It's a well-known fact that Americans have a less-than-ideal diet, but it's not as commonly understood that government subsidies actually make junk food more accessible and affordable than fresh, healthier alternatives.

The typical Standard American Diet (ironically abbreviated as SAD) contains high levels of animal byproducts, low levels of plant materials and altogether too much junk food, according to Mark Bittman in The New York Times' Sunday Review. To benefit both financially (eating healthfully offsets the high cost of health care necessary to treat problems caused by unbalanced diets) and nutritionally, Bittman proposed government subsidization of healthy foods, in conjunction with a junk food tax.

The agribusinesses that underwrite lawmakers' campaigns are paid back in subsidies for their crops, which explains why the corn industry has been on the receiving end of $50 billion in subsidies in the past decade, Slate reported. The same dollar that can buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda buys just 250 calories worth of vegetables.

And Americans are certainly taking advantage of the bang for their buck: Bittman cites a shocking statistic, that the average American consumes 44.7 gallons of soft drinks annually, plus at least 17 gallons of uncarbonated sweetened drinks.

By taxing unhealthy foods like sodas at a low rate of, say, 2 cents per ounce, not only would there be an incentive to buy less unhealthy foods, but the new government funds created could go directly toward lowering the prices of healthy, fresh foods.

Just as safe water and public transit are "public good" responsibilities of the government, so should easier access to healthy foods, Bittman argued.

"Right now it’s harder for many people to buy fruit than Froot Loops; chips and Coke are a common breakfast," Bittman wrote. "And since the rate of diabetes continues to soar — one-third of all Americans either have diabetes or are pre-diabetic, most with Type 2 diabetes, the kind associated with bad eating habits — and because our health care bills are on the verge of becoming truly insurmountable, this is urgent for economic sanity as well as national health."

Creative Commons image via flickr user aigle_dore