by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Price-of-food

Jul 23 2021

Weekend reading: What food really costs

One big question about a food system is what it costs, not only at the grocery store but also on expenses we can’t readily see—what economists call the “externalized” costs.  These go beyond the production, transportation, processing, and preparation that get factored into what we pay for food.   Instead, they include what the food system does to health, the environment, biodiversity, livelihoods, and the economy itself.

The Rockefeller Foundation has just produced a report addressing the externalized costs of food: True Cost of Food Measuring What Matters to Transform the U.S. Food System.

Consider this: In 2019, American consumers spent an estimated $1.1 trillion on food. That price tag includes the cost of producing, processing, retailing, and wholesaling the food we buy and eat. It does not include the cost of healthcare for the millions who fall ill with diet-related diseases. Nor does $1.1 trillion include the present and future costs of the food system’s contributions to water and air pollution, reduced biodiversity, or greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change. Take those costs into account and it becomes clear the true cost of the U.S. food system is at least three times as big—$3.2 trillion per year.

The report identifies 14 areas of externalization and estimates how much each of them contributes to the total cost of food.

The big ones are the costs to health and the environment but together all add up to $2.1 trillion—on top of what we pay for food at the grocery store, which already amounts to more than a trillion.

The report breaks down each of these areas.  Here is its estimate of the cost of the food system to health—on its own, $1.1 trillion annually.

And here is a recent book on just this topic.  It’s an edited volume of chapters by various authors who take deep dives into specific examples—Egyptian cotton, water in the Andes, Maize, organics, meat, low wages—along with examinations of broader issues of health, the environment, and sustainability.

True Cost Accounting for Food (Routledge Studies in Food, Society and the Environment)

All of this reminds me of yet another book, which I wrote about briefly when it first came out in 2011.

The Real Cost of Cheap Food (Routledge Studies in Food, Society and the Environment)

This is an important topic that demands attention.  Cheers to the Rockefeller Foundation for taking it on.

Jun 29 2021

Guess what: USDA finds barriers to SNAP

Let’s hear it for USDA.  It’s asking tough questions about its programs and paying attention to what it’s finding out.

It has just issues a report on barriers to eating healthfully on SNAP (formerly, Food Stamps).

The press release summarizes the report.

The study, Barriers that Constrain the Adequacy of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Allotments, conducted in 2018, finds that 88% of participants report encountering some type of hurdle to a healthy diet. The most common, reported by 61% of SNAP participants, is the cost of healthy foods. Participants who reported struggling to afford nutritious foods were more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity. Other barriers range from a lack of time to prepare meals from scratch (30%) to the need for transportation to the grocery store (19%) to no storage for fresh or cooked foods (14%).

An infographic displays this information.

The report comes in three parts:

From the interviews (page 52)

Overview

More broadly, processed foods—both those purchased at stores for home consumption and those eaten out—were seen as cheaper than healthier options…This perception was the same whether participants lived in urban or rural areas, had children or elderly in the household, or spoke Spanish or English.

Two interview excerpts

Just kind of life circumstances and it makes no sense to me that it is terribly cheap to eat like crap. Eating at [fast food ] every day is going to cost me $5 today and I would eat every day $5 a day but if I tried to go to [store] or some place that had good food and buy good food for a day, even just for myself, for $5, not going to happen. It’s going to be triple that or quadruple that or 10 times that depending on where you go.

Oh, just not processed. Not processed, not frozen. And I don’t really think carbs are very healthy myself, like breads and pastas, I don’t find necessary really. That’s mostly what you can afford, is the cheapest, for some stupid reason in stores, you know?

Policy options seem pretty obvious.  I hope USDA gives them a try.

Nov 28 2019

Happy Thanksgiving: The Farmers’ Share

The National Farmers Union publishes an annual survey of how much of every Thanksgiving dinner food dollar goes to the farmers who produce the food.  Not much.  This year, it’s 12 cents on average.

And the USDA produced this:

Enjoy the holiday!

Mar 29 2018

How much of the food dollar do farmers get?

USDA has just issued a revision to its food dollar series—its graphic explanation of how the U.S. food dollar gets spent.

This tells us that 15.8 cents out of every food dollar goes to the producer; the rest goes for marketing.

Oddly, the USDA does not provide an updated illustration of the marketing components from its previous version in 2006:

What this tells us is that 80% of the cost of food is accounted for by marketing.

Don’t farmers deserve more?

Nov 23 2017

Farm bill #4: Happy Thanksgiving

Apr 30 2012

Will better access to healthier foods reduce obesity?

