This article was originally published in the Montreal Gazette
Whenever I go to the grocery store, I am always struck by the same thing. Fruits and vegetables seem to be increasingly expensive while junk food remains comparatively cheap. The damage at checkout if you try to eat healthily can be considerable, especially if you are doing the shopping for a large family. The problem is not a trivial one. If you are comfortably well off, the high price of cantaloupe is simply an annoyance you can gripe about on the way home from the supermarket. But if you are on a limited budget, eating healthily might not simply be difficult — it might actually be impossible.
It will surprise many people to find out how common such food insecurity is. In the United States in 2019 it affected more than 10 percent of households, and the problem got worse during the pandemic. The problem with food insecurity is that people invariably bow to economic pressure and buy cheaper, less healthy food to make ends meet. The consequences should be obvious. An unhealthy diet invariably leads to unhealthy outcomes and is one of the reasons why lower socioeconomic status is linked to problems like obesity, heart disease and cancer.
There are two ways to address the problem of the price differential between junk food and the healthier options of fruits and vegetables. One can either make junk food more expensive or one can make healthy foods more affordable. The first option involves something like a sugar tax, which has been used by various cities like Philadelphia and Berkeley, Calif., with some success. The other option is to subsidize healthy foods through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. SNAP is designed to supplement the food budget of families in need so they can afford to buy healthier food.
Of course, there is always the danger that such programs might not work. Behavioural change is difficult and there are multiple barriers to getting people to eat healthily. So researchers in North Carolina studied whether such a program actually gets people to make healthier choices. They studied whether a program called SuperSNAP, which provided SNAP beneficiaries with $40 a month to buy fruits and vegetables at local grocery stores, actually changed people’s buying habits.
They found that shoppers who were part of the program spent more per month on fruits and vegetables, which was not entirely surprising since they were essentially getting store credit for that purpose. But it was always possible that people who had a portion of their regular grocery bills covered would redirect their new disposable income to buying more unhealthy foods as well. That, however, did not happen. While there was a small increase in spending on unhealthy foods, it only amounted to an extra $1.60 per month on average. Spending on sugary drinks actually decreased.
What this research project suggests is that most people do want to eat more healthily, but for many their financial situation makes that impossible. The problem is that junk food, which can be mass-produced in a factory, is always going to be cheaper than fruits and vegetables. As anyone who has a garden can tell you, growing food is hard, time-consuming and comparatively expensive.
There are many reasons why people make unhealthy food choices. Junk food is tasty and the desire to indulge oneself is clearly part of it. But junk food is also cheap, can be bought in bulk and does not spoil easily, which makes it an attractive option for someone on a budget. Programs that make fruits and vegetables comparatively more affordable can help people who eat junk food by necessity. Because the sad reality is that some people make unhealthy choices because they actually have no choice in the matter.