PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree on Wednesday joined organizers with the watchdog group U.S. PIRG to call for changes in agriculture subsidies, saying federal dollars support crops that have contributed to the country’s obesity epidemic.
According to PIRG, the group’s volunteers compared the prices of sugary or fatty foods with ingredients that benefit from federal subsidies with the prices of healthier fruits and vegetables in local stores. Looking at a price per 100 calories, carrots came in at 64 cents, while corn chips came in at 15 cents. Apples cost 80 cents per 100 calories, and toaster pastries cost 15 cents, the group found.
“It is cheaper to buy kids a bag of chips than a bag of carrots,” PIRG campaign coordinator Martin Harper said at a press conference at the Portland Farmers’ Market, “thanks to agribusiness subsidies.”
PIRG said that real costs for soda, sweets, fats and oils have dropped over the past 20 years. At the same time, prices for fruits and vegetables have increased nearly 40 percent. While fruits and vegetables largely aren’t subsidized, ingredients that go into junk foods are, PIRG said.
Harper noted that Maine is the most obese state in New England, with a rate of 16.8 percent. Nationwide, 33.8 percent of adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and about 17 percent of children age 2 to 19 are obese.
From 1995 to 2009, more than $245 billion in agriculture subsidies went to 4 percent of farms, to a small number of commodity crops, with corn and soy topping the list.
Pingree, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said she supported moving funds from subsidizing corn, soy and other big crops to instead support small, local farmers that grow healthful crops.
PIRG organizers have spoken with local farmers in Maine, said Harper, and they’ve said they could use federal support to set up slaughterhouses in the state, to build a crop distribution network and to fund equipment such as irrigation systems.
Ideally, said Pingree, these steps would help bring the price of vegetables grown at smaller farms down so they’re more affordable for families, leading them to eat healthier. Pingree said the subsidization of commodity crops also has been pointed to as a problem in other countries, with the low prices disrupting local agriculture systems and contributing to global famine conditions.
Richard Rudolph, executive director of the nonprofit Rippling Waters Organic Farm in Standish, said the economic problems of subsidizing crops that contribute to obesity will become more apparent with time, as rates of type 2 diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure and other ailments skyrocket.
“We’re not only paying agribusiness huge sums of money each year, but we’re going to be paying the piper later on,” he said at the press conference.
Rudolph started the farm in 1991 and today employs about 10 people. The farm grows a variety of vegetables, “from arugula to zucchinis,” and sells at local farmers’ markets. It also works with SAD 6 schools to develop and run gardens and develop curriculum to incorporate that experience in the classroom.
The overall hope is to get children to understand where their food comes from and the importance of eating healthy — lessons that their parents hopefully will absorb as well, Rudolph said.
If his farm were to receive federal funds, he would be able to replicate the work done in SAD 6 in other areas, Rudolph said.
“We’re just scratching the surface about teaching kids and adults about where their food’s coming from, and how to grow it,” he said.