Spending taxpayers’ money on helping low-income shoppers buy “mostly junk and soda” is “nuts” and inexcusable, delegates were told at a lively debate between leading academics and economists on how government policy impacts the food supply at Harvard last week.
Much of the discussion focused on the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, described as a “conduit for people to buy mostly junk and soda”.
Excuses USDA gave were ‘completely lame’
Willett - one of four panelists at a session of The Forum at Harvard School of Public Health - added: “We’re writing checks of billions of dollars a year to buy soda for the SNAP program and with the other hand we’re writing checks [to treat] diabetes. It’s nuts.”
The fact that USDA had told New York City it could not prevent SNAP dollars from being spent on sugar-sweetened beverages, “even on a trial basis”, was “just ridiculous”, he added.
“The excuses USDA gave were just completely lame. They can easily do it; they do it for alcoholic beverages.”
Parents are being undermined
Fellow panelist David Ludwig, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, agreed that it “makes no sense to be paying for that [sugary drinks through SNAP] especially when we might end up paying for that as a society through the costs of obesity-related disease”.
As for encouraging children to eat more healthily, the government needed to regulate advertising and marketing to kids, he said. There was an “enormous incentive” for industry to market calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods, while it was not possible to trademark broccoli, he argued.
But this didn’t mean the government should spend millions trying to make broccoli sexy, he stressed.
Advertising to kids
“Government’s role is not to try and compete with the food industry but to regulate. They [food manufacturers] can compete with each other to make healthy foods. And that should mean no advertising of any kind to young children.”
Children were inspired by sports stars and cartoon characters on food packaging, he added: “They get them to eat the highest-calorie lowest-quality food imaginable.
“I have a three-year-old at home and it takes a lot of work to guide a child in this food environment when busy working parents are undermined by this massive marketing campaign. The industry knows the parents are going to cave.”
But simply switching subsidies from corn to broccoli was not the answer, said agricultural economist Gary Williams, professor at the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University, who pointed out that farmers in the Midwest could not just switch from corn to carrots or bananas.
As US farmers were competing in global markets against farmers in Europe, Brazil and China that were being subsidized, removing support structures could also put them out of business, threatening jobs and food security, he noted.
He also challenged the idea that Americans lacked food choice owing to the focus on corn, wheat and soy. ”I would challenge you go any place in the world that provides more quality and diversity… Sure we’ve got a lot of junk food out there, but you don’t have to choose it.”
But Willett countered: “But for many Americans, what’s affordable and what’s available is junk.”
Wealth of SKUs does not necessarily mean more choice
Moreover, what was not always obvious given the wealth of SKUs on offer at most supermarkets was that while there were thousands of processed food products to choose from, most were in fact “produced from just four key commodities: corn, wheat, soybeans and rice or the animals that are fed those commodities, and that’s the majority of calories in our diet”, he claimed.
And this had proved disastrous for the nation’s health, he claimed.
“If we judge by its impact on human health, the American food supply is a disaster. Americans consume huge amounts of refined starch, sugar, red meat and very inadequate quantities of fruits, vegetables, beans nuts and wholegrain high-fiber foods.
“And we know from lots of research that this is directly related to an increase in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We [also] have very direct evidence that the quality of our food supply is directly affecting the rates of obesity in this country.”
Price elasticity, soda taxes
Asked about the extent to which demand for less healthy foods could be manipulated via soda taxes or other tools, Barry Popkin, distinguished professor at the Department of Nutrition, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, said it all depended on the product.
“We know that some foods are more price sensitive than others, price elasticity varies. Staples are less affected, people will buy them anyway. But sugar sweetened beverages are sensitive [increasing the price will reduce demand and vice versa].”