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The Economics of Fat
March 27, 2007 8:10 AM   Subscribe

Cheap Donuts and Expensive Broccoli: the Effect of Relative Prices on Obesity. Using data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) for the period 1982-1996, we find that individual BMI measures, as well as the likelihood of being overweight or obese, exhibit a statistically significant positive correlation with the prices of healthful relative to unhealthful foods.
posted by monju_bosatsu (61 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Considering the fact I just came back from the grocery store and I have a root beer gut the size of Cleveland...

WELL DUH!
posted by ZachsMind at 8:12 AM on March 27, 2007


OK, so if donuts and big macs were taxed to make them twice what they currently cost, the study authors think that might lead to a 1% reduction in BMI. Given that a tax like that is VERY unlikely and given that BMI is a crap statistic anyway, I'm not sure I understand the point.
posted by willnot at 8:17 AM on March 27, 2007


Well, one of the points is that we need to stop blaming poor people for eating unhealthfully, and we need to take steps to ensure that food banks can distribute more produce and less Hamburger Helper.
posted by arcticwoman at 8:23 AM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Or just cut out the corn subsidies that make corn syrup so cheap and plenti....BWAHAHAHA, OK, I almost made it through that.
posted by DU at 8:27 AM on March 27, 2007


Well, one of the points is that we need to stop blaming poor people for eating unhealthfully, and we need to take steps to ensure that food banks can distribute more produce and less Hamburger Helper.

That sounds great, how would that be done?

I live a few blocks from a distribution point for DC Central Kitchen. On some delivery days I will see boxes of produce on the curb left behind by the delivery truck with a sign attached saying it is free for the taking. I don't think there is a shortage of produce being delivered to the low income residents in my area, but a lack of interest in preparing and consuming that produce.
posted by peeedro at 8:47 AM on March 27, 2007


"These results are robust to endogenizing the relative price measure."
Can somebody hope me here?
posted by MtDewd at 8:49 AM on March 27, 2007


Oh good, I was wondering why it had been so long since someone posted a we-are-all-fatties-related thread.

I'm looking forward to the obligatory flame war!
posted by kalessin at 8:49 AM on March 27, 2007


See now, when I was a starving art student, I actually started eating more vegetables because for the most part they were cheaper than other stuff. I still remember that a head of lettuce at the time was 59¢ and I could have 4-5 meals with it. So when did junk food get cheaper?

Now that I'm thinking about it, it's probably supply & demand since people are more health conscious. That's why Whole Foods can stay in business being so pricy. Years ago you would've had to pay people to buy tofu & healthy stuff.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:58 AM on March 27, 2007


Well, the problem isn't finding cheap healthy food- last I checked, broccoli, carrots, and apples are still relatively cheap. The problem is finding cheap, healthy, prepared food. Most of the cheap, convenient prepared food available is of the extremely unhealthful variety.

I've long wondered why someone doesn't start a "healthy" fast food chain. And I don't mean stupid cold-cuts, a la Subway. I'm talking about real, good healthy food - like veggie lasagna and burritos and stuff. They could still work on the fast-food model - franchises, drive-throughs, underpaid teenage labor, etc. They would just serve better food.

The problem with restaurants that make a point of being "healthy" is that they get caught up in the whole idealogical thing, and try to buy all organic, locally grown, etc, etc, etc. And while that stuff is all well and good, it prevents them from making the kind of money that fast food restaurants make.

I can't wait for someone to catch on to this. There's a pile of money just waiting to be made. There's nothing inherently profitable about shitty, unhealthy food. It's all about the business model.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:01 AM on March 27, 2007 [5 favorites]


Price is not the only determining factor. There is also availability. Many poor people live in food deserts.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 9:02 AM on March 27, 2007


Interesting post, thanks.

It occurs to me that cheap foods of the type mentioned in the link (Big Macs and doughnuts) are also convenience foods and require no preparation. Healthier foods are typically foods that require some level of interaction prior to consumption. Preparation of food is not instinctive, and once a social trend toward convenience food is set it may be more difficult for the general public to make anything edible in the kitchen. That discarded box of produce may present something of a mystery to a population like that.

If there is any truth to what I've just written then taxing convenience foods wouldn't do a whole lot to make people healthier. Education? Mandatory Home Ec.? How does one distribute knowledge of this type among a population of no-good, lazy fatties?
posted by Pecinpah at 9:03 AM on March 27, 2007


On preview; I've been out-gunned by Afroblanco.
posted by Pecinpah at 9:04 AM on March 27, 2007


I've long wondered why someone doesn't start a "healthy" fast food chain.

These guys are trying.
posted by waitingtoderail at 9:19 AM on March 27, 2007


Which came first, the Obesity or the Egg McMuffin?