A question from a reader:

Q.  I was wondering if you could comment on the recent article in the New York Times which questions the link between food deserts and obesity.

A.  Sure.  Happy to.  The article talks about two recent studies finding no relationship between the types of foods children eat, what they weight, and the kinds of foods available within a mile and a half of their homes.

These finding seem counter-intuitive in light of current efforts to improve access to healthier foods in low-income communities.

Obesity is more common among the poor than among those who are better off.   Poor people must be eating more calories than they expend in physical activity.

Eating more calories means eating more of foods high in calories, especially fast food, snacks, and sodas.  Kids who are heavier have been found to eat more of those foods than those who are not.

I can think of several reasons why this might be the case:

  • Access: healthier foods are less available
  • Cost: healthier foods cost more
  • Skills: healthier foods require preparation and cooking
  • Equipment: cooking healthier foods requires kitchen facilities, pots, and pans
  • Transportation: even if stores are available, they might be too far away to walk to
  • Quality: even if stores sell fruits and vegetables, they might not be fresh
  • Marketing: fast foods, snacks, and sodas are heavily marketed in low-income areas
  • Peer pressure: eating high-calorie foods is considered the norm

I can think of ways we might try to improve any of these factors, but I’m guessing that cost is the critical factor for people with limited means.  The Department of Commerce reports that the indexed price of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased by 40% since 1980, whereas the indexed price of sodas has declined by about 30%.

Fast food, snacks, and sodas are cheap.  Fruits and vegetables are not.

Without access to healthful foods, people cannot eat healthfully.  But access alone cannot reverse obesity.

The real issue is poverty.  Unless we do something to reduce income inequality, and to make healthier foods more affordable, fixing the access problem is unlikely to produce measurable results on its own.

Posted from the World Public Health Association annual meeting, World Nutrition 2012, in Rio.

Sep 23 2011

Weekend reading: food politics reports

The U.S. Public Interest Group (USPIRG) has a new report out on the effects of farm subsidies on obesity: Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food.  If you want people to eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food, fixing the subsidy patterns might be a good place to begin.

New England Complex Systems Institute (whatever that might be) has an interesting explanation of the recent rise in world food prices: The Food Crises: A Quantitative Model of Food Prices Including Speculators and Ethanol Conversion.
The authors’ explanation: commodity speculation and growing corn for ethanol fully account for the rise in prices.  The remedy seems obvious, no?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has just funded a report on the soft drink industry from the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), a project of Public Health Law & Policy (PHLP): Breaking Down the Chain: A Guide to the Soft Drink Industry.  This is about the industry itself, but also what it is doing to market its products here, there, and everywhere.  This is required reading for anyone interested in public health measures to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.

Aug 5 2011

Does it really cost more to buy healthy food?

I got several calls this week about a new study from the University of Washington arguing that because of the way foods are subsidized, it will cost everyone nearly $400 a year to follow the recommendations of the government’s MyPlate food guide

The Seattle group calculates the cost of food per calorie.  By this measure, the price of fruits and vegetables is exceedingly high compared to the cost of junk food.  Fruits and vegetables do not have many calories for their weight.

The Commerce department tracks the indexed price of foods.  Its data show that the indexed price of fresh produce increased by 40% ince 1980 whereas the price of sodas and processed foods has declined by 10-30%.  (The easiest place to see their charts is in New York Times articles from a couple of years ago.  Click here and also here).

USDA economists have produced a similar chart:

 

Other USDA economists, however, argue that price trends for fruits, vegetables, and junk foods are really no different, and that the data shown in the figure overstate the apparent difference.

Nevertheless, the Seattle paper got a lot of attention, and rightly so.  One of my calls was from David Freeman of CBS News who said he was hearing lots of complaints that the study promoted a “nanny state” because it blamed bad eating habits on the government.  My quotes:

“It’s a common misconception that food choices are solely a matter of personal responsibility,” Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and an outspoken critic of the fast food industry, told CBS News. “People are hugely influenced by the price of food. If you don’t have any money and go into the store to buy some fresh fruits, you might decide that it’s cheaper to have a couple of fast food hamburgers.”

And those who can afford healthy food may lack the time or the necessary food-preparation skills, Dr. Nestle said.

Government-sponsored cooking classes and kitchen equipment may not be in the offing. But Dr. Monsivais and Dr. Nestle agreed that federal agriculture policies could do more to encourage healthy eating. For example, some of the federal farm subsidies now directed to producers of corn, soybeans, and other crops used to make fast and processed foods could be redirected to growers of fruits and vegetables.

“What’s the matter with that?” Dr. Nestle said. “I can’t think of a thing.”