Junk foods like cheese puffs are heavily subsidized by the U.S. government.

Junk foods like cheese puffs are heavily subsidized by the U.S. government.

As the first lady sings praises of whole foods to adoring schoolchildren, the U.S. government is using its checkbook to send a very different message — and it’s making people fat. From 1995 to 2011, Uncle Sam spent $18.2 billion to subsidize crops that go into junk-food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, soybean oil (used to make trans fat) and corn starch, according to a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Reducing the cost of corn and soy may seem like a good thing for the American people, but these commodity crops are used in processed foods far more than they’re eaten in their natural form. Meanwhile, the fruits and vegetables we do eat whole are largely ignored. U.S. subsidies for big commodity crops could buy every American 21 Twinkies per year; meanwhile, the subsidies spent on apples could buy each of us a measly one-half of an apple a year. Not quite enough to keep the doctor away.

Also troubling: the biggest farms benefit the most. The top 10 percent of corn farmers collect 74 percent of all corn subsidies, while farms in the bottom 80 percent only collect $587 per year, on average.

“We send billions of dollars to these large commercial farms which are highly profitable and highly subsidised,” Don Carr of the Environmental Working Group said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “Direct payments are tied directly to acreage; the largest farms get the largest subsidies.”

So farming giants fill up their wallets, and the American people fill in their fat pants.

Subsidies Make Junk Food Cheap

Thanks to subsidies, sugar-laden “fruit snacks” are cheaper than the berries, grapes and oranges they mimic. Overall, eating healthy means spending more money, which stacks the deck against poor people. Not surprisingly, low-income people are more likely to be obese than the rest of the country.

Of course, weight issues aren’t limited to the poor. More than one-third of all Americans are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And even for the middle and upper-middle classes, a high price tag can make healthy food much less enticing. It’s damn hard to justify spending twice as much on organic, whole-grain crackers than the sweetened, trans-fat laden brand on the next shelf. Is the price worth it? Yes…but we shouldn’t have to choose between our health and our dollars.

The Weighty Cost of Processed Food

So what is all of this processed crap doing to our waistlines? Plenty. Refined carbohydrates from breads, cereals and crackers are digested quickly and leave you craving more food, which leads to overeating. And don’t underestimate the power of vanishing caloric density, a trick used to make processed foods like Cheetos melt in your mouth. Your brain is fooled into thinking you haven’t swallowed enough calories, so you just keep eating. (Cheetos, by the way are chock-full of subsidized ingredients like corn meal, corn oil and soybean oil.)

What’s worse, trans fats may cause weight gain even if you don’t eat too many calories, according to a study at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Although trans fats are becoming less common, they’re still in many bargain-basement snack foods, frozen pizzas and margarines.

Although we’re all ultimately responsible for our own food choices, I see no good reason for the  government to skew the market on the side of junk food. The solution is incredibly simple: stop writing checks. Problem is, politicians would have to overhaul the Farm Bill. And that would require Congress to actually accomplishing something. Sigh.

But this is still America, and we citizens still have the power of the vote — and the buying dollar. The best way to change the system is to stop purchasing processed food and go for whole, natural choices — even if that means spending a little bit more. If we demand better food to nourish our bodies, then that’s exactly what we’ll get. And then junk food will fade from grocery-store prominence, subsidies or not.