Why Whole Foods’ Shoppers Are Thin and Albertsons’ Aren’t

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By Tom Laskawy

A recent University of Washington study showed Seattle-area shoppers at Whole Foods are much less likely to be obese, on average, than shoppers at the less expensive chain Albertsons.

I shrugged when I read this. From what I can tell, the study didn’t control for income: it’s well established that Whole Foods shoppers have higher incomes, which has always been correlated with low obesity rates. Indeed, some public health experts will tell you that we don’t have an obesity epidemic so much as we have a poverty epidemic.

But economist and blogger Mike Konzcalresponded to the study by highlighting a fascinating economic analysis [PDF] that documented statistically how low- and high-income consumers exist in different food systems. In essence, that means low-income consumers have “successfully” managed to experience less food price inflation than rich people, since the foods they buy are those whose prices have been falling, i.e. highly processed foods and soft drinks.

To some, this represents evidence that concerns about income inequality are misplaced, since poor people have figured out how to feed themselves cheaply and aren’t experiencing “real” food price inflation. But Konczal makes the point that economists conveniently and typically leave out something important. In the economists’ world, “nobody gets diabetes”:

The long-term health costs of “choosing” a different inflation rate for your food isn’t estimated, nor are they included to see if it all balances out economically.

Which is to say that when you hear arguments that income inequality isn’t so bad because consumption inequality is less than you’d think, it’s important to be skeptical about what in fact is being consumed. Sometimes it is exactly what you think it is: less quality and worse long-term health outcomes. And the long-term consequences for the health and well-being of the working poor are exactly the type of information econometric stats obscure.

This fits in to the larger argument that Michael Pollan made in his New York Review of Books article and Tom Philpott echoed (as have I) — that our food system, indeed our entire economic system, all but forces low-income consumers into an unhealthy diet. Fixing this will be a tall order, and solutions to this problem will need to be both broad-based and comprehensive, from grassroots efforts to policy changes. But with all this overwhelming evidence of not just our system’s inequality, but its injustice, what are we waiting for?

[Updated 6:00pm ET]: Blogger Matt Yglesias grabbed this quote from an NPR interview with USDA Chief Tom Vilsack which suggested to me that Vilsack needs to read the blogs a bit more. Said Vilsack:

I would say consumers do benefit from the way in which we structured our farm programs, at least as of today, because of the fact that our food is less expensive than it is any place else in the world. Folks in America have a great deal more discretion of what to do with their paycheck.

He’s making the very argument my post is meant to undercut — in Vilsack’s world as in the econometricians’, this cheap food comes with no negative consequences, when we know the opposite is true.

As the data show, our “discretion” comes via farm subsidies that maintain a low price for and oversupply of the corn and soy used in the manufacture of all our cheap, unhealthy food. Healthy food such as fruits and vegetables has virtually no subsidies. This benefits no one except the food processors, and certainly not the vast majority of farmers who grow the crops or the low-income consumers forced by circumstances to purchase the nutrient-poor, calorie-dense final products.

Posted in Food Politics

4 Comments

  1. epicuriosa said...

    Thanks for highlighting this important point, which often gets concealed in the argument for subsidies. As you and Pollan aptly point out, "cheap" food isn’t cheap – has a huge health cost which actually CAN be measured economically. I hope this starts getting discussed much more loudly.Blog at <a href=http://epicuriosa.wordpress.com>Epicuriosa</a>

  2. bayside said...

    A fairly good piece, but it’s a complicated problem as many people have pointed out, that needs to be addressed on all fronts. Where is the culpability of fast food chains, supermarkets or school cafeterias that select/determine what they will sell to the consumer, regardless of price and or income? No one is being forced to buy food which is bad for them, albeit, now a very easy choice. Most people are not educated enough to make the right decision and can rationalize poor ones. Remove or redirect subsidies, sure, but good luck fighting the lobbyist. Vilsack’s comment is sad and exactly why the federal government cant or wont address the problem.You know most people dining at Jean Georges are thin too, and his very good food is not all low fat, and soon McDonald’s will need to widen their doors to accommodate their frequent customers. And that may speak to economic disparity, but certainly some people are choosing what to eat with a view to their health, thats a choice everyone can make (and yes, perhaps more difficult for low income people). Do I snack on a carrot or a package of chips, do I buy donuts for breakfast or eat oatmeal, do I eat a piece of baked chicken or a frozen hamburger. Do I buy a $1 cheeseburger for lunch or a yogurt? It is pay me now or pay me later. The cost of future health issues will be staggering. What happened to the need for a healthy and fit population as was determined in the early 60′s. And lastly exercise is free and is purely a choice, while not a food issue, certainly part of the much larger health issue.

  3. chieffamilyofficer said...

    I highly recommend checking out Money Saving Mom’s Super Savings Saturday posts (http://moneysavingmom.com/super-savings-saturday). Better than anyone, she demonstrates how it’s possible to eat a fairly healthy diet on less than $75 a week (I’ve lost track of what her weekly grocery budget is). No, it’s not particularly easy – you can’t just pop into the most convenient grocery store on your way home. But she’s proof that it IS possible to eat healthy and not spend a lot.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Just going from Walmart to Whole Foods will srink 20lbs off you in a few months. Walmart has fried chicken and french fries when you walk in the door, Whole Foods has fruits and vegetables. Big companies love having you eat cheap junk, it’s a drug in food form.

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