Last Saturday, Mark Bittman of the New York Times argued in an article that raising taxes on unhealthy foods would cause Americans to jettison soda and chips, but many food bloggers and columnists disagree. So what is the key to leveling out the food subsidies that the government doles out?

The part of Bittman’s proposal that enraged critics states the government should have a much larger say in our diet. Bittman is of the opinion that “rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.”

This sounds reasonable, as the prices of fruits and vegetables have been increasing at such an alarming rate that now a dollar can be used to buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit. Unhealthy foods have an unfair price advantage in the competition causing Americans to abandon produce in favor of junk.

However, some argue that putting the government in charge of what people eat can infringe on our rights as Americans to eat whatever we please and it also leads to a slippery slope argument: Who gets to decide which foods are unhealthy? How much should each food be taxed? Bittman provides some sample answers such as 2 cents per ounce of soda, 50 cents for a serving of fries, half that for a doughnut.

His proposal assured that taxes would not only curb bad eating habits but also raise billions of dollars annually, which can then be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods and natural produce. The entire system would be turned on its head and Americans would have a healthy option.

Some radicals go so far as to propose solutions like eliminating the FDA (among other government agencies) because they serve the interests of the junk food manufacturers who profit from Americans’ bad eating habits, and in turn serve big pharmaceutical companies who profit off the ensuing diabetes and other debilitating health conditions.

A gradual change

Obviously changes like that are impossible. We must work within our current system to, ideally, produce a realistic solution that incorporates ideas from both sides. While it is true the government generally likes to protect profit centers they must slowly shift the power over. Imposing new taxes on foods that are intrinsic to our culture seems almost anti-American. We rely on the Dollar Menu and Coca Cola; it would be foreign if they were not always readily available.

Bittman’s idea to impose extreme negative reinforcement will not get people to stop eating junk; they’ll just sacrifice more of their budget for it. Just look at cigarettes. Rather, as ridiculous as it sounds, we need positive incentives for eating healthy (because being healthy clearly is not enough in and of itself).

First, the positive

What about the opposite route of Bittman’s proposal? Logging a certain amount of produce purchased every year could become a tax benefit, especially because a lot of the numbers crunched in Bitmman’s article refer directly to the amount this country will save in healthcare costs. Even as children we learn the effects positive reinforcement, and if we “reward” produce consumption it can get Americans to be more conscious of their eating habits.

The reason why this will work is that once Americans get all gung-ho about eating healthy more people will catch on (or it will fail and be abandoned, but at least it won’t cause an almighty uproar of skepticism). If it works, then, and only then, can we impose a tax on unhealthy foods. New taxes get people very irate, but if they first saw the reward they would more readily accept its corresponding penalties.

By preparing Americans for this type of government control over our eating habits with an incentive, it alerts them that the government will step in if it needs to, and reassures citizens that they are in favor of a healthy food market and reasonable eating habits.

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