If you saw the movie “Food, Inc.,” you’re likely to remember the family of four who discovered eating at fast-food restaurants was more affordable than buying groceries. They were able to buy four hamburgers for less than it would cost them to buy four pieces of fruit.

The message was clear: Because beef and grains are highly subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the price of the beef patty and bun can be kept low. Since fruit receives little of the USDA’s money, the price of fruit can be cost-prohibitive.

Last week, with the introduction of the USDA’s MyPlate brought this problem into focus. Half of the foods we should be eating should be fruit and vegetables, according the the the USDA. Yet, fruits and vegetables make up less than 1 percent of the foods that the USDA subsidizes. MyPlate puts dairy off to the side, diminishing its importance, and protein (which includes meat) is less than a quarter of the plate. Yet, 63 percent of the USDA subsidy budget goes to meat and dairy.

Nutritionist Andy Belatti, on his Small Bites blog, makes this spot-on observation.

I don’t believe Americans are lacking knowledge or awareness that fruits and vegetables are healthy; the problem is that fruits and vegetables compete with artificially priced junk food in the marketplace. Lucky Charms and Trix are so cheap because they are made with crop subsidies; meat is cheap because cows are fed government-subsidized crops, and so on and so forth. Is My Plate suddenly going to make a pound of vegetables cost less, and a box of Lucky Charms cost more?  Will My Plate turn food deserts into areas where residents can have access to healthy foods? No.
This is exactly the problem the family of four in “Food, Inc.” faced. The new MyPlate icon makes much better recommendations than the old food pyramid, but the reality is that the fruits and vegetables that should be filling our plates are still more expensive at the grocery store than the $1 burger from the fast-food restaurant.

I have to wonder if the USDA was expecting this discussion to pop up about the MyPlate recommendations vs. where the money goes. If it didn’t, there’s a lot of panicking going on at the USDA right now. If it did, perhaps Secretary Tom Vilsack and his staff hoped that this discussion would happen. Maybe they’re hoping that people get vocal — very vocal — about this disparity. It might make fixing the subsidies problem a lot easier for them if this discussion went viral and didn’t end.

Head over to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website and take a look at the MyPlate icon placed side by side with a graph of farm subsidies to get a true picture of the disparity. Discuss this disparity with people you know. Let’s keep this discussion going so that when it’s time for the farm bill to be voted on, Congress knows that we want subsidies for the right foods so that everyone can afford to eat nutritiously.  

Also on MNN:

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Comparing MyPlate to farm subsidies
If the USDA says that vegetables and fruits should make up half of our diets, why does less than 1 percent of its food subsidies go to farmers who grow produce?