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Food For Thought: The Price Is Wrong

October 3, 2011

Which Costs More?

Which pile of food do you think costs more?

This question arrived in my email recently, and I began to ponder its implications. Following my post yesterday about Outstanding in the Field, I thought today would be an excellent time to parse apart and discuss some of these provoking questions: does it really cost more to eat healthier? Is “healthy living” a privilege that only a select few can afford? Is health a hierarchy?

So, first, let’s deal with the challenge posed above:

Which costs more, an orange or orange soda? And how does U.S. agricultural policy affect the cost of the foods you and I buy at the grocery store? To look into this question, U.S. PIRG went shopping.

Every year, $10 to $30 billion in taxpayer subsidies go to just a few cash crops that end up in nearly every processed food — in the form of corn sweeteners in the soda and soybean oils in the Twinkies. [1]

Fresh fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, receive no subsidies.

In anticipation of a larger Farm Bill next year, the House has introduced a bill that would reform the worst of these subsidies, cutting $28 billion over the next 10 years from the program that has helped to make unhealthy processed food so cheap and ubiquitous. This bill is an important first step and an unprecedented opportunity. [2]

[1] Here’s an Easy One, The New York Times, Jan. 15, 2011.
[2] H.R. 2487: REAPS Act of 2011.

Fascinating, right? U.S. PIRG (U.S. Public Interest Research Group) is a “political lobby non-profit organization” and was interestingly enough founded by Ralph Nader and a former employer of President Barack Obama. Their inspiring mission is as follows:

U.S. PIRG is an advocate for the public interest. When consumers are cheated, or the voices of ordinary citizens are drowned out by special interest lobbyists, U.S. PIRG speaks up and takes action. We uncover threats to public health and well-being and fight to end them, using the time-tested tools of investigative research, media exposés, grassroots organizing, advocacy and litigation. U.S. PIRG’s mission is to deliver persistent, result-oriented public interest activism that protects our health, encourages a fair, sustainable economy, and fosters responsive, democratic government.

Public Interest Research Group: For the People

Now, I come from the land of lobbyists, and am plenty jaded, but this is one organization that I can definitely get behind. But aren’t you dying to know the answer to the question above? I’ve kept you waiting long enough!

Both piles cost us $20 at the store, but at 18,585 calories, the pile on the left is roughly nine days worth of food if you ate nothing but. The produce is only one — about 2,500 calories.

At a time when one in three school-age kids are overweight or obese, we cannot afford to have our taxpayer dollars making junk food even one cent cheaper.

There is a bill moving right now that can end the worst of the worst of these subsidies — and save taxpayers $28 billion over the next 10 years. Take action now.

Wow. Are you surprised? That we live in a society where an outrageous amount of junk, processed crap costs the same as a days worth of fresh fruits and vegetables? So, that question I posited “Does it really cost more to eat healthier,” the answer is yes. It’s not new news, but yes. And it’s infuriating to think that this is due in large part to subsidies that make unhealthy, overprocessed “food” cheap and easy to market and purchase. Remember my call-to-arms about taxing giant food corporations on the toxic waste they produce in the “Chocolate Milkshakes=Cocaine” post? Well, I’m standing by that, especially given the outrageous information featured in this post. If, as a society, we really wanted to conquer the obesity epidemic and become a healthier people, then we would be fighting these subsidies and corporations with all our might. Sure, there are great things being done to counteract this “hierarchy of health,” like the authorization of food stamp usage at farmers markets and incredible organizations like Healthy Food Bank doing all they can to “provide nutritious staples” to people in need. But we as a society, culturally and economically and with our government, need to not give up on this fight for our health.

(Images courtesy of U.S. PIRG and Poisonous Food For Thought–incredible sites!)

(HangryHippo was also featured on EcoPressed today–Eco World Content From Across The Internet! Awesome! Check it out!)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2011 3:34 pm

