OSPIRG works to combat unhealthy food subsidies

“It makes no sense that a box of Twinkies is less expensive than a bag of carrots.”

This statement, found on the website of the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group, summarizes the main argument against government subsidies to agribusiness firms, and is at the heart of OSPIRG’s recent “Stop Subsidizing Obesity” campaign.

“The issue is that the government has been subsidizing big agribusiness firms,” said Kristen Michaelis, a member of OSPIRG and one of the campaign organizers. “Because the government is subsidizing them, they grow as much as they can, and they end up with these huge surpluses.”

Michaelis explained that due to these surpluses, large food processing corporations purchase raw food material, mainly corn, soy and wheat, at significantly lower prices than they normally would. From these ingredients they manufacture high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean oil, refined wheat flour, and other additives shown to raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of a heart attack.

The low cost and availability of these additives is what Michaelis and OSPIRG have been trying to combat during their month-long campaign.

“The farm bill that addresses these issues comes up for debate in 2012,” said Michaelis. “We’re petitioning to make legislators rethink the bill … Our goal for now is 400 signatures.”

They are already well on their way to meeting that goal, having gathered over 350 signatures in only four days of tabling. Michaelis said most people they’ve talked to have been very supportive, recognizing the importance of the issue.

“The whole thing is such a big problem, it affects all of us so much and we don’t even know it,” she said. “A lot of people have been very enthusiastic about it, which is nice.”

Subsidies aren’t the only problem though. Agribusiness itself is a issue, said Michaelis, threatening small farmers and local agriculture, as well as negatively impacting the environment.

“Agribusiness completely breaks down the soil and the ecosystem around,” said Michaelis. “[However] even if people don’t understand the concept of agribusiness, they understand obesity, that makes it a bit more accessible for everybody.”

Michaelis hopes that with the combined efforts of all the Student Public Interest Research Groups, they will be able to sway the legislators in Salem.

“The only reason this could actually work is because OSPIRG isn’t just OSPIRG, it’s a bunch of different PIRGS in a bunch of different states,” she said. “Combined, that’s a lot of influence.”

“It’s really about being active and supporting what you believe should change the world,” she added.

OSPIRG will be screening “Food Inc.,” a documentary discussing the impact of food subsidies, on Nov. 9, from 6 p.m. to 9p.m., in the Hawthorne Classroom. A discussion will follow the documentary, and a stir-fry of locally grown vegetables will be served as well. Tickets are $3. For more information on the campaign itself, visit http://www.ospirgstudents.org/healthy-foods.

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