Food for Thought: Should We Tax Junk Food, Subsidize the Good Stuff?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
We all know that, as a country, we're eating too much salt, sugar, and fat, and not enough "real" and unprocessed foods. We also know that eating right on a budget (especially for Americans who receive public assistance in order to buy food) can be a challenge (though not an impossibility), and that in many parts of the country, food deserts are a sad reality.

But what's the answer? I recently an interesting plan, along with a small-scale example of how we can discourage people from buying unhealthy foods by charging more for them.

In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, food activist and journalist Mark Bittman proposed taxing junk food to subsidize a healthier diet for all Americans.
Bittman explains:

"simply put: taxes would reduce consumption of unhealthful foods and generate billions of dollars annually. That money could be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.

We could sell those staples cheap — let’s say for 50 cents a pound — and almost everywhere: drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas, supermarkets, liquor stores, even schools, libraries and other community centers."

Recently nutrition professor Marion Nestle wrote about Google's impressive healthy food program on her blog, Food Politics.
Among the interesting takeaways from her blog post:

"The only place on the [Google corporate] campus where employees pay for food is from a vending machine.  The pricing strategy is based on nutrient content, again according to the Harvard pyramid plan.  For the vended products, you pay:
  • one cent per gram of sugar
  • two cents per gram of fat
  • four cents per gram of saturated fat
  • one dollar per gram of trans fat
On this basis, Quaker Chewy Bars are 15 cents each, Famous Amos cookies are 55 cents, and an enormous Ghirardelli chocolate bar is $4.25.  Weights don’t count and neither do calories.  The machine is not run by Google.  Whoever does it has a sense of humor."

No word on whether the granola bars outsell the Ghirardelli bars--or vice versa.

What do you think? Would you be willing to pay more for unhealthy food? Do you think such a plan would work better on a small scale or as a countrywide initiative?

