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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actually, i think it's something to consider. afterall, we tax cigarettes and alcohol. the revenue generated could be used to fund cool stuff like universal healthcare or headstart or healthy school lunches. Report
Have the high taxes on cigarettes stopped people from smoking? No. So how will taxes on junk food get people to make better food choices? It won't work.

I have a better idea - stop supplementing the ethanol industry and stop burning our food. Drill for oil in the United States which will bring down the cost of everything so we can afford to eat the good stuff.

And one more thing, stop taxing me to death to pay for welfare and other government programs for people who make bad choices in life. I have worked hard for what I have and I'm tired of people taking it from me. Report
We cannot control every aspect of our citizens' lives by taxing them into good choices. Bad idea. Report
While i like the idea of the Google vending machine, cmon people, this is a bad idea - why? because yet again, it absolves the INDIVIDUAL from any responsibility for their actions. That - is an epidemic in our country that needs to be stopped. The real issue is pressure on family time because both parents work thereby creating the inability to prepare food at home due to lack of time, the lack of access to fresh food/supermarkets in the inner city, the bombardment/hypnosis of society by the "screen" - be it TV, video games, ipads, whatever.

These are the real issues that need to be addressed. I dont profess to have all the answers, but we as a society need to recognize the real issues and stop relying on legislation to solve society's problems. WE need to solve our problems. Report
I don't buy the notion that just because you are poor, you don't have any idea how to cook healthy food. Who doesn't know how to boil water and throw some vegetables in, or read directions on a bag to know how many minutes to cook veggies in a microwave?? If people know how to reheat a pizza or a burger, they can do the same with the healthy food. And what is people's big obsession with government interference in our lives? They don't want government involved but they don't mind the corporate invasion right into our living rooms via tv and satellite, filling our minds with all the things we need to have--from fast food to the latest high tech gadget!! After being hypnotized, we mindlessly reach in our pockets and hand over whatever money is needed to get these must have "things". People should be aware of who the real enemy is--and don't blame government, who, after all were elected by us in the first place! Report
Love it, love it, LOVE IT! As usual Bittman nails it on the head!

The gov't already subsidizes anyway...nothing new here: BUT!

Why not use the power of subsidies for GOOD, not for ILL?!?!

Been ranting about this for a long, long time:

Don, Co-Leader of All Health Professionals, Binghamton Area Losers and Laid Off But Staying Strong SparkTeams Report
This idea is always a failure. Just another way for the tax-and-spend government to have us agree to more socialism. Report
I think it's a great idea. Being someone on a tight budget, it's hard to make healthy choices, when junk food is way cheaper. I can buy a totinos pizza for $1, but ground turkey is $4/lb, plus any sides. Right now, even seasonal veggies are still high. I can only eat beans and other cheap healthy options for so long before i want a change. I would definitely support this action! Report
There was a time when there were taxes, & since we've been taxed, it has grown quiet a bit. We do not need any more taxes!! Report
The liberals in congress already believe they know much better what's good for me than I do... and you see what a botched up mess things are in now. Keep the government out of my kitchen and Sparkpeople managers... stick to food and health issues and keep out of politics. Report
i don't think that taxing unhealthy food will solve the problem.... You go to mc donalds for a burger and fries and not for a salad right? And if the burger and the fries were more expensive than the salad you would still get the burgers and the fries! You can't force people to change their behavior, but you can educate them so maybe (if they choose to) they can make better choices in the future for themselves. Report
This is exactly how taxes are supposed to work--promote better choices, discourage bad choices (like alcohol and cigarette taxes). It doesn't take away choice, it encourages more healthy habits. I also agree with the folks who mention the ridiculous big-Agra subsidies--enough! Report
All this would amount to is a regressive tax, and the burden would be felt disproportionately by lower income Americans. Even if they wanted to eat healthier, a) many don't know how and b) many people living in urban and rural poverty don't have access to healthy food. The biggest roadblock to their eating healthy isn't a lack of desire for fruits and vegetables, but a lack of access. Wealthier consumers may be swayed by the tax to eat healthier, but the poor would be stuck paying more with no alternative! How could you justify taxing the poor so that the middle and upper class can save money? Report
California tried this, but the problem was no one could agree on what was 'junk food.' So, we had a tax on potato chips but not on pretzels, for example. It was ridiculous. There have to be better ways of *educating* people and providing them with good options, not just using taxes as a constant punishment. Report
Not knowing how to cook is not an excuse for junk food.
No, not everyone can be a 4 star chef, but cooking is not difficult.
If you can read (and it doesn't have to be in English), then you can learn to cook.
Or even just watching some videos.
Cooking is simple and should be fun and looked forward to.
Taxing junk food is great - think of all the money we waste paying for people's health issues because they don't eat right, which leads to other bad lifestyle choices.
And lowering the cost of healthy foods? Thank You! Report
Its good if healtier stuff is cheaper but what is the root cause of
unhealthy food - the companies making them maybe they are the ones
to be taxed! Report
Government has no place controlling what we eat. The government taxes us enough. Many people are strulling enough because of the stupid stuff that's being done. How would the many people who do not have a job, going to pay for this idea. Many can barely feed their families and are eating as cheap as they can and I am sure some of the choices they have to make are not healthy. Taxes are not the answer. What about getting all the unhealthy chemicals out of the food and stop importing our food. Put our countries farmers back to work!!! Report
It won't work. Part of the reason people buy junk foods is because they don't know how to cook healthy ones. So stores could charge $0.50 for a pound of anything healthy and it still wouldn't help.

