USDA may talk fruit and fiber — but it spends big on meat

B y Arthur Allen / Special to The Washington Post /


Published Oct 6, 2011 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

On MyPlate, the federal food diagram published in June to show Americans a healthful diet, half the plate contains fruits and vegetables, roughly a third is grains and about a fifth is “protein”: meat, eggs, beans and nuts. A separate, smaller circle is “dairy.”

The designers of MyPlate hope it will help lower obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer. Animal fats contribute to these diseases and make up a much larger percentage of the diet in America than in other countries.

While the food plate looks healthful enough, federal incentives to farmers reflect a very different agenda. In large part, the USDA pays farmers who grow food for animals that become meat.

U.S. farm policy grew out of the economic hardships of Midwestern farmers in the 1930s. Many critics say the policy is no longer relevant and should be redesigned for healthful eating.

Of the $200 billion spent to subsidize commodity crops from 1995 to 2010, roughly two-thirds went to animal-feed crops, tobacco and cotton. Roughly $50 billion went to human-food crops, including wheat, peanuts, rice, oil seeds and others that become sweeteners, according to a database compiled by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group. About $12 billion went to crops that were turned into ethanol.

Farmers who grow fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, on the other hand, get no regular direct subsidies, though some small programs aid apple farmers and others. The government sometimes buys excess canned produce for school lunches and emergency food banks.

In addition to the subsidies the USDA pays for commodity crops each year, it pays about $5 billion directly to commodity-crop farmers. You don’t have to till the land to get these payments. In fact, all you have to do is own land on which commodity crops were grown in 1985.

Direct subsidies seem to have little to do with their original justification, which was to help keep family farms from failing. Three-quarters go to the top 10 percent of commodity-cropland owners; $400 million of the total in 2010 went to individuals who live in cities and hold the land as an investment. Millions more went to land-owning corporations. Although you don’t have to grow anything to get a subsidy, there are restrictions on how you use the acreage: Growing fruits and veggies for the market on such lands disqualifies them for direct subsidies, restricting competition for produce growers but limiting acreage available for such crops.

“We’ve locked up food production with a policy that says, ‘Thou shalt not grow fruits and vegetables,’” says Ferdinand Hoefner, of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which lobbies for small- and mid-size farms.

By one estimate, if Americans followed the USDA diet guidelines, 13 million more acres of fruit and vegetable crops would have to be planted each year to provide the food.

There have been calls for years to cut the subsidies. But Congress this year again avoided killing the payments. “Everybody agrees that direct subsidies to big farmers ought to be stopped, but nobody wants to say he was against subsidies if he’s campaigning in Iowa,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of food science and public health at New York University. “It’s a locked-in system.”

Subsidies, as if they were the White House garden

In 2009, first lady Michelle Obama planted the first full White House garden since Eleanor Roosevelt, with fruits, veggies and herbs — blueberries and broccoli to collards and kohlrabi. But what would her garden look like had it been planted to reflect the crops the U.S. government supports?

The real garden

The fictional ‘Subsidy’ garden