I love this idea! Let's tax the poor so only the rich can afford a Big Mac. I mean, the poor certainly don't deserve the right to make their own dietary choices.

You'll eat your broccoli and LIKE IT!
posted by tempestuoso at 9:47 AM on March 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


Food pantry folks talk about the produce problem quite a bit. The causes are manifold. Some of the factors:

1. Lots of people have grown up relatively dependent on convenience foods, and may not have much of a cooking repertoire, or may only know a limited number of cooking methods that work reliably.

2. People in shelters, motel rooms (huge amount of low-income housing), and single rented rooms don't always have cooking facilities. If they do, it might be something like a hot plate, which lets you boil water for pasta but not do anything much multi-step. They may not have refrigeration, making something like lettuce difficult to keep for any length of time.

3. Produce is sometimes just percevied as less desirable, while brand names and junk food are perceived as more desirable luxuries and disappear first from pantry shelves.

4. Food that is nonperishable is preferred, largely because of the refrigerator problem but also because it is more mobile. It's usually in self-contained packaging that can be moved easily if you have to move at the end of the month.

These are all problems that have to be solved somehow in order to improve the health and well-being of our populace. One group I work with was looking at trying to start a van service to bring poor, elderly people from the elderly housing to the farmer's market; then we learned that it had been tried in the past and not many people wanted to take advantage of it. These old people, mostly living alone, were expressing a preference to open up a can of soup and eat some oyster crackers rather thanbuy a bunch of kale and tomatoes, spend an afternoon washing and chopping, and stirup a big pot of something homemade.

Food and food habits express a lot about who we are, and the reflection in the mirror right now is not the prettiest.

About the corn syrup...why treat that as a joke? It's a very real problem with a clear cause and clearly negative effects. I know it's tiresome to see the same messages over and over, but sometimes they're valuable messages that need repeating until solutions arise. Fossil fuel dependence bwahahaha? Genetic material as intellectual property bwahaha? No - I think food-supply issues worth taking seriously.
posted by Miko at 9:55 AM on March 27, 2007 [4 favorites]


See now, when I was a starving art student, I actually started eating more vegetables because for the most part they were cheaper than other stuff.

Well, the problem isn't finding cheap healthy food- last I checked, broccoli, carrots, and apples are still relatively cheap.


I hear this often repeated, but I don't think it's true. Compare broccoli and donuts, for example, as the title of the paper does. A pound of broccoli contains only about 130 calories, but costs around $2.00. For the same price, I can get a 13 ounce box of Hostess powdered sugar donuts that contains about 1500 calories. In other words, cheap baked goods have more than 10 times the caloric content of vegetables for the same price. Add to that the cost and time to prepare the broccoli, as mentioned above, and the difference becomes even larger.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 9:56 AM on March 27, 2007


(Though, yeah, what tempestuoso said. I only read the abstract because I didn't want to download that document at work, but yhis sounds like a proposal for a regressive tax that will have the same effect as tobacco taxation, but with less justification because of the small number of people for whom things would improve. It's an inefficient solution to a problem that's really on the industry side, not the consumer side.
posted by Miko at 9:57 AM on March 27, 2007


Let's tax the poor so only the rich can afford a Big Mac. I mean, the poor certainly don't deserve the right to make their own dietary choices.

Because the poor are doing an awesome job of making dietary choices at the moment?
posted by Aloysius Bear at 10:03 AM on March 27, 2007


Compare broccoli and donuts, for example, as the title of the paper does.

That's like comparing apples and oranges. Oh, no wait.
posted by tempestuoso at 10:06 AM on March 27, 2007


Because the poor are doing an awesome job of making dietary choices at the moment?

Maybe I'm misunderstanding you. Are you saying that because one is poor one is unable to make rational decisions on their own behalf?
posted by tempestuoso at 10:08 AM on March 27, 2007


I don't have the energy to have this entire discussion again, but the problem is that thoughcalories are sometimes cheap, nutrition is not. And donuts are one example that seems to prove a point (they're heavy with fat and carbs, but full of cheap ingredients so a pound can be purchased cheaply), but think about other processed foods, like potato chips, hot dogs, American cheese, boxed cereals, or chicken nuggets -- a pound of any of those is more expensive than a pound of tofu or broccoli or beans.

Point-by-point comparisons show no clear advantage to cheap processed food, even calorically. Some examples appear to put you ahead, some behind (the existence of 16-cent dried fried ramen noodles alone skews the statistics badly). But comparing caloric content food by food is not a particularly useful way of determining what a healthy food policy should be. They begin by assuming that more calories are better - with the greater incidence of obesity in the poor than in the population as a whole (already pretty bad), that is not true. We also have the odd phenomenon of people who are both obese and malnourished. Processed food diets are often high in proteins and fats but not in calcium, iron, or essntial vitamins like A and C.