At the risk of sterotyping, have you ever seen a "poor" smoker do without smokes? They're crazy expensive (at least they are here in Alberta) yet they are never without. They cut back in other places to make due.

The same thing will happen here. They don't know how to cook the good stuff, so they will have to find places to cut back to buy the "foods" they understand. Report
I think we need to have less government, period. People need to do what's right on their own or suffer consequences. Government can't manage the things they are supposed to be good at so adding more to their agenda will create bigger government, burdensome regulations, and more abuses. Report
Anybody ever read "1984"? Big Brother is getting way too big ,,, and not from food.. from our rights and freedom..
If you read that blog again, it sounds like a parent punishing a bad child.. taking privileges away, penalizing,, Report
You could always "tax" yourself ('though this would require some discipline)... Use the pricing strategy that is employed by Google's vending machine... and take any amount over the cost of the food itself and put it away - and then, when you've hit your final goal... use that money to celebrate.

I know my jar would be filling rapidly in the beginning and then would taper off as the economics and my health started changing my habits.

It won't work on a national scale, but it would on an individual one. Report
The government may not need more control, but I could sure use it. I'd love for my healthy food to be inexpensive and my indulgences to hit me a little harder in the pocketbook, rather than the other way around (which is how they are currently). I pay a premium for healthful foods, because they're raised ethically, or without chemicals and I'd pay a bit more for my monthly ice cream cone to spend less on my daily healthful choices.

I don't really see it as handing over control to the government. I see it as a societal change in how we choose to spend our money and what we're willing to pay for. Also, let's not diminish the effect that a choice like this could have on world (or even US) hunger. $0.50/lb. for staple food could sure feed a lot of hungry people. Report
No! the government does not need more control. They have to much already. We need to be adults and make our own decisions even though they may differ from others. Report
I don't need the government rewarding or punishing me for my dietary choices. How about starting with eliminating the crop subsidies and letting the cost of processed food rise a bit; maybe then some folks may start making better choices. Or, how about parents quit indoctrinating their children into fast food addiction. In a few generations we could be back to a natural thinness. Watch TV from the 60s and 70s, paying attention to when the shot pans a crowd; for the most part, those people are skinny! Report
if it were so "easy" to "regulate" what we eat, would not exist. junk foods are addictive, this has been proven. the idea that people keep more money in their pockets for buying healthier foods has merit. im not suggesting that it would be perfect, but it most certainly is an interesting idea. Report
We don't need government manipulating what we eat. People can make their own choices and live with the consequences. Positive or negative. Report
enough with big government and their big taxes, they need to stay out of our eating. I don't eat out and the 2 or 3 times a year I do, I don't want to pay higher prices for folks who choose that life style of garbage that costs too much already. Report
Agree with Greenmama's post #57 - its the subsidizing at the front end that should be critically reviewed and improved, toward cheaper, healthier products. Report
A horrible idea. More government intervention, control and taxes....what is wrong with you people? Maybe we should tax people on how often they have sex too, or smile, and on and on. Where will it ever end. I'm sick to death of everything being controlled. Report
Taxes? More taxes? More burden to those of us who are still working? Are these people crazy? We are already taxed too much and government is too big- quit giving them control of everything we do- this is ridiculuous! I take responsibilities for my actions- so should everyone else.

People keep saying good food is too expensive- look at what you are paying for the crap you are eating! I personally think most of what we eat is more a matter of convenience because life is now so fast paced rather than anything else. It takes time to plan and cook a meal, the drive through is 10 minutes tops, cost wise it is about the same. Report
The truth is, agricultural subsidies make unhealthy foods cheaper. Period. Without agricultural subsidies, the price of beef would be over $90 a pound. Potatoes, corn (the kind that makes High Fructose Corn Syrup), and other "commodity crops" that are used to make fast food and junk food are so heavily subsidized that they are super-cheap. I don't think we should have a junk food tax, I think we should eliminate the corporate welfare that supports the junk food peddlers. Report
Years ago, I opposed Ohio (my home state) taxing carbonated beverages as carry-out items at restaurants while beverages like juice, tea, coffee and water were exempted. Why? Simple; I don't think it's right to single out one segment of an industry and penalize them for no really good reason. Same attitude here.