    You’re absolutely correct that most Americans are cheap when it comes to buying food (more on that in a moment) but they also labor under the delusion (excuse) that “eating healthy is so expensive!” — because they heard it on the news or from a junk food loving friend. True, the dollar menu at fast food places is the go-to for people looking for cheap calories and no interest in nutrition. And big bags of potato chips on sale for $1.49 next to two liter bottles of soda for 99 cents seem like a good deal, I suppose. However…boneless, skinless chicken breast is on sale at some supermarket near you on any given day for $1.89/lb. Eggs — arguably the most complete, nutritious food around — are $1.89 a dozen. There is no cheaper food per lb. than dried beans (any type) which provide iron, fiber, complex carbs, protein and great flavors. Sweet potatoes are inexpensive and delicious. Most frozen vegetables are very low in price and have no added ingredients. Fresh local produce is also reasonably priced and great quality. Brown rice: inexpensive. Many more examples I could cite…because I am a self-educated consumer. Now about Americans being cheap with food, it’s all relative: I was once in line at the supermarket behind a woman who freaked out when her box of blueberries rang up at $3.99. She was horrified, told the cashier she didn’t want that, what a rip-off, blah blah blah. In her hand the entire time: a $5+ Starbucks sugar-filled, artificially-flavored, faux whipped cream topped coffee beverage. You have consumers like myself who are willing to pay $6 for a loaf of Ezekiel bread (that will last 4-5 days in my household of 2 kids/2 adults)…and other people who are willing to pay $6 for a carton of chocolate milk and a 3-pack of Hostess Cupcakes that will last their 15-minute work break. The same woman who bitched about the price of blueberries is shelling out $5 or more for a box of cereal with fake blueberry “bits” and 25g of sugar per 3/4 serving but will not pay $4 for a container of fresh fruit. These are the same people who will “treat” their family to dinner out at a shitty chain restaurant where the entrees run in the 1,000 calorie range, the sodas are free and the desserts are bigger than their heads because the bill for four people will be “only” $90…when they balk at spending $100 on real food that will take some preparation/cooking but will make 6-8 meals. People will happily spend $20/day on two packs of cigarettes (a product that literally burns up in front of their eyes while it kills them) and a lottery ticket (same thing) but shudder in horror when I pay $20 for a bag of shrimp (which has the most protein per ounce for the least calories) that will be topping my family’s fresh salads for 3 days. Yes, I agree that government subsidies could be better steered away from corn and soy and toward other, more nutritious crops, but whether that happens or not, there are some very high quality foods that are inexpensive and eating healthy (or, at least, healthier) within the confines of a budget is far from impossible if one is truly interested in doing it.

  2. October 3, 2011 3:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing those examples Norma, and you’re absolutely right (and extremely well-informed!). As usual, education is key in helping people understand how to best use their money and time and energy to best serve their bodies and minds. But, my problem is that if these government subsidies continue, and if we continue to allow mass advertising and marketing to continue this spreading of misinformation (such as your example about a bag of chips versus a skinless chicken breast), then our society will continue to be plagued by the obesity epidemic. It’s systemic in every sense of the word–spread throughout our bodies, economy, market, and society as a whole.

  3. October 3, 2011 4:27 pm

    You’re absolutely right on about gov’t subsidizing crops/foods that contribute little nutritional value and are used to produce junk…I think it’s great there is finally some effort being made to reverse that and get corn, soy and other questionable ingredients out of our daily diet. Good points all & can’t be talked about enough!

  4. October 3, 2011 4:30 pm

    I go through that same mental rationalization Norma every time I am buying food since it is important to me to make good food choices. While I am usually satisfied with putting in some additional energy in order to make that happen I am also familiar with the mental exhaustion of self-directed cost benefit analysis, the hours in front of the stove top and the extra mile walk to Whole Foods or Fairway instead of literally going around the corner to the bodega. As someone who grew up in a family that was always trying to make ends meet, who ate more fast food that I care to ever think about in my youth, I am very sympathetic to those who cannot afford to take the time or who do not have the energy to make a nutritious meal at home. These subsides make it bad business to have convenient healthy food options and I am a strong believer that they need to stop immediately. We have a disgusting amount of corn and soy and all their artificial derivatives in our society (over 90% of food in any big chain grocery store in America has either corn or soy or one of their artificial derivatives in them). Cutting these subsidies will definitely help us make healthier food choices and until we live in a place with a more equal distribution of wealth and resources I think it’s important to sympathize with and empower those who are easy targets for this unhealthy food pandemic.

  5. October 3, 2011 8:30 pm

    I think the issue of food subsidies is a huge one and I’m glad that people are lobbying for change in that area but I challenge the assumption that healthy eating MUST be more expensive than junk food. It CAN be, as demonstrated above, but it doesn’t need to be. Mark Bittman in the NY Times had a really interesting piece last week dissecting this school of thought. Basically he pointed out that to feed a family of four for 28$ at McDonalds but you can buy a whole chicken, a salad and fruit at the grocery for $14. It really comes down to getting things straight on the policy end (like you pointed out) and then educating people on the other end.

  6. Sexy Curmudgeon permalink
    October 4, 2011 12:31 am

    I agree with Norma and other posts; the comment that particularly interested me was about “those who cannot afford to take the time or who do not have the energy to make a nutritious meal at home.” This is where the strong link between education and income level again comes into direct play. It’s not only that people don’t have the money to buy the actual food or the time to prepare it (they often don’t have either, as many people above have pointed out); but also the education about what healthy, nutritious food is and the resulting culture that has been built up surrounding healthy food is what they lack. Subsidies targeted at health education and against the big corn lobbyists can help, but honestly lowering the poverty level and reducing the ever-widening income gap is actually the most effective tool in helping people eat better, as it would be in bettering their lives overall – “shocking,” right?

  7. Fedora permalink
    October 4, 2011 1:53 am

    It is also harder to buy healthy/fresh food in poorer neighborhoods. The stores just arent there. There is one grocery store within a half mile of my apartment in Brooklyn, and atleast a 100 bodegas, that sell mainly junk food.
    However! Union Square Farmers Market now accepts food stamps! An interesting attempt to help people get better food.

  8. TBM permalink
    October 4, 2011 1:18 pm

    AMEN. Great post!

  9. John permalink
    October 5, 2011 2:29 am

    this is a fantastic post! i don’t know if you have seen these images before ( but they are very telling of the differences between what people eat in different countries.


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