So in order to do a meaningful analysis, you really have to posit a food budget or an average spending amount, and look at the most optimal nutrition that can be purchased within that budget. When you look at it that way, what remains true is that if you can cook, you can eat a completely healthy diet for the same amount of money as many people spend on heavily processed food diets.

So the problem is not that most people can't afford better food. The problem is sometimes access to food, sometimes awareness, sometimes time, sometimes cooking equipment, sometimes cash flow, sometimes habit and personal history -- but certainly also the sheer availability of low-cost, high-calorie, low-nutrient-density, subsidized convenience food, concentrated in the kinds of locations that poor people end up having to shop.
posted by Miko at 10:12 AM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


The problem is sometimes access to food, sometimes awareness, sometimes time, sometimes cooking equipment, sometimes cash flow, sometimes habit and personal history -- but certainly also the sheer availability of low-cost, high-calorie, low-nutrient-density, subsidized convenience food, concentrated in the kinds of locations that poor people end up having to shop.

I agree with this whole-heartedly. Where I work, for example, there is a paucity of dining options. I can either eat at a crappy pseudo-Chinese place, a crappy sandwich place, or a crappy buffet place. If I want to expand my options, I need either to bring my own lunch, which takes precious time to prepare (and I often forget), or I have to drive to someplace off-site, which takes time out of the hour I'm alotted for lunch.

If a 100% tax were placed on my lunch at these places, I probably wouldn't eat at all, and yes, I would probably lose weight, but at the expense of other things, like my friendly disposition for example.
posted by tempestuoso at 10:30 AM on March 27, 2007


A pound of broccoli contains only about 130 calories, but costs around $2.00. For the same price, I can get a 13 ounce box of Hostess powdered sugar donuts that contains about 1500 calories.

So, I've recently heard a few people talking about this.. The consensus seems to be that the junk food health food price inversion is less substantial in Canada, and your numbers appear to agree. $2/lb for broccoli is about right, often less, but in Toronto I'd have to pay ~$4 for those backed goods.
posted by Chuckles at 10:49 AM on March 27, 2007


Fat people aren't fat because they are poor. They are fat (and poor) because they are lazy.

Generally speaking, of course.

I can feed myself and two children (healthily) for 2-3 days on less than twenty bucks.
posted by tadellin at 10:51 AM on March 27, 2007


I've stood in line at markets and watched young mothers with kids unload a cart full of sausages, donuts, sugary cereals, fruit "juice" with no fruit, TV dinners, sodas, chips and other semi-food and wondered, isn't this actually a form of child abuse?

But the same thing happens in most developing countries when processed food suddenly becomes available and cheap and is perceived as a desirable luxury good while native homegrown staples are seen as unworthy or only for poor people. Happened in Hawaii and the Pacific Islands (see Spam Sushi) and happening right now in China.

I'd attach links but its lunch time and I'm rushing out for my $3.99 Big Mac and supersize Coke.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 10:58 AM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Miko: I don't think DU was saying that the idea of Corn Syrup subsidies being a problem was a laughably untrue crackpot idea.

I think that he was saying that the idea of the Government breaking ties with Corn Lobbyists was laughable--as in the "like that'll ever happen" sense.
posted by sourwookie at 11:03 AM on March 27, 2007


Now that I'm thinking about it, it's probably supply & demand since people are more health conscious. That's why Whole Foods can stay in business being so pricy. Years ago you would've had to pay people to buy tofu & healthy stuff.

Wrong. The long run supply of Tofu and vegetables isn't fixed.

Price is not the only determining factor. There is also availability. Many poor people live in food deserts.


Too bad their city councils are busy outlawing Wal-Marts.
posted by Kwantsar at 11:10 AM on March 27, 2007


They are fat (and poor) because they are lazy.

Didn't see that coming...
posted by peeedro at 11:12 AM on March 27, 2007


...idea of the Government breaking ties with Corn Lobbyists was laughable...

Right in spirit, though I wasn't so much thinking of Corn Lobbyists as Hypocritical Anti-"Welfare State" Heartland Voters.
posted by DU at 11:18 AM on March 27, 2007


Huh. Well, as long as I can make chili, soup, and rice and beans, I guess I'll manage to eat somewhat healthily and cheaply. Processed stuff and fast food were always treats, growing up, and it still feels like getting away with something to try to eat that stuff.
posted by pax digita at 11:18 AM on March 27, 2007


A pound of broccoli contains only about 130 calories, but costs around $2.00. For the same price, I can get a 13 ounce box of Hostess powdered sugar donuts that contains about 1500 calories.

