Why Salads Are More Expensive Than Hamburgers

We’ve got a lot of problems when it comes to our food system, but one of them was clearly articulated with a simple graphic. How do food subsidies affect what we’re eating? Check this out:.

pyramidThis graphic was recently published by the Consumerist, with the few words, “This is why you’re fat.”

The New York Times had a little bit more to say about the graphic, which by the way was put together by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The Times says:

Thanks to lobbying, Congress chooses to subsidize foods that we’re supposed to eat less of.

Of course, there are surely other reasons why burgers are cheaper than salads. These might include production costs, since harvesting apples is probably more naturally seasonal than slaughtering cows (even though both are in demand year-round). Transportation and storage costs might also play a role, as it’s probably easier to keep ground beef fresh and edible for extended periods of time, by freezing it, than cucumbers.

Interesting analysis, but it’s missing the heart of the matter, which PCRM lays out on their own website — the legislation which governs all these subsidies is the controversial farm bill. “The bill provides billions of dollars in subsidies, much of which goes to huge agribusinesses producing feed crops, such as corn and soy, which are then fed to animals,” PCRM writes. “By funding these crops, the government supports the production of meat and dairy products–the same products that contribute to our growing rates of obesity and chronic disease. Fruit and vegetable farmers, on the other hand, receive less than 1 percent of government subsidies.”

What would our society look like if fruit and vegetable products received more of the cut? I’m reminded of the scene from the Oscar-nominated film Food Inc., where a lower-income family grapples with the issue of spending what little money they have on fast food burgers because it is cheaper and more filling than buying fresh vegetables but knowing that they’ll end up likely spending even more down the line in health costs. That’s a decision that no family should have to make.

Clearly our prices for food are skewed. Interestingly, the Times has another graphic about how food prices have changed over the last 30 years, and shockingly it’s fresh fruits and veggies that seem to be getting much more expensive, while most everything else seems to be going down or holding relatively steady.

David Leonhardt, who put together the chart on food pricing says most unhealthy foods have gotten cheaper. Since 1978, soda has gotten 33 percent cheaper but fruits and veggies are over 40 percent more expensive. As an example he says:

The price of oranges, to take one extreme example (not shown in the chart), has more than doubled, relative to everything else. So if in 1978, a bag of oranges cost the same as one big bottle of soda, today that bag costs the same as three big bottles of soda.

And how have these pricing difference played out in terms of human health? Well, obesity may be one place. Leonhardt writes:

In my column this morning, I mention that the average 18-year-old today is 15 pounds heavier than the average 18 year-old in the late 1970s. Adults have put on even more weight during that period. The average woman in her 60s is 20 pounds heavier than the average 60-something woman in the late 1970s. The average man in his 60s is 25 pounds heavier. When you look at the chart, you start to understand why.

Of course there are many factors to obesity, but surely tipping the scales in favor of some of the less healthy ones, doesn’t help. This same scenario is playing out in our schools across the country, too. In a recent story Jill Richardson did for AlterNet about the dismal state of our school lunch program, she writes that we’re basically giving kids the very things we say they shouldn’t be eating:

USDA commodities provided for school lunches turn the USDA’s own food pyramid on its head. Whereas the food pyramid recommends a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, the USDA usually provides schools with meat and dairy products often high in saturated fat. Only 13 percent of commodities provided are fruits and vegetables (including fruit juice and legumes) — and about half of the vegetables provided are potatoes.

We’re already facing an diabetes epidemic where one in three people born after 1980 will get early-onset diabetes and one in two from minority communities. We need changes to our food system, big time, and right away. One of the best places to start is by flipping this food pyramid of subsidies on its head.

This post originally ran in AlterNet's SpeakEasy


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