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I agree Report
This government administration already has us on a fast track to socialism. Let's stop being the "Nanny Country" and get Government out of every aspect of our lives. Report
Junk food is already subsidized through corn subsidies. Cut the corn subsidies (since it mostly goes to 'commodity corn' which is fed to animals or turned into HFCS) and most junk food would go down in price. Spend those subsidies on actual vegetables in sustainable-scale agriculture, and healthy foods would go down in price. Report
Let's just Big Brother ourselves to death then we don't have to worry about weight loss or healthy eating anymore. Report
No! A) We are already taxed too much overall and B) It is none of the governments business what we eat. Enough already!! Report
I think you'd quickly encounter policy problems related to 'what's junk food' and who decides. Report
I'm not in favor of taxing junk food any more than taxing healthy food. Report
I would have no trouble paying extra for junk food; I hardly ever eat it. Now, if we could just reduce the calorie count of nuts..... Report
Actually some states have (at least indirectly) this type of tax. Some do not place any sales tax on "natural" food such as fresh fruit, vegetables, or plain meat, but do apply sales tax to things such as candy and chips. Report
Taxes, taxes, and more taxes. This will certainly make the government happy. Where will it end. Having a junk food tax is a wonderful idea. While we're at it lets add an incredibly high amount on achohol. That way those who drink might quit driving while drunk and damaging others and then lets add even more taxes to those who drive gas guzzlers. After all, they are leaving a huge carbon foot print on our world. Oh! and lets add taxes to any processed food. Then we can add higher taxes to makeup that's been tested on animals. I agree Americans are fat. I, nor anyone else has the right to tell anyone what to eat, drink, or drive. I feel education is key. I for one can't afford anymore taxes of anykind. What will happen is yes there will be taxes collects from the purchase. The truck company that delivers the item will add their increase, so will the stores that sell it. So the increase is trippled if not more and that will all be passed on. So if anyone thinks that the way to go. Think again. Then also think about the things you enjoy because it is healthy. Someone may say healthy items should be taxed to keep them that way. Could be as simple as adding 5 cents to any healthy foods. If healthy foods aren't purchased you may recieve a tax bill for not buying healthy foods. Where will it end, do we really want the government in our lives. After all, these same folks can't manage the money they have. Report
I think this is a wonderful idea! I know a lot of people who quit smoking cigarettes because the taxes made them too expensive. . . Taxes will also cause these issues to be taken seriously and make more people THINK! Report
I don't know if a tax is the best way to tackle this problem. The junk food industry is so wealthy and powerful they can always come up with a better PR campaign than governments. Consumer education is fine and dandy but as long as Big Junk Food is allowed to run their ad campaigns the constant blaring drowns out all the good information out there. That's where government should step in, especially with all the ads that are directed at kids. Report
As much as I like the idea of knowing the "damage" a food item will cost me on the waistline before I even buy it ( hard to tell at a vending machine), I am fed up with government trying to control every little thing that I do. I would buy the junk out of spite. Report
I have no problem with putting a tax on junk food as long as the money actually goes for what it was intended for. Most of the time it does not. Also, who will say what is junk food. It's easy to say candy and soda but what about common breakfast foods like cereals and breakfast bars. These are typically thought of as good for you but the calorie/fat/carb content of most are higher then many candy bars. Report
YES, tax the junk food, and YES quit over charging for the healthy food. Report
I agree that we are taxed too much as it is. I am against the costs of healthy foods going up higher and higher. 2 naval oranges cost $2.00 these days. =0 Report
I like the idea of the vending machine. If we had one of these at work, I might still buy the chocolate bar, but only when I REALLY wanted one. Most of the time, when I wanted a snack I would select the healthy option. Report
I don't think a tax would work but food stamps should only be used for good foods leaving out the soda, candy and junk food. They should be spent on the foods they are meant to be spent on. If a person wants the other things, they should pay cash for them. Report
I don't think it will work. However, I like the idea of another member that you should not be able to use food stamps to buy candy and chips. Report
No, not a good idea. Anyone ever watch the movie Demolition Man? Report
Sure, I shouldn't have to pay a premium to eat what comes from the ground while others get off easy buy paying next to nothing for food from labs. Report
The government must stop subsidizing farmers that's why junk food is so cheap - corn is subsidized while broccoli is not. So our beef is fed corn instead of their natural diet of grass, etc. And, because of cheap corn, we use it as a sweetener in everything.
The prices for junk food in the vending machines are a creative idea although I would make sugar more expensive than fat. We need some fat in the diet for health but there is no nutritional value to sugar. Report
NO! The very idea is disturbing. I believe nutrition education is key, but ultimately it is ALWAYS going to fall back on the individual to make the final call (as long as we still have the ability to make our own choices). Of course, the trouble with "nutrition education" is that at the end of the day, you've got a bunch of different viewpoints about what makes a particular food item healthy/unhealthy, and different approaches work for different people. Report
After the Reagan administration recognized ketchup as a vegetable (for school lunches), I'm a little dubious about what the government might decide was healthy and what was junk. Is high fructose corn syrup healthy because it came from corn?

I might not mind certain temptation foods being priced higher so I'm not likely to reach for it. Report
No, No,No , this is not a good idea. Educate and be positive, people. Punitive measures won't help anything. No food is entirely bad or good, in moderation. Be a good example, share ideas for incorporating healthier foods, but don't be nasty. That only makes people defensive and determined not to let folks tell them what to do or eat. It backfires.

Nobody is going to include fresh greens in their diet if they have no clue how to fix them or if they don't enjoy them, so subsidizing random healthy expensive foods won't help, either. Report
Taxing booze and cigarettes doesn't dissuade many from, I doubt a tax on a Twinkie is gonna do much.

How bout, easing off on those $80 hammers, phat salaries for politicians, so much aid to foreign countries, and make all food a little cheaper here by helping the farmers out with that money? Think of tha lost crops this year thats drivin prices up.....

