In a study (links to .pdf) released last year, CalPIRG found that federal food subsidies amounted to $7.36 for junk food (corn syrup, HFCS, corn starch, and soy oils) and $0.11 for apples on a yearly per-tax payer basis. Apples, by the way, are the only fresh fruit or vegetable that receives significant USDA subsidy.
Washington’s approximately 3.5 million taxpayers pay this money, every year in their federal taxes, to support midwest agribusiness like ConAgra and what we get back for our investment is diabetes and childhood obesity.
Like many midwestern states, Washington is a major food producer, especially of healthy foods like apples, cherries, and fish. Why does Iowa get federal subsidies and Washington doesn’t? The answer is complicated but includes a mixture of practical and political considerations. That still doesn’t relieve the sense of unfairness that the junk food we eat is cheap because we pay for it through national taxes but the healthy food Washingtonians produce is expensive because we’re doing it on our own.
The Commerce Clause of the US Constitution prevents discriminatory treatment of products originating from different states, but it is legal to tax ingredients. The Candy tax, defeated by Washington voters a year and a half ago (for some reason I still don’t understand because we seem more than happy taxing the hell out of cigarettes and liquor in this state), demonstrates that a tax of this kind is possible and manageable.
Let’s redistribute the money we give away to midwestern agribusiness through the USDA and reinvest it in making healthy food cheaper through the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Isn’t it worth trading higher priced Twinkies and Coke for $1/jar of fresh salsa and $0.25 avocados? This is what smart sales taxes should do — discourage consumption with negative externalities and encourage consumption with positive externalities. Right now we’re doing the opposite.