Not to mention that if you are flat-out, full-on hungry and that $2 is all you have, broccoli's not going to cut it. A box of donuts or a McD's burger, on the other hand, will fill up your belly and hopefully carry you through to the next time you can scrounge up a couple of bucks. Being full in the short term trumps being healthy in the long term.
posted by jrossi4r at 11:19 AM on March 27, 2007


Every time I hear someone claim that poor people are lazy, I think about the fact that many, many poor people in this country work two or three blue-collar jobs in order to make ends meet. After one 8-10 hour stretch, they go straight into another one, weekdays and weekends, year-round. I'm sure that most of us can't even imagine working that hard. Perhaps they don't have the time, energy, money, level of education, or access to grocery stores (as opposed to convenience stores, as many poor people cannot afford cars. And where I live, there is no such thing as public transportation, so without a car, you're shopping at Exxon) that would enable them to come home and whip up a healthy, well-prepared meal for their families. It just doesn't seem like it should be that difficult to look around and realize that there are structural reasons why poor people are poor and/ or overweight, and that's it's a disgusting oversimplification of the problems in this country to simply turn up your nose and call them lazy.
posted by exacta_perfecta at 11:23 AM on March 27, 2007 [11 favorites]


It's already profitable to sell healthy food; McD's sells healthier food than they did 10 years ago in addition to big macs, and Chipotle, which is fast-food rice and beans, is owned by McDs. Theodore Dalrymple
writes entertainingly about poor Brits and food
. Ethnic grocers sell good food in bad neighborhoods all over; the bodega sells veggies. TD makes the point that eating a leisurely meal in company is unusual in socially distastrous circumstances, so a blastfurter and soda is as good as it gets. Propaganda extolling the virtues of a shared table might help.
posted by lw at 11:49 AM on March 27, 2007


This article makes very interesting points.

I have a niece, now 15, and through puberty she has put on 5 or 10 pounds she does not want. We were trying to help her a) exercise more, and b) eat better, so that she wouldn't be self-conscious about here teeny tiny pot belly at this crucial time in here life, and give her something positive to do about her weight, rather than negative things like starvation and neurosis.

We could easily devise ways for her to exercise more (she already exercises a decent bit anyway. She's 15).

Eating better? She's a member of a family of 5, very poor, especially compared to the average MeFite, me suspects. Eating a healthy diet is extremely difficult on the budget her family has, and it would require a massive retooling of the way the entire family eats.

It's kind of sad, really, the struggles this young, beautiful girl is in for.

(Of course, she's just lazy, and thus poor, as tadellin says. Don't say that within swinging distance of my fists, mmkay?)
posted by teece at 11:52 AM on March 27, 2007


This is probably only a temporary condition; once the biofuels program really gets going, everyone will be putting those cheap donuts in their SUV tanks, and the poor will go back to being decently emaciated as they starve.
posted by jamjam at 11:55 AM on March 27, 2007


Thanks, sourwookie, and sorry for misreading your comment, DU.
posted by Miko at 12:06 PM on March 27, 2007


I've stood in line at markets and watched young mothers with kids unload a cart full of sausages, donuts, sugary cereals, fruit "juice" with no fruit...

Not to make you feel any less condescending and human, but when my single parent family was on welfare as a kid, I clearly remember this one asshole cashier, who upon seeing salad stuff and fresh fruit and then being handed food stamps got very snippy and told my mother that it sure was nice seeing her tax money provide so well for us while she was going home to make her kids mac and cheese.

You get remarked on for buying the good stuff and when you buy cheap and fast junk. There's no winning because when you're down and poor, people really like to kick you and tell you how they think you should live.
posted by FunkyHelix at 12:08 PM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Not to mention that if you are flat-out, full-on hungry and that $2 is all you have, broccoli's not going to cut it.

BTDT. Have had the experience of having to eat for a weekend with $5 in my pocket starting Fri nite. And no grocery store within reasonable walking distance or any way to cook things. I think one such weekend, when the wx was really bad out, I stayed in with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon.

I was extremely fortunate in those days. A sympathetic asst mgr at the cafeteria of the hospital where I worked essentially figured out a way for me to eat there for free (to me; the hospital had to absorb the cost, and I was warned to keep it real). I was making about $3/hr as a file clerk and most of that was rent (at the Y) and bus fare.
posted by pax digita at 12:13 PM on March 27, 2007


It's already profitable to sell healthy food; McD's sells healthier food than they did 10 years ago in addition to big macs, and Chipotle, which is fast-food rice and beans, is owned by McDs.

I am curious about whether or not the healthy items on McDonald's menu are actually profitable for them. Does anyone know of any statistics on that?

As for Chipotle (which we don't have in these parts -- we get Qdoba instead), I don't know that I would necessarily say you'll stay thin eating burritos every day either.

