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Does Eating Healthy Mean Spending More Money?

August 01, 2016
By: Stephanie Loui, FoodCorps Hawaiʻi Service Member

Eating healthy is something we can more or less all get behind. It improves our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It can help us to prevent diet-related illnesses, stave off unwanted weight, and can serve as medicine across various cultures. More plant-based and home-cooked foods, less processed and fast foods. The recipe sounds simple and yet there is one question that always surfaces next: Does eating healthy mean spending more money?

This summer, I had the opportunity to take the edible education tools of ‘ĀINA in Schools to a new audience: High-schoolers. On our first session together we started with a very simple question that would connect the lessons to follow: What informs your food choices? I offered some of my own considerations like food miles, cultural practices, and nutrition. In return, I received a nearly unanimous answer, across all four classes and 90 students: Cost and convenience. Over and over, these echoed the loudest. Cost. Convenience. Budget. Ease. And in a food landscape where cost and convenience are synonymous with fast and processed foods, this can also mean very, very unhealthy options.

I walked away from the first class wondering, does it really cost more to eat healthy? On the surface level, the answer is a probable yes. But is the equation really so simple? What about factors like quality, taste, nutrient density, environmental impact, and satiation? What about buying in bulk and cooking at home compared with eating out? On these fronts, I am less convinced. Though that $5.99 Big Mac Combo special appears to be a “deal”, consider these hidden costs behind the sticker price…

  1. You’re paying with your tax dollars. Federal crop subsidies, now called subsidized crop insurance, utilizes taxpayer money to offset farming costs. So what does this mean? The government is taking a section of your paycheck and reinvesting it in fruits and vegetables to bring down the cost? Great! (if this was true). Kale, it turns out, does not make the top 5 most subsidized crop list. Instead, the government invests the majority of farming subsidies in commodities like corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and sorghum and by association, the US livestock industry’s corn and soybean feed supply. While these are not inherently unhealthy sources of calories, they are largely converted into high-fat, high-calorie, sugary (corn sweetened) processed and fast foods—the foods that are contributing to make almost three-quarters of Americans overweight or obese
  2. You’re paying with your health. Given the current trajectory, it is estimated that by 2050, 1 in 3 American children will have diabetes. For people of color, the statistics is closer to 1 in 2. In a study by the CDC, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey looked at consumption of foods containing subsidized commodities and their link (if any) to health. They found that those who consumed the most subsidized crop-derived foods were at a higher risk for cardiometabolic problems and on average, those individuals had a higher BMI. So we’re paying for food that makes us sick and that doesn’t even begin to address the massive healthcare costs we deal with later. The CDC estimated that in 2014, the medical and lost work and wages cost for people with diabetes totaled 245 billion dollars.
  3. You’re paying in environmental impact. Though harder to measure in terms of dollar amounts, the consequences of chemical and petroleum intensive agriculture, GMO seed stock, monocropping and food miles cannot be discounted in favor of seemingly low food prices. Industrial agribusiness today depends on mass-scale production, quick and uniform yield, and government subsidies to stay in business. This inherently contradicts sustainable food growing. While organic, non-GMO produce does on average cost more, you are also investing in sustainable land usage and a future with enough demand for an economy of scale to become possible. The more we collectively demand affordable, high-quality produce, the more likely we are to actually reach the daily fruit and vegetable recommendation set-up by our own government.
  4. You’re paying for more than food. When you’re in the kitchen and ready to throw in the towel and order takeout, consider what exactly your dollars are getting you. Sure there’s the more or less fixed cost of the meal, but what about the disposable, often non-recyclable packaging? What about the mileage between you and the restaurant? Do you tip? And whether you do or not, do you feel comfortable with a $7.25 federal minimum wage or a $2.13 minimum wage for wait-staff? Restaurant food is also notoriously high in sugar, salt, and fat and in most states, not beholden to consumers to provide nutrition information.

Over the next three sessions with the high school students, we discussed food miles, supporting local agriculture, navigating food labels, and critically examining the rhetoric of food advertising, primarily toting highly processed foods to children and teens. We finished out the class with homemade smoothie bowls, measuring the cost per bowl compared with the store-bought iteration. What would have cost students around $8 at their favorite smoothie bars cost us about $1.85 per bowl. Students were surprised to say the least.

So where does this leave us?

Calculating the cost of eating healthy is a complex beast, difficult to distill and even more complicated to advise on. Although America is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we spend just 6.5% of our household budget on food For a reference point, Japan and France spend over double that amount. Perhaps it is time we started investing, all of us, in a food system that promotes, not deters healthy behaviors. When the majority of government farm subsidies ultimately fund the food that is making Americans sick, when we are relying on unsustainable farming practices and risky chemicals to feed ourselves, and when the next generation sees food as an equation of cost and convenience, it is time to fix what is broken.

For more resources, check out:

Good And Cheap is a free online cookbook by Leanne Brown which features delicious, quick-prep meals made possible for a $4/ day, food stamp budget.

Research from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) suggests that the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy diets. Check out the full study here.

Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? is a USDA study that explores different measures for calculating the cost of food including calorie cost, edible weight, portion size, and the cost of meeting dietary recommendations.