Agricultural subsidies and technological advances in food production keep the average cost of food lower than the cost of many non-food items we buy. But the price advantages don’t extend to all types of food. During the same two decades when food prices dropped in comparison to other purchases, prices for fruits and vegetables increased nearly six times more than the price of soft drinks. Your dinner is cheaper today than it was in 1980 only if you avoid eating your greens.
Researchers from the University of Washington have shown that calories from vegetables like zucchini and lettuce are 100 times more expensive than calories from oil, butter and sugar. People who rely on food and nutrition assistance programs to feed their families, or whose budgets for food are tight, are likely to purchase inexpensive foods. These are generally calorie-dense and nutrient-poor compared to healthier but more expensive fare like fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish. Continually choosing foods loaded with sugar and fat leads to higher rates of obesity and obesity-associated chronic disease.
When issues of food security and food access combine with higher relative prices of healthy foods, it is not surprising that obesity, diabetes, and weight-related illness are more prevalent in poor communities. The Rudd Center is evaluating how changes in food prices can be leveraged to improve public health and reduce income-defined disparities in obesity and related diseases. Low-income consumers, who are at the highest risk for obesity, are also most sensitive to changes in food prices. Thus, the challenge for policy makers is to identify a mechanism that would support a lower cost for a healthy diet without imposing regressive taxes.