13" tortilla + rice + black beans + tomatos + ettuce + guacamole + chicken + sour cream + cheese = 1349 calories.
posted by tempestuoso at 12:14 PM on March 27, 2007


My newspaper runs a daily "times past" photograph and I am always struck by how emaciated the poor appear with their sunken cheeks and wasted frames. The truth is we live in a time of unimaginable abundance. Not only is food relatively inexpensive, the diversity is tremendous. No longer are we reduced to a winter of carrots, potatoes, and apples, we now have the produce of the world available year round. Want asparagus in the middle of autumn? Want cherries in November or blueberries in December? They are available right now at your local grocery store along with the food and flavors of almost every nationality. Shall we have Thai? Indian? Japanese? What tempts our palate today?

All that choice is very difficult to resist.

What makes it even more difficult to resist is that the food conglomerates put so much time and effort into "food products" with "taste sensations" that are marketed to us with a barrage of colors and shapes and sounds on our TVs, our street billboards, our mailboxes, and even the very shopping cart we push around the grocery store.

Make no mistake, food is one of the few pleasures that the poor (and increasingly even the middle class) can afford. Food and TV. A combination that-- surprise!-- is a guaranteed to lead to obesity.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 12:30 PM on March 27, 2007 [4 favorites]


I try not to spend much on food, and do find that it is possible to get by on ~$3 a day, but I have an advantage. My main grocery store is only a 2-3 minute walk from my home. So, I go by every couple of days to see what sales I can find. As a general rule I can find some reasonable choices regarding fruits and vegetables (especially root vegetables). Grapes are often on sale for $0.99, onions $0.33 a pound and bananas for $0.30 a pound. Then there is always dried beans and rice. Some "healthy" food I almost never find to be cheap, such as fish. I have often picked up beef for $1.50 or less a pound, but fish never ...

I would like to understand why whole wheat bread is more expensive than white bread? Is it a volume thing, or do grocery stores know people will pay more for whole wheat?

The whole corn syrup thing I find irrelevant, as our sugar prices are typically much higher than the world market prices. After all we have to keep that sugar beet industry afloat.
posted by tallpaul at 12:44 PM on March 27, 2007


These guys are trying.

That may well be the dumbest name for a restaurant that I've ever heard of. I wouldn't be caught dead eating at a joint called KnowFat! let alone call someone up and ask them to join me.
posted by dobbs at 12:44 PM on March 27, 2007


“I can't wait for someone to catch on to this. There's a pile of money just waiting to be made”

Carrots are for closers.
They're sitting out there waiting to give you their money. Are you gonna take it? Are you man enough to take it?
Bunch of losers sittin around in a vitamin store, “Oh yeah, I used to be a health food salesman. It's a tough racket.”

“The problem is finding cheap, healthy, prepared food.”

Well said.
(Although I don’t know why poor folks need prepared food, seeing as how another study said they have all this extra leisure time on their hands. Like my gardener. That guy works like a dog 12 - 15 hours a day. Busts his ass, and he’s getting older and slower. What the hell is he going to do next week when I fire him, huh? Tell me that? And he’s got 7 kids. Man, what a world.)

“the problem is that thoughcalories are sometimes cheap, nutrition is not”

Also well said.

“They are fat (and poor) because they are lazy.”

Yeah. That’s also why they’re gang members. You know why there are so many billboards for malt liquor and cigarettes in poor areas? ‘Cos poor people love that stuff. (And too lazy to hire a personal trainer to tell them how bad it is to smoke and drink malt liquor.)

“I can feed myself and two children (healthily) for 2-3 days on less than twenty bucks.”

While working three jobs? Only in America.

“there are structural reasons why poor people are poor and/ or overweight”

Also well said.
I’ve been athletic my whole life and yet once I was out of training I started getting a gut (training vs. working out) - because I never really learned how to eat. Well - you’d think I’d’ve learned that in school or in any of the athletics or what-not. Nope. Until I got married, I just upped the intensity level to compensate. My wife is an excellent cook, though and we can afford prep time and materials. But I rub shoulders with folks not so well off. And now when I look at someone I don’t know in tremendously good shape I gotta ask what they do for a living. Most often it’s real estate.
So if you and your wife are working, you’re not generally going to have time to teach the kids to eat right, much less cook. And it’d be tough to exercise there too. I mean, you want to hit the gym after lugging a mower around all day or riding a jackhammer? Not to mention the time that takes you away from being with your kids.
I’m big on family values. The structure we have - economic, social, et.al - is not supporting families much less healthy families. Which leads to even less family interaction. Who actually wants to have a heart attack while playing ball with your kid? And hell, mealtimes are when you’re supposed to be with your family.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:49 PM on March 27, 2007


I honestly thought KnowFat! was a parody site at first, like Manbeef -- dumbest bit of marketing I've seen since American Tourister's line "Amelia Earhart" luggage -- does it ever show up at the destination? -- or Chevrolet's unfortunate decision to name a mid-priced Chevy the "Nova," not knowing that no va' in Spanish means "It won't run."