Use it toward making the "good for us" foods as easy and accessible as the "bad" stuff....then, maybe all can be happy and learn to be healthy as we go.... Report
If we could actually have a good system for taxing unhealthy food (and using the taxes to subsidize health care), that would be fine. But agribusiness who produces the cheap ingredients for the junk food and the corporations who make and sell it have given contributions to Congress to make sure that their interests are upheld. It's not going to happen.

I pay more to buy real food at the farmers market and to buy organic when possible, despite being low-income. Report
Yes, healthy food is always more expensive! Why not chrage more for those foods which add to the obesity epidemic in this country!!!??? Report
In Illinois, we already have a similar situation in that we have what is called a "high tax" on certain "junk foods" like candy and soda. The problem that I see is that those who use the government food program pay no taxes on their food purchases therefore, it is only those who pay by other means (cash, etc.) that are "penalized". I agree that the government of "free people" should not "control" what we chose to eat. They should be exercising more control over how they spend our tax money. Report
I think as long as junk food is available, people are going to keep consuming it. Even if there's tax. Report
It's complete hypocrisy for the government to impose a "sin tax" on the same foods that are allowable under the Food Stamps program. Report
Although the vending machine is a unique idea, I don't think taxing more food(even junk food) is the way to go. Here in Illinois they put an extra tax on candy. Has it stopped anybody from buying candy? NO!

Too much government interference in all things is what has caused a lot of problems. The people on welfare don't care if they eat healthy since it doesn't cost them anything in the long run. And the rest of us can make our own decisions based on our needs and desires. Subsidies and taxes of any kind only benefit certain people and I can tell you, I am not one of them. Report
What is considered "Junk Food" it depends soley on the preparation and delivery. Baked Fries vs deep fried fries? just an example of making better choices for yourselves and teaching the children to do the same. Report
NO NO NO - I do not believe in "subsidizing" anything. In AMERICA we are suppose to be free to choose. It is up to us to make good decisions. Supply and demand dictate prices, and what is available. I don't eat fast food more than 4 times a year. I don't utilize vending machines, I have control and I am fiercely proud and protective of my freedoms. I do not believe at all in the government controlling and deciding what is good and what isn't. I will make that choice myself!! Report
The problem is in how you define "junk food" vs. "healthy food".

I too have often lamented about how my food bill seems to go up when I amm trying to eat healthy. Why does whole grain pasta cost more than white pasta for example? Fat in an of itself does not equal junk food. Many low-fat so-called health foods are high in sugar content, whould these be taxed? Or is it only convenience foods that we are talking about regardless of nutritional content? Does that mean we are targeting working moms and single guys disproportionately? It doesn't seem fair to me that the only people not being taxed would have to be those who do not work all day so they have 60+ minutes each day to prepare dinner from scratch?
Who accounts for different dietary needs? Low carb diets are often sneered at by "healthy eating" proponents because they are high fat, but they work for many who have trouble regulating their blood sugar.
Seems to me that what we should be striving for is to make nutritional education more readily available to all. Deceptive claims on packaging should be removed. And serving size on nutrional labels should be more common sense. For example a can of soup should not be 2.5 servings. 2 maybe... But no one is taking the other 1/2 servings and collecting them to eat at another time. You know that most people eat 2 slices of bread in a sandwich. So list the serving size as 2 slices instead of 1. Then when you're trying to figure out what you are actually consuming you don't have to try to do math when you're hungry. Report
I think it's a good idea. I believe that if people won't take responsibility for their own health, then they should have to pay more for their bad choices. Same thing holds true for tobacco use, if you want to smoke, you should have to pay more for it. We also know that manufacturers won't do the right thing, unless it's good for their "bottom line". Therefore, when it becomes conducive to them to make healthier products, then they will comply. I also believe that processed foods should be more expensive, because we all know that they are "loaded" with sodium chloride. There are healthier alternatives to the overuse of it. So, until manufacturers "get with the program" and start doing the right thing, it should cost more for them to market these products. The extra money can be used to subsidize healthier food choices. Report
I'm reading this and taking both opinions seriously, HOWEVER, I think a compramise could be met here. For example while its true that from one person to another what is considered "healthy" differs. BUT soda pop will NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES be good for anyone! So I think they should raise the price on things like that THAT ARE UNDENIABLY BAD FOR PEOPLE and lower the cost of things like whole wheat bread and fresh fruits and veggies. And to who ever said its even when it comes to produce and junk is outta their mind! I can feed a family of 5 on 30 bucks if I dont care about adding any FRESH produce or LEAN meats. As a mom it would be nice to see things like that get a sweet price break instead of 2 liters of pop selling for .79cents and a 100% jug of juice being over 3 bucks! I mean come on! Report
This is a great topic. I feel that we have too many challenges when it comes to taxes (donít get me started) but I do feel we need ways to improve the quality of our health through food and exercise.

