There is no evidence to support the claim that farm subsidies -- by making fattening foods relatively cheap and abundant -- contribute to obesity in the United States, according to an analysis led by UC Davis researchers.
"U.S. farm subsidies have many critics. A variety of arguments and evidence can be presented to show that the programs are ineffective, wasteful or unfair," said Julian Alston, a professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis. "Eliminating farm subsidies could solve some of these problems -- but would not even make a dent in America's obesity problem."
According to Alston and his colleagues, farm subsidies have had only very modest, mixed effects on the total availability and prices of farm commodities, and cannot have contributed significantly to the obesity epidemic. In fact, the researchers have shown that the subsidies actually increase consumer prices and discourage consumption of one of the biggest suspects: sugar.
Alston and a team of other UC Davis agricultural economists studied the question with researchers in the UC Davis Department of Nutrition and the Iowa State University Department of Economics.
Their conclusions appeared in the December 2007 issue of "Agricultural and Resource Economics Update," published by the University of California's Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics.
UC researchers studied farm-to-hospital initiatives in the Bay Area, and they found a growing movement to put locally produced food on patient trays and cafeteria menus. They say that buying from local farmers and ranchers is part of a trend toward better quality and flavor in hospital meals, both to satisfy consumer demand and to address concerns about dietary contributions to chronic disease.
"Just replacing food-service cans with locally grown vegetables won't curb high rates of obesity and heart disease, but it may encourage patients and cafe customers to increase their daily intake of vegetables," said study co-author Gail Feenstra. "And if there's one piece of firm advice from nutritionists, it's to eat more fruits and vegetables."
One example of a "farm-to-hospital" initiative is the John Muir Health System facilities in the East Bay, where executive chef Alison Negrin (formerly chef at some of the Bay Area's best known restaurants, including Chez Panisse) has replaced all frozen vegetables with fresh produce, most of which is grown within 150 miles of the hospital.
Now John Muir patient lunch trays feature a local, seasonal fruit of the day. John Muir cafes offer bowls of citrus fruits from Capay Valley orchards and steam trays of fresh broccoli and cauliflower grown in Monterey County, local mixed lettuces in the salad bars and grass-fed beef from area ranches in the hamburgers.
Hospitals have the buying power to make a big difference in local food networks, Feenstra said. "They buy more than $12 billion of food every year."
The report, "Emerging Local Food Purchasing Initiatives in Northern California Hospitals," is available online at http://sarep.ucdavis.edu/cdpp/fti/.