A recent study by researchers at the University of California-Davis reported that U.S. shoppers who consistently choose healthy foods spend nearly 20 percent more on groceries. The study also said the higher price of these healthier choices can consume 35 to 40 percent of a low-income family's grocery budget. That's bad news for public health. It's also bad news for the organic-food market, since organics usually carry the highest price tag of all the healthy stuff out there.
The above quote comes from today's Grist article, "Cost in Translation," about the high costs of eating organic food. What's alarming to me is that organic is merely a subset of "healthy foods"-- and the study reports that shoppers who choose healthy foods (not just organic) spend a great deal more on groceries than other folks.
What does this mean for people with tight incomes and demanding schedules? As a grad student, I find myself picking up fast food much more frequently than I did as a corporate "professional." It's cheaper and, well, faster -- and I don't have to spend time wedged into my 3x3 "kitchen" for time consuming prep and clean-up (ever tried to make a "well-balanced meal" in a coat closet?). As a result, I feel less healthy and I've put on a few pounds more than I would like.
What does this mean? People who can't (or can barely) afford insurance or healthcare are also those who are unable to afford some of the best "preventive medicine" available -- healthy food. Or they're unable to find it because their local groceries don't stock it, or stock spoiled or spoiling produce and other perishable goods. It's a vicious cycle that keeps people poor, fat, and sick.
You can read a brief of the UC Davis study in pdf format here: http://aic.ucdavis.edu/pub/briefs/IB%2029.pdf
Here's an excerpt:
An alarming increase in such chronic diseases as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke, and some types of cancer has occurred over the past decade (Kant 2004). Improving diet quality by eating more whole grains and fruit and vegetables, and by eating less fat and refined sugar could help lower the incidence or severity of these diseases.
Avoiding and managing chronic disease, not surprisingly, is (and has been for quite some time) a class issue. It used to be that people couldn't afford food-- now they can't afford the right foods.
Can't afford the foods that help you avoid chronic disease? Can't afford to spend leisure time exercising (translation: don't have leisure time because you're working two jobs to pay your rent)? Can't afford healthcare, medicine and treatment for the chronic disease you developed because you were too cash- and time-strapped to avoid it? Too freaking bad. It's probably your fault anyway. Maybe you're a sinner, or stupid, or lazy.
It seems that people assume that overweight and obese people deserve to be unhealthy because they have made poor choices regarding their health. I've even heard people remark that overweight, poor people must not be that poor, as they clearly have been able to afford the food that has made them overweight. What, are poor people supposed to starve themselves to be authentic? In times past (and still in some cultures), obesity was a mark of prosperity -- gout was the rich man's disease. Not so these days, when a stick-thin figure is a sign of wealth and the ability to afford a personal trainer and dietician. It's McDonald's that has the dollar value menu, not Spago or the new raw food restaurants cropping up in urban areas across the nation. Even more alarming is the fact that I could spend $1 for a double cheeseburger, or $1 for one (1) non-organic red bell pepper at the grocery. That just doesn't make sense.
Of course, if you add up the hidden costs of consuming that $1 double cheeseburger (healthcare, environmental damage, labor costs, etcetera), it costs much more than the bell pepper-- but that's not what I'm thinking about two weeks into the month when most of my paycheck has been parceled out to my creditors and I still have to feed myself (and if I'm lucky, my children and my pets and my spouse). It's about that time that one's tolerance for well-meaning theory goes out the window, and one wishes that the hippies would shove their "joys of organic gardening" and saving the environment and the animals crap up their collective ass. Now there's a dilemma for you ethicists. So solve it, already.