No matter how bad fast food may be for me, I'm responsible for putting it in my mouth, not the restaurant. I just don't think it's a good policy to proceed this way, and frankly, I don't want someone removing my responsibility from me. Report
I understand Mr. Bittman's frustration, and I do think we should take a cold, hard look at how current agricultural subsidies and corporate policies favor the production and sale of cheap, processed, unhealthy food. Still, Mr. Bittman's proposal would probably feed the bloat of government bureaucracy more than slim American waistlines. This battle must be fought mano a mano -- in the hearts and homes of each one of us. Start a revolution on your plate, America! Report
The only truly stupid ideas are the ones never to see the light of day.While this would have many obstacles to overcome (not the least of which is the government actually using the tax collected for it's purpose) it does have merit. I like the vending machine idea on a broader basis. Report
We already have too many people deciding what is good for us and legislating their own agenda. While I would like to have good food be cheaper, adding another layer of people that we have to pay deciding what to tax is not a good thing. Report
One of the reasons I rarely comment is that I've seen the viciousness that can occur (very sad, since SparkPeople is about supporting...even when you don't agree). Can we stop resorting to name-calling. We all need to work together to solve this crisis (and obesity is a crisis). Education, yes (but it doesn't seem to be helping). Making responsible choice..indeed, if only... and I believe my choice will be to no longer read the comments or comment, there is enough negativism in the world. Report
I support a tax on junk food...everyone seems to not be focusing that the author said the monies could be used to subsidize the healthier, fresh foods (lowering the cost). Even upping food stamps for healthier choices wouldn't be a bad idea. I'm not saying people on food stamps can't buy junk food if they want, but encouraging healthier choices would benefit us all (as many people who eat junk food end up with chronic conditions for which we (as a society) pay..especially if those people are unable to afford their own healthcare and end up in the system. If I want McDs (which I really like), I don't mind paying more for it. But I would probably be more likely to go buy fruits and veggies for the same price. Report
I do not believe that precious tax dollars should be spent on something that can be solved with education. The fact is, many people make bad food choices, they know they are bad, but they do them anyways. Perhaps we can spend more to educate people about healthy food, healthy alternatives, and where to get help if they really have a problem. Report
I am against all government taxes period! we already pay more than enough - especially for illegal aliens - whether that be through new schools, lunch programs, cops chasing children who were supposedly kidnapped but really just the coyote getting their money, the pass thru as illegal drugs , unbelievable amounts of money for hospitals incl pampers .... who needs any more government anybody ! just think of how your money is wasted by TSAettes who have to be some of the rudest people on the planet Report
I think it would help people in that they wouldn't be able to afford as much junk. Plus it would help convince people to spend their money on products that are actually good for them! Report
i am against govt. regulations when it comes to this matter. There certainly has been enough publicity about the dangers of obesity. If people choose to ignore it, it is their business, not mine and not govts.

I feel the same way about smoking, too. Report
Absolutely terrrible idea. I understand we have a problem w/ those foods in this country but more education about the problem would be better than MORE TAXES. We already pay a ridiculous amount already. Report
I would not be willing to pay more for unhealthy food. Report
bad idea...a lot of poorer communities don't have access to a good supply of healthy food options. They will end up paying more money for bad food! Report
I agree. We should tax junk food just as we tax cigarettes. Higher taxes are related to less smoking, especially among our young people.

We have traditionally used taxes to shape behavior (e.g., the mortgage interest deduction to encourage home ownership).

We have individual problems, but also a problem as a culture--that we will all pay for in terms of lower quality of life, increased health care costs for ourselves and others. Report
It's a terrible idea. Think about the lotto/casinos. They're supposed to pay for schools, and things like that, but every year they change something and suddenly they will now pay for schools? (I come from Illinois, politics are messy here)
The money will end up being diverted elsewhere. It always does
we need to work on accessibility to healthy foods regardless of where you live first! Report
I don't agree with using taxes to shape our behavior. Ultimately it is what has made the tax code so complicated and it will continue to do so until we stop trying to control everyone with money. Report
Legislating good choices has never worked well. I agree. Report
While i do believe we are overtaxed in some areas i love the vending machine idea. if food was priced based on its sugar or bad content. I think that would be awesome. Then it would cost more for a bag of potato chips than it would for a bag of apples, say. That's part of the issue. The bad stuff is cheaper for you than the good stuff. Way to go Google. Report
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