Sep 29, 2011

The "price" of food

Mark Bittman, food columnist and blogger for the New York Times, has an article arguing that, contrary to a spate of recent studies, junk food is really more expensive than groceries and that cultural reform is needed to get people cooking and eating healthy again. His premise, while flawed, isn’t completely preposterous, but his solutions are dubious. Here he is:
In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)
In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)
This “compare random groups of food that I claim make equivalent meals” approach suffers from a distinct lack of rigor. That is what prompted studies like this one concluding that America’s gigantic farm subsidies make fast food cheaper by the calorie. But wait, Bittman’s ahead of this one too:

Another argument runs that junk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories. But given that half of the people in this country (and a higher percentage of poor people) consume too many calories rather than too few, measuring food’s value by the calorie makes as much sense as measuring a drink’s value by its alcohol content. (Why not drink 95 percent neutral grain spirit, the cheapest way to get drunk?)
This is just goofy. Nobody is saying that the poor need cheap calories; massive farm subsidies (a quarter-trillion dollars between 1995 and 2010) that make highly-processed fast food artificially cheap by the calorie make it more likely for poor people to eat such food. When you don’t have much money, getting the greatest calorie dose for your cash is economically rational, even if it’s also a recipe for Type II diabetes. Certainly there’s more to food than calories, but it remains true that the most expensive calories are fresh fruits and vegetables. How could that not reduce poor people’s consumption of those foods?

Certainly one can get a reasonable amount of groceries for about the same amount of money as a similar pile of fast food (see here for a much better-demonstrated version). The problem is that groceries aren’t a meal; you’ve got to cook those groceries, which requires a non-negligible investment in cooking equipment, spices and the like, plus gas to run the stove, etc. Then, more importantly, you’ve got to consider the time and effort needed to cook. Cooking is not easy, particularly for someone with, say, two jobs and kids to feed.

Still, it’s not totally bogus. This country has a serious problem with obesity (not just among the poor), and it’s not entirely about the money. Fast food certainly isn’t helping.
What’s Bittman’s solution? Moral and cultural reform:
Real cultural changes are needed to turn this around. Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley. The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life…
The question is how? Efforts are everywhere. The People’s Grocery in Oakland secures affordable groceries for low-income people. Zoning laws in Los Angeles restrict the number of fast-food restaurants in high-obesity neighborhoods. There’s the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a successful Pennsylvania program to build fresh food outlets in underserved areas, now being expanded nationally. FoodCorps and Cooking Matters teach young people how to farm and cook.
Bittman’s examples of subsidized groceries and more grocery stores have some merit, but it’s truly striking he didn’t mention agricultural subsidies. If eating too much fast food is a problem, and most agricultural subsidies go into fast food, then why shouldn’t making fast food more expensive be a top priority? (By the way, when was salad-tossing a working-class American tradition? And what is wrong with making McDonald’s sell healthier food?)

The idea of imposing quotas on fast food restaurants seems a lot more troublesome. For starters, how do you define fast food? A USDA list? The government is not exactly immune to pressure from, say, the sugar lobby. How do you stop new fast-food stores from jumping into the market? Would we have to crack down on black market taco stands?

The reason places like McDonalds can make fabulous sums selling lousy food is that their ingredients are extremely cheap—for example, because of subsidies, corn usually sells at considerably below what it costs to grow. Making healthy foods relatively cheaper seems a lot more likely to succeed than gauzy, ill-defined plans to restore our cooking culture combined with dubious regulations.

(Cross-posted at Ten Miles Square over at the Washington Monthly.)

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