Posted by: jackslife | June 23, 2009

Can Healthy Food be Affordable?

Rod asks this question on his blog, and answers that he thinks it can.

I have mixed feelings on this question.  There is no doubt that it is cheaper (on a per calorie basis) to eat unhealthy foods than it is to eat healthy ones.  One of the commenters on this post references this article.  Some highlights that the commenter calls out are the prices for 200 calories worth of various foods –

broccoli $1.93
apples $1.43
pretzels $0.24
doughnut $0.23
potato chips $0.33

Michael Pollan makes some similar points in his great book, Omnivore’s Dilemma.  It is far cheaper to eat off the McDonald’s value menu than it is to eat a healthy meal of fruits and vegetables.

Something that has been troubling my poor head recently is how much we ignore the hidden costs of things in our appraisal of them.  We do this in a number of ways, but since our topic is food, I’ll stick with that for now.

Is it a good thing that food is cheap enough that very few people in this country are unable to afford basic sustenance?  Of course it is.  But what are the hidden costs?  The people who are eating all of this junk food are paying for it by having problems with obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and so on.  The consumers themselves are paying for this “cheap” food with their health.  Additionally, someone has to pay the monetary bill that is associated with their poor health.  These diseases are not cheap, and the medical bill has to be paid by someone.  In many cases, that someone is the taxpayer.

Another fact is that this food is not really as cheap as it seems.  The cheap prices are created by a system that subsidizes the industries that create the cheap food.  As Michael Pollan and countless others have pointed out, the subsidizing of corn and the associated processing that brings us these foods are largely responsible for the cheap prices.  The price of corn itself has been driven down by overproduction due to the subsidies.  So we, the tax payers, are already footing a lot of the bill for this “cheap” food, even without factoring in the future cost in health expenses.

The deck is stacked against healthy eating for the poor, and I sincerely think that there are steps that could be taken to fix this problem.  Removing subsidies on agriculture would be a good start.  There are other, better ways that we can support farmers than the system that we have in place.  This system is far more advantageous to big agriculture corporations than it is for farmers anyway.  There are also better ways that government could be encouraging affordable, healthy food for the poor, but this would require that the government get out of the bed of some of these corporations and really pursue the best interest of the citizens.


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