Why is it so expensive to be healthy?
Why are poor people in America so fat? Would you believe that farm subsidies have something to do with it?
Walmart is where lower income consumers come to shop. Why? Because you get the most bang for your buck. Walmart is also notorious for having the fattest customers. Why? It comes back to value - it turns out that unhealthiest food also gives you the most caloric bang for your buck.
Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about
I shop at a grocery store that borders on one of Seattle's ghettos. In case you are wondering, Seattle's ghettos are nothing compared to other urban ghettos. Meaning, you can safely walk through a Seattle ghetto. But that's where the majority of Seattle's urban poor live, and if you want to see food stamps in action, you should shop at my Safeway.
Food stamps are no longer in stamp form in Washington State - people are given debit cards that are referred to as "benefit cards". Benefits cards are usually easy to spot, if you are looking. But you don't have to look at a person's form of payment to know what social class they belong to - you need only look at their shopping cart, and their waistline. This is anecdotal, of course, but no doubt you've noticed this, too: poor people eat more crappy junk food than rich people.
There's a tendency in America to equate poor nutrition and subsequent obesity with a lack of education. It's familar logic: the poor aren't educated enough to work, so they stay poor. Being uneducated means that they don't know that Doritos are bad for you. Or, if you look to what a lot of us secretly think, the poor are simply too dumb to eat salad, too simple to know that Twinkies do not make a healthy meal.*
Why would someone who has so little money to spend go and spend it on packaged food? we wonder to ourselves. Don't they know what a waste of money it is to buy junk food?
We tsk tsk them in our heads. We load up our carts with loose leaf lettuce and portabella mushrooms, thinking ourselves superior for knowing better. Once we get to the checkout counter and see the total cost of our veggies, though, we probably do end up thinking: wow, it's really expensive to be healthy.
From the NY Times (via Consumerist):
As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.
Bang for your buck
It is expensive to eat well, even if you are only buying raw veggies. The truth is that lower income shoppers, and other populations that live on junk food, are getting more calories per dollar than the rest of us. It's economically efficient, if tragically perverse.
The reason, as the New York Times article explains, has to do with the Farm Bill, which heavily subsidizes soybeans, corn, and wheat - three major ingredients, or sources, of many of the ingredients in junk food. The result?
[T]he real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (aka liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.
So even foods that are more processed, that require more labor to produce, cost less. The article goes on to explain the origins of the Farm Bill and the detrimental, albeit unintended, effect it is having on our population.
The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.
Do click over and read the rest of the article. The author gives a good breakdown of calorie-per-dollar-spent between carrots and junk food.
It ends on a hopeful note, claiming that the resurgence in organic farming and local produce, combined with consumer demands and the American ideal of a free market economy, may give us a chance to reclaim our farming heritage and our health. I'm not sure that I'm so optimistic about our chances for revamping what seems like extremely complicated and pork-filled legislation.
(Picture by Colin Palmer)
*Because so many people keep reading this sentence and thinking that I actually believe that the poor are dumb, I'd like to point out that the sentence is meant to generalize about the way that many wealthy Americans think about the poor, NOT THE WAY THAT I FEEL ABOUT THE POOR. My god, people, do you really think a web site dedicated to helping readers learn how to save money would feature a writer who loathes the poor? GET A GRIP. And for the record, I'm pretty fat myself, so it's not like I'm making fun of anyone for eating badly.