Why Does a Salad Cost More than a Big Mac?

I had a discussion with a friend recently about the cost of healthy food and why it costs more to eat healthy.  I thought it was an interesting discussion, and one that occurs frequently, especially among those trying their best to avoid putting artificial crap into their bodies.

On one level, the answer to this question is pretty simple.  Unhealthy, fatty, sugary foods are cheaper than healthy, wholesome foodsZ because the United States government decides it will be.  The government chooses to subsidize certain commodities or industries for various reasons, often to encourage employment, increase the amount of exported goods, or to maintain an unprofitable but desired industry, but always to increase capital.  One of the most well-known subsidies in the U.S. is the government subsidy on corn.  This subsidy substantially decreases the price of corn, which has pervasive and widespread consequences, some beneficial and some less-so.  Because the corn exported from the U.S. is so cheap, domestic producers of corn in other countries are unable to compete in an open market and are forced out of business.  This is good news for U.S. corn producers but bad news for working class Americans.

Because of the artificially low prices of corn, those products made from corn, or have ingredients derived from corn are cheap.  An excellent example of this is the soft drink industry.  If you go to the grocery store, you’ll likely find that a two-liter bottle of soda costs less than a half-gallon bottle of all-natural fruit juice.  The reason for this is the high fructose corn syrup, a sugar derived from, you guessed it, corn.

The story is much the same with the meat industry.  Instead of feeding cows what they’ve naturally evolved to digest, grass, the great majority of American cattle are fed corn.  As you can imagine, the cows don’t end up as healthy as they could be and end up requiring large amounts of antibiotics just to stay quasi-healthy long enough to grow large enough to be slaughtered.  There are many examples of this kind of thing.  I think you get the idea.

Long story short, U.S. government subsidies artificially drive down the price of empty, sugary calories, while the price of nutritious calories remains high.  Take a look at this infographic.

This graphic was developed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.  It’s not so surprising that we have a huge obesity problem that trends up towards poorer Americans.  From the committee’s page:

The Farm Bill, a massive piece of federal legislation making its way through Congress, governs what children are fed in schools and what food assistance programs can distribute to recipients. 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. 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.

The government also purchases surplus foods like cheese, milk, pork, and beef for distribution to food assistance programs—including school lunches. The government is not required to purchase nutritious foods.

This is definitely an interesting issue.  It doesn’t take much digging to learn why our health problems exist.  You can read more about these issues in the New York Times HERE.

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