By Allison Geyer
Stacked brazenly beside baskets of fresh summer produce, 21 sweet, golden Twinkies infiltrated the Bridgeview Plaza farmers market Wednesday morning.
Boasting an "official" shelf life of 25 days and accounting for 13 percent of daily recommended saturated fat intake, the classic Hostess snack cake contains enriched wheat flour, sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated soybean oil and even beef fat.
Twinkies have virtually no nutritional value.
And their ingredients are subsidized by federal tax dollars.
The display provided a backdrop for the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group's presentation of its "Apples to Twinkies 2012" report comparing taxpayer subsidies for junk food and fresh produce.
"Between 1995 and 2011, American taxpayers spent $18.2 billion on subsidies for junk food additives," said WISPIRG campaign director Alysha Burt. "That's enough to buy 21 Twinkies for every taxpayer."
In contrast, only $637 million went towards subsidizing apples over the same time period. Apples are one of the only fresh fruits or vegetables that have a significant federal subsidy, Burt said.
"That's only half an apple per taxpayer," she said.
La Crosse residents share the expense, paying $177,000 per year for junk food subsidies compared to just $6,000 for apples.
According to the report, the vast majority of commodity crops are "fed to livestock, turned into biofuels or processed into additives like high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated vegetable oils." Only 1 percent of U.S.-produced corn is directly eaten by humans.
Agricultural subsidies benefit big agribusiness, like Cargill and Monsanto, Burt said, while leaving small, family-owned farmers to struggle. "Seventy-five percent of subsidies go to just 3.8 percent of U.S. farmers," according to the report.
WISPIRG is drawing attention to this disparity with the hope of reforming the next farm bill, calling for an end to the "wasteful spending" on subsidizing commodity crops like corn and soybeans. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, is a leader among farm bill reform and advocates amendments that will reduce these "huge taxpayer subsidies."
"It's not fiscally responsible in light of the budget deficit, and it's not helpful to the family farms here in Wisconsin," he said.
Kind says that if the farm bill were properly reformed, it could become the "healthy food bill of the 21st Century. "
The farm bill is not scheduled to come up for debate in Congress and Kind thinks it's unlikely to happen before the November election.
"It's unfortunate, because farmers need to know what to expect," he said. "The more the farm bill is delayed, the more uncertainty is created. That's not what this country needs."
Also important are the farm bill's health care implications, Kind said, emphasizing that "diversified agricultural production" is important for public health.
The nation's childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past 30 years, according to the report, and one in five children aged 6-11 is now obese. This puts them at risk for preventable health issues like diabetes, Burt said, adding that the consumption of junk food is a significant factor in these problems.
"This is important information for people to know and understand," said La Crosse County Sustainability Coordinator Nick Nichols, who attended the presentation. "Especially when taxpayer money is being used to subsidize junk food."
But it's difficult to know if the general public shares these concerns. One portly gentleman approached the WISPIRG display, asking if the Twinkies were for sale.
But when Burt sweetly offered him an apple instead, he walked away and said, "No thanks."