I'd also wondered why there isn't fast-food health food, so along with the others in this thread, there's some possible market, but I bet a bunch of marketing majors in school could come up with a better concept to sell it than "KnowFat!" Hell, I bet some bright twelve-year-olds could do better than that.
posted by pax digita at 12:59 PM on March 27, 2007


It seems to me that all of these arguments are putting the cart before the horse. We need to be focusing on ways to help people to be less poor when they are working hard. We need to shift the priorities of our entire society so that time spent focusing on family and self, including time spent fulfilling domestic roles such as marketing and cooking and eating together, is no longer seen as secondary in importance to being good worker bees. We need to make it so that someone in a family is able to give up the long public-transport commutes and the second or third job, and still be able to live in a safe community with decent non-transient housing where a proper kitchen isn't an unaffordable luxury. We need to hold our politicians' feet to the fire so that neighborhoods, especially urban neighborhoods, aren't wastelands where the only "shopping" options are a gas station/convenience store and an overpriced bodega where the owner can jack up prices because he knows that he has a captive market. After that, "poor" people can sort out their food choices and their health for themselves.
posted by Dreama at 1:28 PM on March 27, 2007


I don't think there is a shortage of produce being delivered to the low income residents in my area, but a lack of interest in preparing and consuming that produce.

I see some evidence of this but it's not quite that clear cut.

There's a stoop around the corner from my work where neighborhood folks tend to stop and go through their food bank bags. It's a wide, flat concrete slab and the house it's attached to is abandoned, so it's a great place to rest for a minute and take a look at what you got. Right now there's a deflated looking egg plant, three orange peppers and a bunch of corn ears basically there rotting away. I see people pulling out veggies and leaving them behind there all the time.

But the fact is that some people are so poor they don't have kitchens. They live in rooming houses, abandoned houses with no gas hook ups, or other tenuous arrangements that don't involve functioning cooking apparatus. Some of the people I see are elderly poor folks who live on real tight budgets. You can't really hold it against them that they don't have the means to prepare a hot meal.

Then there's the issue of going about getting exercise when you can't afford a gym membership and live in a neighborhood where it's too dangerous to be outside after dark.

I wonder how many people who make broadly declaritive statements about poverty have actually seen any up close recently, and if they really have a clear idea of how complicated an issue this is when you consider all the factors at work in each individual case of poverty correlated obesity.
posted by The Straightener at 1:38 PM on March 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


Some "healthy" food I almost never find to be cheap, such as fish

Fish is one of the few foods that actually costs what it costs. Wild-caught fish is darn expensive to produce, what with the costs of equipment, vessel maintenance, insurance (incredibly high), fuel, bait, ice, and payroll at a high enough rate that people are enticed to leave home and work up to 20 hours a day for 2-3 months at a time. Fish pricing has gone down somewhat in recent years due to the increase of fish farming, so things like catfish and salmon can be found farm-raised much cheaper than wild-caught. But fish farming has terrible environmental costs. Beef, pork, and chicken, on the other hand, are industrially produced on a larger scale and highly subsidized (both directly and via our national infrastructure), so they cost less than they really should, if we were paying a fair price for the food value they contain. With beef and pork, also, the price is related in part to fat content and cut. So you can find 80% lean ground beef more cheaply than 90%, and flank steak even cheaper than that. Meanwhile, farmed fish are fairly fixed in the type and quality of meat you're going to get.

As for wheat bread costinf more than white, this site says it's because wheat bread was a less popular product and so the scale of production was smaller, making each unit pricier.
Historically, some whole-grain products were more expensive because they were specialty items produced in smaller quantities. A 2001 ERS study found that the average supermarket price for whole-wheat or whole-grain bread in 1999 was $1.38 per pound, versus $1.15 for nonwhole-grain bread... A more recent ERS analysis puts the average cost of whole-grain/whole-wheat bread at $1.99 per pound in 2003, versus $1.66 per pound for white bread.
Also, wheat didn't depend for its sale on competitive pricing as much as white bread, and another factor is that there are rarely store generics available for wheat bread, while there are for white.

It is indeed strange to pay more for something closer to its natural state, and pay less for something stripped of nutritive value. However, I think the cost will drop as consumption goes up and consumers continue to seek more whole grain products.

Myself, I've recently decided to bite the bullet and pay more for the quality of food product I would like to encourage. Especially where milk, bread, and meat is concerned, I am ready to abandon the American reverence for lowest price always and reach for something better. Since I can manage to pay an 30 extra cents a loaf, I will do it, and the money will come out of some other aspect of my budget (if I actually start biking to work like I always say I will, it'll be a wash because of the fuel savings - or I can turn down the heat another couple degrees next winter, or just buy fewer CDs or beers, or eat out one less time a week).

