesterday about dealing with “food deserts.”
A food desert is defined as an urban neighborhood or rural town without access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. The argument goes that lack of access leads to poor dietary choices and a higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Supposedly, these 23 million are stuck in these “food deserts.” The assumption is that this is a market failure which can and must be corrected by government.
Of course, no one is starving for food. It is not as if market forces don’t bring any food at all into these places. The FEE article notes,
The stated problem of a food desert is that fresh fruits and vegetables are unavailable at affordable prices in low-income areas. The issue here is not low prices but relative prices. Low-income consumers have a choice of how to spend their food budget and obviously want the most caloric bang for their buck. Even if fruits and vegetables were available at lower prices, they must compete against heavily subsidized processed foods containing carbohydrates and corn syrup.
You will notice that this is exactly the same problem affecting school lunch programs. It is too easy to buy the cheapest food items. And why are wheat and corn and soybean cheapest?
Where do these subsidies come from? Meet America’s favorite barrel of pork, the farm bill. Whenever someone bemoans partisan gridlock, gently remind them that the farm bill always passes with bipartisan support and, in its 2014 iteration, has a price tag of nearly $1 trillion. For years the farm bill has heavily subsidized the production of wheat, corn, and soybeans with the intended consequence of lowering the prices of products containing those goods.
So it’s no surprise—at least for anyone who recalls from their principles of economics class that demand curves slope downward—that Americans’ consumption of carbohydrates has increased substantially over time. Indeed, we eat 25% more carbohydrates today as part of our daily diet than we did 30 years ago. All sweet treats and candy are cheaper because of corn subsidies, as are breads, cereals, crackers, and everything else containing wheat. A USDA program of farmers markets and community gardens will do little to offset the literal billions spent on corn and wheat subsidies.
So when schools complain that they can’t afford the First Lady’s food guidelines, the economic context is the result of government action. The government has made some food much cheaper relative to other foods.