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Since we aren't being made to bear the full cost burden of our eating habits, of course we eat more than we would normally. It's hard to say exactly how much a pound of beef would cost if we took into account all the factors involved in getting it nice and neatly packed into a patty on your plate (feeding, housing and medicating the cattle, slaughtering and processing the meat, treating the meat for bacteria, pressing it into patties, shipping and storing it, plus the costs in environmental pollution from animal refuse and processing fuel, just to a name a few). If it were $20, how often would you indulge? I've heard figures as high as $90! Imagine how different your eating habits would be if you had to pay this every time you wanted a steak.

The point is, subsidized foods cost way less than they should and have a much larger presence in our lives as a result, and not because they're any easier to produce than regular old carrots. In fact, farmers of subsidized crops are charged with producing such a huge amount of food that their operations generally become much more complex, involving lots of machinery, medicines and chemical compounds to compensate for that fact that there is no possible way for them to manage their operations simply through human labor.

The worst of it is that American consumers are deliberately being kept in the dark when it comes to where, and how, and by whom their food is produced. Agricultural giants own the seeds, the fertilizer and pesticides, even the farms in some cases, and are well-equipped to limit how much can be said and how much can be done about their business practices. They spend money to divert your attention away from their operations—to make it difficult for you as a conscious consumer to discover what is going on, or to say anything about it if you do—because they're worried that, once you find out the truth, you might not want to buy their products anymore. And you know what? They're probably right.

Subsidies lay the groundwork for what's happening in our food system. What can you do about it? As a consumer, vote with your pocketbook. Create a market for affordable, accessible, healthy food by making sure that you opt for organic, local and humanely produced items whenever possible.

If you demand it and are willing to pay more for it, producers will supply it. Moreover, it may influence our government to actually start supporting family farmers who can produce the diverse array of food we need to be healthy, rather than funneling all of our collective tax dollar food subsidies into a few industrial producers.

While the pie-in-the-sky vision of a country teeming with a vast network of family-owned farms is still years away, there are ways to work within the current system to make foods healthier and safer for us all. A March 2010 Wall Street Journal article documented how some of the biggest players in the food business—such as Kraft Foods, ConAgra and PepsiCo.—are now taking high fructose corn syrup out of many of their products—such as Wheat Thins, Hunt's Ketchup and Gatorade, respectively. Why? Because their consumers asked them to put sugar back.

It's more expensive for producers to use sugar because corn subsidies make corn syrup a cheaper sweetener, but they're switching over anyway. This just goes to show: In America, the consumer is king, and what we want is what we'll get. So how are you going to wield your power?

Share your ideas on consumer power below!

Daphne Oz is the author of the national best-seller The Dorm Room Dietwhich will be expanded and re-published in July 2010—and The Dorm Room Diet Planner and creator of the Dorm Room Diet Workout DVD.

Keep Reading:
What are you eating? Food 101 with author Michael Pollan
The hidden costs of a $1 cheeseburger
How safe is our food technology?

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