The Poor in America can Afford Healthy Food
According to Ben Irwin, the poor
can’t afford high-quality, nutritious food. They’re trapped in a food system that subsidizes processed foods, making them artificially cheaper than natural food sources. So the poor are forced to eat bad food — if they’re lucky, that is…
This is not precisely true. The statistics brought to bear on this topic often do things like compare the costs of healthy and unhealthy foods at grocery stores and find the healthy options to be more expensive:
Among food groups, meats/protein had largest price differences: healthier options cost $0.29/serving (95% CI $0.19 to $0.40) and $0.47/200?kcal ($0.42 to $0.53) more than less healthy options. Price differences per serving for healthier versus less healthy foods were smaller among grains ($0.03), dairy (?$0.004), snacks/sweets ($0.12) and fats/oils ($0.02; p<0.05 each) and not significant for soda/juice ($0.11, p=0.64). Comparing extremes (top vs bottom quantile) of food-based diet patterns, healthier diets cost $1.48/day ($1.01 to $1.95) and $1.54/2000?kcal ($1.15 to $1.94) more. Comparing nutrient-based patterns, price per day was not significantly different (top vs bottom quantile: $0.04; p=0.916), whereas price per 2000?kcal was $1.56 ($0.61 to $2.51) more. Adjustment for intensity of differences in healthfulness yielded similar results.
This particular study examined reported price differences within categories of food groups. For example, “healthy” snacks use sugar substitutes while “unhealthy” snacks use regular sugar. Cereal bars meeting Nutrition Detective’s criteria were compared to bars not meeting the criteria. Low-saturated fat crackers were compared to high-saturated fat crackers. The background assumption is that you absolutely must buy from each product category.
Let’s crib from the abstract of another study:
We linked economic data for 94 foods and beverages in the UK Consumer Price Index to food and nutrient data from the UK Department of Health’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey, producing a novel dataset across the period 2002–2012. Each item was assigned to a food group and also categorised as either “more healthy” or “less healthy” using a nutrient profiling model developed by the Food Standards Agency. … The mean (standard deviation) 2012 price/1000 kcal was £2.50 (0.29) for less healthy items and £7.49 (1.27) for more healthy items.
“Unhealthy” items are three times cheaper than “healthy” items on a per calorie basis. Of course, using calories in the denominator here is problematic, because energy density is actually part of how the Food Standards Agency defines what is healthy. The authors at least give a nod toward this concern before deciding they won’t let it stop them:
Another potential weakness is the use of price per unit energy rather than price per unit mass or any other price denominator, given that one of the factors determining a food’s health categorisation is its energy content, an issue which has been raised by others. We analysed price per unit of energy in line with the approach used by international organisations to assess food poverty. Moreover, price per unit energy is more consistent with dietary guidance than price per unit weight and with observed household purchasing behaviour which shows that energy consumption is broadly consistent in the UK, even across differing SES groups. [Vikram: citations removed]
I have to scoff a bit at this rationalization. International organizations assess food poverty using price per unit energy because the people they are addressing are literally dying of starvation. This is very different from countries where the main problem is that food is so nutritious (as defined by poverty researchers) that people’s hearts and kidneys can’t keep up.
This study, despite being widely cited in many outlets, isn’t very good. It selects on the dependent variable, which means we can’t learn anything from it. My hat is off to the authors who pushed it through, but shame on the editor and reviewers.
But let’s still be charitable and consider the possibility that the average bit of healthy food in the average supermarket is more expensive than the average bit of unhealthy food. Even then Irwin’s claim that processed foods are subsidized and therefor cheaper than natural foods is still off.
In Irwin’s worldview, companies evilly manipulate governments to subsidize processed foods. (The “evilly” needs to be there to preclude the question as to why companies don’t manipulate governments to subsidize natural foods; companies after all sell both healthy and unhealthy foods.)
How well does this ideology match up with the evidence? Let’s do a comparison at my grocery store. The go-to cheap foods like a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or ramen noodles aren’t actually that cheap compared to their unprocessed equivalents. Today, pasta was $0.0625 per ounce; Kraft macaroni and cheese was $0.12 per ounce. Even after buying your own fresh, real cheese, there is a healthy premium for buying the Kraft product. Ramen noodles are even worse at $0.15 per ounce. What do those extra $0.09 per ounce buy you compared to pasta? A review of the ingredients says vegetable oil, salt, sugar, and monosodium glutamate. All other ingredients appear to be flavoring or preservatives that add up to less than 1% of the product.
College students have been lying to us; ramen isn’t cheap. It’s more than twice as expensive than the pasta it consists of. If ramen manufacturers are receiving heavy subsidies that pasta manufacturers don’t, they don’t pass the savings on to consumers.
Another mistake is comparing the price of the average healthy food with the average unhealthy foods. To make the rather strong claim that “the poor are forced to eat bad food”, you need to show that all healthy foods are unaffordable. Again, my spot-checking of the grocery store says the opposite.
I can buy a bag of sweet potatoes that serve for more than 10 meals for $8.63. They are healthy and filling. Preparation involves taking one out of the bag and putting it in the oven at 400 degrees for a while.
Assuming you get a proper ethnic-grocery-store-size bag rather than tiny boxes you get at the regular grocery store, rice is practically free. Even organic brown rice is only a bit more when bought in a sufficiently large bag.
Flour is near free, which means baking your own fresh bread is comparably free. The same goes for pasta, which as noted before is cheaper than all more-processed foods.
Isn’t all this carbohydrate-heavy though? We can easily remedy that. While canned beans and legumes (lentils) are already cheap, dry beans and lentils are available in larger quantities in various ethnic grocery stores, and in smaller bags in regular grocery stores (often in an “ethnic” or “international” aisle. They are under a dollar a bag, and can be cooked easily if you either invest in soaking them overnight or use a pressure cooker as I do. They’ll be cheaper and taste better than canned varieties.
And those precious veggies and fruits that are supposedly so expensive? You do need to be choosy. If you insist on avocados and blueberries, you will pay. Loose cabbage heads are cheap; bagged baby spinach is not. Bags of onions are cheap; fresh basil is not. If you must have fresh basil, grow it in a pot facing the sun.
To see these principles of cheap eating in action take a look at the numerous cooking blogs on the web who have accepted the SNAP challenge of producing desirable, healthy food for no more than $4.50 per person per day. Also take a look at the advice of Kimberley Morales in escaping the grocery store with a $25 shopping cart along with recipes on how to cook the stuff. Politicians have used the SNAP challenge largely to bemoan how bad food can be if you only have $4.50 to spend, but it is no surprise that politicians are lousy at getting good value for their money. In real life, the SNAP challenge has been quite successful in helping people of all economic levels figure out ways to eat well for less, largely by substituting whole foods for processed ones.
And this might be the real problem. If the poor lack the time, energy, discipline, motivation, or knowledge to cook, they might prefer processed options even though they are more expensive.