It is time to think outside of the box and find constructive ways to facilitate change. For example the posting of calories, sodium, carbs and fat content on restaurant menus is a great idea and it is already changing eating habits in cities where it has already been implimented.
Yes I would like to see a tax on Junk Food and much lower prices on the Healthy foods. It would help out good since healthy food is so expensive
everywhere you go. Especially unprocessed fresh or frozen seafood.
I like seafood but I am not going to pay $8.00 for a bag of frozen shrimp. Report
I think that WE'RE TAXED ENOUGH and that as in most aspects of our lives it's all about CHOICES. Report
No. Unless I am in charge and get to tell everyone else what to eat. Report
The vending machine example is GREAT! But I think a tax on junk food is in the eye of the beholder. I'd rather see the food manufacturers make healthier options. Report
Who gets to decide what is junk and what isn't? I think this is a terrible idea. The last thing we need in this country is more regulation. It's subsidization that got us in this boat to begin with. If the government would stop subsidizing corn and soybeans, maybe some of these issues would straighten themselves out. Report
So glad to see that most comments show people are aware that more government involvement means more taxes and more unnecessary restrictions on personal liberty. NO NO NO to nanny state! Report
I live in Arkansas where all food is taxed. A pretty regressive tax.

On the topic, who gets to decide what is junk. There are people who are low carb or low fat etc. who think the other side is unhealthy. Report
No, no, no, no, no! This discussion makes me crazy! How many times have "they" (scientists, the gov't) changed their minds over the years about what is healthy? Margarine was better for us than butter. Eggs were evil. Really?! What we choose to eat and fuel our bodies with is one of the most personal decisions we can make, and I for one, want the government and politics far, far away from it. They can't run what they are doing now, can't agree on a budget. No!

Further, I am so tired of hearing over and over again that crap food is cheaper. With the possible exception of ramen, I say that's a load of crap. I bought a huge pile of produce for $15 the other day. Are you seriously going to stand there and tell me that those boxes of sugary cereal are cheaper than oatmeal from the bulk bin, even after you dress it up with some milk and sugar? Or that eggs are simply too expensive? Or that you can't afford to buy some bags of dry beans? No. Just tell the truth and say you don't know how to cook them and don't want to be bothered to learn, or that you don't like those foods. And don't go comparing the price of processed foods to organic produce, either. That is not a fair comparison at all, because your cheap processed food is not made with organic produce. Report
Watch "Fat Head"... See how much our government and the USDA/FDA has LIED to us over the last 40 years. Fat is NOT the enemy. Excess carbohydrates are more to blame than anything else... Report
I have thought for a quite a while that "richer" foods i.e. those with more calories, should cost more. Sounds good to me!
I love the Google vending machine pricing example. Very clever! Report
Actually the government needs to stop subsidizing and taxing these kinds of things. Is corn a good food? Of course, but because the omnipotent government types decided to subsidize it we have everything made of corn. Corn sugar, animals fed exclusively with corn instead of grass and grain. The government told us to remove fat from our diet. So we have less fat but much more sugar and sodium. Stop listening to the experts and educate yourself. Report
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