Feed on

This article from the Wonkblog (the Vox folks’ old stomping grounds) argues that America has a growing food inequality problem.

Let’s not dispute that claim. With growing income inequality it would not at all be surprising to see consumption inequality follow-suit, even if you expect it to be less dramatic.

But awkwardly, the article vaguely references food prices.  They claim that healthful foods have always cost more than unhealthful foods. But that does not in any way make their point. If they have always cost more than unhealthful foods, then why is inequality increasing? Are they getting relatively MORE expensive today? Certainly for all foods this is not true even in an absolute sense. The question for the author and our dear TUW readers: what has actually happened to real food prices over the last XX years? Here’s a hint: they’ve fallen. Sharply.

A further question comes from a rather startling admission in the piece,

“But it’s likely knowledge-driven, too. People from lower socioeconomic tiers may have limited opportunity to learn about the effects of unhealthy foods and the consequences resultant from unhealthy diets. The study found a strong correlation between education level and performance in the health index. “

I find this to be entirely unbelievable. I’d like any of you to go out in the street and ask anyone, regardless of their apparent SES, what they understand about what they eat and how they eat. Furthermore, don’t we have compulsory schooling up to about age 16 in “free” government schools, most with reduced price or free lunch service and certainly every one of them offering all kids of education on healthy living. To be honest, I think the sentiment in the quote above is rather demeaning,

And here, I don’t understand the point that is trying to be made:

America’s growing food inequality isn’t merely affecting the poor. Diet-driven diseases like obesity and diabetes now cost the country hundred of billions of dollars every year.

Does this mean that food inequality makes those at the upper end fat? Maybe, I don’t know. I’d like to see data on the distribution of BMI by education and income group – my hunch is that there is no relationship, or certainly not one that would confirm the point above. And the piece closes with another statement that quite frankly I don’t understand and certainly see no evidence provided for:

No matter the cause, the gap is marginalizing a significant portion of the population. “In America, food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all

How is it marginalizing? After all, aren’t people in different classes now living farther and farther apart from one another? Would such inequality even be recognizable? And of course, while I am sure the real price of clothing and apparel has fallen, does it follow that status and luxury clothing is more accessible than food, even high quality food, over this time period?

Elsewhere: why on Earth would anyone be “worried” about this? Prices adjust. Entrepreneurs respond. Unless of course one can’t help but think that everything good in the world comes as a result of conscious policy choices. Drive around Rochester and there are already quite a few communities and developments popping up to satisfy those needs. Imagine this author writing in 1900: “today 40% of America lives and works on a farm but researchers estimate that by the end of the century less than 3% of Americans will live in this way. Today’s farm buildings are designed and built for a rough, rugged and hearty rural population – far from towns, with questionable plumbing and long rutted driveways, little closet space and nary an internet connection. How can tomorrow’s generation of connected, hip, “I want it now” people ever manage to survive in a country that was not built precisely for them, 40 years before they needed it? One can only imagine. But hopefully we can enact smart policies to ensure adequate housing for these future urbanites and figure out what to do with the enormous amount of silos, farm outbuildings and quaint farmhouses that just won’t suit the millions of new urban dwellers a 100 years from now. In addition to having to worry about the onset of a world war, a flu pandemic and the rapid deforestation of the American wilderness, add this menace to your list!”

5 Responses to “Some Questions on America’s Food Inequality Problem”

  1. Harry says:

    Never having attributed myself to a particular class, but having myself often in the past counting the change in my pocket, I find it offensive when people think poor folks are incapable of making wise economic decisions. One is tempted to launch a big ad hominem attack at these people in the blogosphere salon, except WC does not like such arguments presented on his blog, and we need to set an example for the students who sign up for his office hours.

    As I was thinking about this idea of regulating food portions, the type of food, and the hatred of involuntary obesity, et cetera, my perverse mind was drawn to CAFE standards, high gasoline taxes, and the effort of many well-meaning progressives to put us on a transportation diet that will not only make us happier and healthier, but will also save the planet.

    What difference is there between regulating what and how much we eat and what car we drive and how far we drive it? How indecent of these people, how presumptuous, to suggest we, the common people, are too stupid to choose.

  2. Harry says:

    BTW, lest anybody dispute WC’s observation about food prices, he is correct with metaphysical certainty, adjusted for the most generous assumptions of inflation. Anybody who complains about any price today should write Jack Lew, our Treasury Secretary, the guy who signs Federal Reserve Notes. He could use your constructive input.

  3. chuck martel says:

    From the article: “Health foods, while growing in popularity (and fast), can be expensive, and, in turn, inaccessible to poorer people.”

    Generally, the expensive health foods, those found in co-ops and retailers like Whole Foods and in special sections of supermarkets, are advertised as “organic”, which accounts for their higher price. There’s no proof, or even indication, that these products are actually healthier than their “inorganic” counterparts. Eating organic bananas or garlic or brown rice rather than cheaper alternatives won’t necessarily make an observable difference in the health of the consumer. A lifestyle based on moderation in eating and lots of exercise would be detectable. I wonder how many shoppers on their way to the organic section of the supermarket park as closely as possible to the front door.

  4. Doug M says:

    “They claim that healthful foods have always cost more than unhealthful foods.”

    This is clearly untrue, and it bothers me every time I hear it. Broccoli costs $1.60 / pound. Vegetables are cheap. Vegetables are good for you. They are certainly cheaper than meat and cheaper than any “processed foods.”

    But, veggies require work. If you want to make a tasty dish, you are going to need a kitchen, some knowledge and the time to prepare them. Which really gets to what the “unhealthy foods” have — convenience. McDonald’s is convenient, hot and delicious and also a good value. This is what healthy food is competing against.

    • wintercow20 says:

      Agreed … and this is changing fast, too. Wegmans (I know, it’s sorta for wealthy people) now has a raw vegetable bar and has all kinds of pre-cut, already washed, incredible fruits and veggies, along with recipes, simmer sauces and all kinds of fixin’s to make your veggies taste awesome. And given the work they do for you, it’s not really all that expensive either, especially when compared to some organic selections of unprepared foods. My hope is that even lower priced competitors will recognize this and make similar offerings, even if they don’t have the wide variety of choices that are available at Wegmans.

      As for the organic and health claims, there is quite a literature on this now and it is pretty clear that there are no advantages from a health standpoint to eating organic. One among many reasons to not be surprised by this is that if you happen to exist as beet or carrot or some other such vegetable, and a nitrogen atom descends upon you, you don’t much know (or “care”) if it came from Monsanto, a cow’s booty, from ocean fish, or any other place. N is N is N is N.

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