I understand not everyone has flexibility in their budget even to choose among those alternatives. I wish the healthiest options were the cheapest, too, but right now the system is set up to aggressively push the junk food in order to shore up archaic agricultural models, drive foreign trade, and enrich the shareholders of large national and multi-national corporations. IN order to change that, those who can and want to will need to start putting our money where our mouths are and pay closer to what food is really worth.
posted by Miko at 1:53 PM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


And, what Dreama said!
posted by Miko at 1:57 PM on March 27, 2007


Miko, thanks for your insightful comments. I was a little worried about the direction this thread might take, but you have redeemed it.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 2:11 PM on March 27, 2007


Thanks so much, monju_bosatsu. These threads often get pretty contentious, I think because we're all involved with food and it cuts close to home. Critiquing food choices can feel like judgement. Discussing these things here at MeFi has been stressful at times, but has raised my sensitivitya little bit as well, I hope.
posted by Miko at 2:22 PM on March 27, 2007


Fat people aren't fat because they are poor. They are fat (and poor) because they are lazy.

Generally speaking, of course.

posted by tadellin at 10:51 AM on March 27


Wow. What a remarkably ignorant, uneducated, narrow-minded, foolish point of view. And I bet you really believe that, too.

I hope your kids somehow grow up to have more empathy, common sense, and understanding of reality than you do.

Metafilter: Just be glad it's not Fark.
posted by perilous at 2:32 PM on March 27, 2007


Too bad their city councils are busy outlawing Wal-Marts.

Yeah, because Wal-Mart is so gung-ho to build in inner cities, which is where many poor people live. You think they want to build a store (supercenter average size: 186,000 square feet!) in a densely populated urban area where there's no easy-on, easy-off freeway exit, and nowhere for the giant parking lot?

One neighborhood near me, inhabited by poor people, has no grocery store. As in, the nearest one is a good 1/2 hour bus ride. Where do they shop? At the convenience/liquor stores, where they can buy ramen noodles, soup in cans, chips, and almost-out-of-date milk.
posted by rtha at 2:53 PM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


KnowFat!'s for real, I get stuff there occasionally and they are quite good (Their chicken and mozzarella wrap is terrific), but the name's terrible, for sure. They started as a store for gym rats (selling protein powder and the like).

The best part about them is that on their menus they list out the entire nutritional content of what you're about to eat.
posted by waitingtoderail at 3:06 PM on March 27, 2007


About the corn syrup...why treat that as a joke?... Fossil fuel dependence bwahahaha?
posted by Miko at 12:55 PM on March 27 [2 favorites +]
[!]


Hi Miko (waves).

I actually think these two ideas put together are the answer. We all know the corn subsidies aren't going anywhere, so why not use them to produce biofuels? I'm not totally sold on the environmental aspect, but it's got the twin advantages of reducing our dependence on foreign oil, while giving us something else to do with all that corn so it doesn't kill us.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:40 PM on March 27, 2007


Fat people aren't fat because they are poor. They are fat (and poor) because they are lazy.

Crap. It's a trite thing to say because it's easily supported by the "evidence" you see, or imagine you see, every day.

How 'bout this for a blanket statement: They're fat because they don't have the knowledge/experience/facilities/opportunity to eat healthier food, and society has made it just so damned convenient, and advertising has made it so damned acceptable, to eat a fat-and-additives meat pattie in a lard-and-sugar bun instead.

Too many people, for too many reasons, don't cook anymore. Sometimes it's because they don't know what to do with the above-mentioned broccoli (can't stand the stuff myself, but I know how to cook it - boiling water to steam or blanch it isn't hard). Sometimes it's because they don't have the facilities - the above-mentioned 'unofficial' low-income housing, or even the 'official' version, with minimal cooking facilities. Sometimes it's because they don't have the time - it's easy, on your way home from work with a million other things to do, to just swing by Mickey D's and grab something that smells bad and tastes salty.

And, yes, sometimes it's because they're lazy. Eating nothing but crap does that to you, and so the cycle goes on...

And, no, I'm not defending my own body. While, in common with most of my peers, I'm a little overweight to the tune of 10kg or so, I'm not what you'd call "fat". What can I say; I eat too much crap and I know it.
posted by Pinback at 6:07 PM on March 27, 2007


it's so nice we have ten thousand distractions like weight and moving the responsibility counters around when kids are dying of tooth decay.

Just sayin'
posted by perianwyr at 6:33 PM on March 27, 2007


Yeah, because Wal-Mart is so gung-ho to build in inner cities, which is where many poor people live. You think they want to build a store (supercenter average size: 186,000 square feet!) in a densely populated urban area where there's no easy-on, easy-off freeway exit, and nowhere for the giant parking lot?

Really?

