Monday, August 15, 2011

"Is It Really More Expensive to Eat Healthy?" or "Why The Food Movement Is Elitist"

Recently a group at the University of Washington asked the question, would it be more expensive for Americans to eat according to the new USDA My Plate guidelines? They examined four particular nutrients that had been called out by the USDA as being especially important to health, potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D and calcium. And they calculated different costs for different proposed RDAs.What they found received alot of media attention in the last two weeks. I have read the follow up commentary on the article from everyone from Marion Nestle, Civil Eats and Grist (which is actually the same article as Civil Eats, just at a different host site and with different reader comments). I am rather interested in the similar conclusions reached by everyone who has read the original story.

The University of Washington determined that, yes in fact, it will cost Americans more to eat according to the healthier My Plate guidelines. The program looked at major nutrients and their various RDA's in order to cost out exactly what it would cost. They calculated each nutrient and the cost to have varying levels in one's diet. They determined that it would cost each family about $1.04 per day or approximately three hundred and eighty additional dollars per year to eat healthfully.

I think that such a study is highly subjective. Health, preferred foods and RDA's vary according to the person. What might cost someone and additional $380 might cost another person $100 and another even less. Smaller people need fewer calories so of course their cost increases would calculate to be smaller. Also the study calculated the cost per nutrient amount and didn't calculate a theoretical shopping list, as though someone could purchase 300 mg of potassium as opposed to a pound of bananas.

Everyone from Grist to Marion Nestle agreed that part of the problem is Farm Subsidies. The fact that the government continues to subsidize mainly corn and soybean means that soda and fried foods will continue to be cheap. And anyone knows knows anything about supply and demand will understand that people will consistently choose those unhealthful foods because they are inexpensive and they taste good. What if subsidies were moved to farmers who grew vegetables? If fresh fruits and vegetables were less expensive it is likely that people would buy and eat more of them. Marion Nestle is quoted in a CBS online article as saying "It’s a common misconception that food choices are solely a matter of personal responsibility. People are hugely influenced by the price of food. If you don’t have any money and go into the store to buy some fresh fruits, you might decide that it’s cheaper to have a couple of fast food hamburgers.” I myself have increased my spending rather dramatically since I began to eat a more non-processed diet that relies heavily upon local foods, but I'll write more about that in a separate post.

But what amazed me the most was the comments at all these sites. I rather think the food community is in a bit of denial, or they simply are having an identity crisis over the issues. Comments on the pendulum swung back and forth between some version of 'people should take responsibility for what they eat' and 'healthy food costs the same as junk food'. Really? I mean REALLY?

Okay for all those of you who are slack jawed right now, let me first say that people should take responsibility for how they eat. Much like everyone now knows that smoking cigarettes is bad for you, I don't believe that anyone walking into a fast food joint is under the impression that they are going to get healthy food. People don't think fast food is healthy. But while the government places massive taxes on cigarettes in attempts to get you to stop and additionally individual municipalities launch anti-smoking campaigns, our government subsidizes soda and fast food companies through the Farm Bill. Yup, to most people in the foodie world, this isn't news. But it is so BACKWARDS to me that I can't help but repeat it. And when certain cities like New York have tried to advertise anti-sugar campaigns like anti-smoking campaigns they have been met with harsh criticism. Recently Mike Bloomberg suggested that the NYC Snap Program should no longer cover soda for participants, the media flipped out. The beverage industry flipped out. People cried foul as though making soda an 'out of plan' beverage was degrading and stigmatizing to people already accepting government food aid. But even in the midst of this I keep coming back to the idea that How can we fully blame people of lesser means for what they eat while the government is manipulating food prices by subsidizing unhealthy food to such a great extent? Shouldn't we do to food what we did with cigarettes? Let's educate the public, tax the hell out of soda and french fries and THEN we can talk about personal responsibility. Until then, all this discussion of personal responsibility is just an undercurrent generated by the food industry to keep them in business.

And secondly, healthy food is more expensive. Organic food is significantly more expensive! But I understand if you don't want to talk about organics because of their extreme cost. But I was amazed by the rather callous comments I read, particularly at the Grist article. One that particularly was "BS. I eat very healthy, great physical, over 50 and I spend as little as anyone I know on food. Eating well takes effort, not necessarily money. If you have money, it's easier for you to eat well by spending more. But one can eat well for little money if they put more effort into eating well. Problem is everyone eats what is convenient. So, if you can afford to eat well conveniently, that's nice. But if you can't afford to eat well conveniently, then spend time to eat well. That's another kind of inconvenient truth. " While I can't necessarily disagree with him, I caution against this kind of mentality because it feels wishy washy to me. Folks in the food movement have to know that making healthy food cheaper will make help more people eat more healthy food. That is economic law. So if you eat healthy food, and you want more people to eat healthy food, why would you make a comment that sends the message that "everything is fine". If I were a policy maker I would read these comments to mean that no policy changes need to happen. Besides, assuming that everyone can accomplish what you can is short sided and ignorant. I might wake up at 5 am to prep lunches and even start dinner. But do we all agree that everyone should have to do that in order to eat healthy? Should there only be one way to skin this cat? In my opinion for those who advocate for more people eating more healthful food, don't stop until healthy food is both CHEAP and EASY. I sure wish it was easier. Maybe then I could sleep later.

No one is denying that it CAN be done or even that people are responsible for doing it. People on low incomes eat healthy all the time. But it takes work, organization and determination. But policies surrounding food have to work for more than just the motivated few. And denial of this seems rather elitist to me. Our culture is busy and overwhelmed. We work too much and we drive too much and our commutes are long. For the folks who have time to prepare meals or who have the room to grow their own produce, they should! But for the sizable population who live with no access to land to garden or for those who work so much (for whatever salary, big or small) that they don't have the energy to cook in the evening, food policy should work for them too. In claiming that people simply stop complaining and start cooking we are effectively saying that no additional work needs to be done. And I for one have a few ideas about how our national food policy could be changed for the better.

This post is shared with Traditional Tuesdays Real Food Wednesdays, Healthy2Day Wednesday and Simple Lives Thursday and Fight Back Fridays


  1. Here! Here! So well said!

  2. HALLELUJAH!! Thank you so much for addressing this subject. This the major problem I have with the food industry in the US. How disproportiate the cost of food is to the cost to produce and transport it.

    In reference to the comment you quoted, I do it's elitist to believe that people with very low or no incomes who have access only to corner or subpar grocery stores can eat healthy with any help. It becomes a really vicious cycle that's hard to break. So, we can't expect people to change overnight without drastic changes to the food and its industry before it reaches to the consumer.

  3. I have a dear friend who has ten kids (eight girls and two boys), just like me. She lives on processed foods and prepared entrees. She spends $1600 a month on groceries. I have five boys, and two are teens and they can eat! I recently re-vamped my budget to include more meat and real milk. My monthly budget is $1,100 a month. While my organic meat and produce are more expensive that conventional, cooking from scratch saves me $500 a month over my friend's budget. Stopped over from Fight Back Friday, by the way!

  4. Ubermom, I stopped in at your blog earlier this week. You have some really inspiring stories!! And ten kids? You are truly my hero. There are so many days that I can't manage my two! Ha!!