The Cheapness of Eating Expensively

In a study last year by Professors Dan Ariely and Micahel L. Norton aptly titled “Building A Better America—One Wealth Quintile At A Time,” we learned that Americans have little concept of the median income in this country or the gross disparity between income levels. Television pundits, the new class of often factless “experts,” lament the growing sentiment of “class envy” or the vitriolic “class warfare” spreading across our cultural landscape. These same experts woefully ignore the simple facts that wages have remained largely stagnant over the last three decades, while the prices of basic goods have steadily risen (although the current recession slowed this price increase). In the last couple of weeks, the news media has discovered that food prices, both domestically and globally, are slated to increase over the coming year. Though this price increase was being predicted by the FAO as early as last summer, the explanations for it seems to fit perfectly into whatever ideological narrative best explains an expert’s vision of the world. On the far-right, Bernanke’s quantitative easing program is clearly the culprit of inflationary-related food increases, regardless of the fact that prices were steadily increasing before QE2 came into effect. Free-trade hawks lambast the hording of grains by countries and, in their minds, see the dreaded export ban of foodstuffs by these countries as only helping to increase global prices. Environmentalists cite the new realities of global climate change on crop production, especially huge fires in Russia and the untold effects of the worst drought in the last forty years in China. And lastly, critics of bio-fuels see the usage of feed corn, arguably different from the corn consumed by people, as driving corn reserves to their lowest level in decades and causing spikes in corn futures. Per usual, everyone besides Glenn Beck is partially correct, and Sheila Velazquez offers an excellent in-depth and thoughtful critique on these above concerns.

Instead of focusing on the mechanism behind food prices, I’d like to look at how oblivious we are to how easy, or to put it in economic terms, affordable, it is to not eat healthy in America. While I hesitate to throw around the term “obesity crisis” (mostly due to its pejorative connotations), no matter how you slice the figures, Americans are suffering from a crisis of unhealthy eating. We are taking in too many calories, gaining too much weight, consuming too much processed, high-sugar, high-fat foods, and generally eating nutritionally-deficient (non)foods.

In a 2007 New York Times article, Tara Parker-Pope cited that “a 2,000-calorie diet would cost just $3.52 a day if it consisted of junk food, compared with $36.32 for a diet of low-energy dense foods”(Parker-Pope 2007). The problem with many current food movements is they rest on a rational-based model that basically equates to “if you only provide consumers with the facts, they will come around to making the right choice.” And while this is a nice sentiment, you can provide people with all the pamphlets you want on the need for activity, the risks of childhood obesity, and the importance of a balanced meal, and they will continue to buy food that is basically devoid of nutrition. Part of this problem relates back to the work being done out of John Hopkins on understanding the biochemical relationship between food and addiction, and the other part is simply the fact that it is cheaper to get the same amount of calories from potato chips than apples. To put it in political terms, it’s the calories, stupid.

In last month’s USDA report, “How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost,” Stewart et al. cited that an adult on a 2,000-calorie diet could eat the required daily fruits and vegetables (F/V) for between $2 to $2.50 per day. Regardless of the fact American consume more on an average of 2800 to 3200 calories a day, the cheapness of these numbers would seem to indicate that problem with Americans consuming adequate amounts of daily F/V has less to do with issues of cost than personal choice. While I am not denying that consumer choice plays a role in eating behaviors, looking at these numbers, while also keeping Ariely and Norton’s study in mind, sheds some light on the actual cost of F/V. For a family of four eating 2,000-calories person days, the weekly cost for F/V would be roughly $70 per week and a grand total of $3600 per year. Now let us take this $3600 per year and match it with the current household medium income of $44,000 per year. If we use 2005 US Labor Department data citing that Americans on average spend roughly 10% of their annual paychecks on food, according to the USDA’s own report 80% of that $4,400 should affordable go toward buying F/V.

The reality is that we have very little concept in this country of how much people make and how much things cost. If we return to the New York Times article quoted above, it would cost a person $1,284 ($5,139 for a growing family of four) per year to eat 2,000 calories from junk food, and $13,140 per person ($52,000 for that same family) to eat the same amount of calories in a more healthy form. Now one could say that Americans should spend more money on food, but the reality of that happening seems increasing unlikely. Instead as prices increase, we are going to see a caloric race to the bottom, stagnant wages leading people to get their daily calories from cheaper, less nutritious foodstuff–this is what the “hunger-obesity” paradox essentially is. If we really want to tackle the problems of food in America, we must become more aware of how truly unequal we have become.

Liam Hysjulien is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His areas of study are Food Systems Theory, food sustainability, food policies, and urban agricultural projects. His work appears in the political blog, As It Ought To Be. Read other articles by Liam.

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  1. bozh said on February 26th, 2011 at 9:52am #

    this piece exemplifies how one can isolate an issue–in this case, nutrition– from the entirety of life.

    in fact, one cannot solve any problem element unless one also solves all the other problems.

    and with planet getting poorer and uncertainties, poverty, fears surely to rise, we need, a fortiori, to look at all ills that befall us and not just one or two or even more!

    why not equal pay for same needs? stop manufacturing ever ‘better’ killing machines? get rid of army bases, wmd, private ownership of any kind [work in particular]?, personal supremacism?
    abandon religious sciences? punish liars?
    particularly, actors, newspeople, politicos, priests, teachers when they lie? etcetc.
    tnx

  2. commoner3 said on February 26th, 2011 at 1:34pm #

    This is an excellent enlightening article.