And of course they do. If they earn 20%+ ROEs in the sticks, they can at least cover their capital costs in the city.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:57 PM on March 27, 2007


Clearly, I should stop talking out of my arse.

Still, though, from today's NYT.
posted by rtha at 11:06 PM on March 27, 2007


George Orwell wrote about this in "The Road to Wigan Pier"

When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to
eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you.

posted by hazyjane at 2:11 AM on March 28, 2007


hazyjane, I think it's absolutely true that food is tied in to our senses of comfort and pleasure.

But associated with this is another problem. In Orwell's case and many others, food is being used as a substitute for things less easy to acquire: pleasure, comfort, security. To enjoy food as one of the affordable pleasures of life is commendable. To overindulge in unhealthy food in pursuit of another emotional state is problematic. (For the record, I'm no exception.)

Seeing food as emblematic of security can pose health problems even for the employed, wealthy, and well-fed (hence the diet industry). This belief that food = security, like many things, is a result of the messages our culture sends about food from birth onward.

If food's role is always and only to comfort and succor, we'll spend the rest of our lives trying to get that from food, though food really can't provide it. The challenge is: when you're depressed, scared, defeated, run down, and just seeking comfort, it's very hard to take the long view and eat the rice and beans rather than go for the immediately satisfying indulgence of the hot salty rich fried cheesy meal deal.

Food's role is also to provide good physical health and energy, and a poor diet robs the poor (those who, arguably, most need it) of good health and energy. It's similar to the way alcohol can be used to mask symptoms of difficult problems: it's a temporary solution in that it makes you feel better in the short term, but makes it harder for you to function in the long term. It's hard enough to be poor; but it's really hard to be poor and in congestive heart failure with no insurance, or poor, but unable to take jobs in which you work on your feet because of constant joint pain related to obesity.

To make healthier choices requires a belief in the long term, in the idea that one day life's conditions will improve, in the idea that there might be things within your grasp that will satisfy you more, in some future day, than a bag of Doritos will right now. The thing is, those things are hard to believe when you've been poor for a while. Long-term thinking is one of the luxuries of wealth.

Respect for food, what it can and can't do, and how to use its powers well is not something encouraged in our culture. When the world of marketing tries to sell us emotional safety through the vehicle of a food product, they're exposing us to endless messages that tell us that products have the power to secure true happiness. As long as we believe that, our economic system won't be able to change very much.
posted by Miko at 6:50 AM on March 28, 2007


“Respect for food, what it can and can't do, and how to use its powers well is not something encouraged in our culture”

Well stated. Take a look at Mexicans in Mexico. Then look at Mexican-Americans. Big difference in waistline, generally.
What’s changed? The culture of eating. Family time is indeed (as stated above) made secondary to work and such. Buddy of mine’s wife (both Mexican) made some excellent food for us (hell, even made the tortillas herself) he and I are eating at the table with his grandmother meanwhile the kids are eating hot pockets in front of the T.V. and his wife is trying to herd them back to the table. You’ve got your kids, what, maybe 3-4 hours a day if you’re both working? T.V. and advertising has them all day every day because they go to school with kids watching the same T.V. programs, etc. and reinforcing those messages.
What really bothers me about the “poor people are lazy” crap is that - beyond the facile “it’s bad to say that” - is that it supports the very messages t.v. and the rest of the business culture is spreading. It is a direct assault on family values.
I mean - define lazy.
The first thing you - if you’re an American - probably think of is work. So poor people don’t want to bust their ass and work - so that they’re not poor anymore. Ok. Well, meanwhile they’re not spending any time with their family if they’re working all the time. Who benefits from that kind of culture? Because it’s not the guy busting his ass 12 hours a day. So you have to ask - why isn’t it supported in the American culture?
Reminds me of Glengarry: “Good father? Fuck you. Go home and play with your kids.”
Blake’d be eating his testicles if he said that to me. I work BECAUSE of my kids. I have no aspirations of being really wealthy, I probably could be, but that’d mean sacrifices that I don’t want to make. I’m not a lesser man because I didn’t make those sacrifices - any more than someone who didn’t make the sacrifices I chose to make is a lesser man than I (Serve your country did you, Blake? You cowardly bastard you. Tough racket? Try being shot at all day asshole).
You have to question the foundation of the work ethic here. And the foundation of that - from the Puritains on - has always been support of the family. Why work if you have to sacrifice what you’re working for? So, lazy? Hell yeah. I won’t work one minute more than I need to so I can be home with my wife and kids. And that’s the culture war going on right now. Weird how “family values” came to mean working for the company store. Oh, certainly it started getting co-opted as soon as the phrase was uttered for any number of things (pro-life amongst others) but it’s so often paired with the “hard work” platitude it’s tough to pry it lose enough to actually realize that family values means, y’know, family.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:43 AM on March 29, 2007


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