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November 22, 2007

Pass The Green Beans

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

It's hard for poor people to eat a balanced diet. While calorie-dense foods containing lots of fat and processed carbohydrates are cheap, fruits and vegetables are expensive. This is partly because we allocate 0.37% of farm subsidies to fruits and vegetables, compared to 73.80% for meat and dairy (much of which goes to subsidizing feed grains for animals). The results are predictable -- in order to meet the USDA guidelines for a healthy diet, poor families would have to spend 70% of their food budget on fruits and vegetables. They actually end up spending about 15%. As the linked article describes, people in rural areas where there aren't enough people to support supermarkets also have problems. They have to buy food from small convenience stores which have a meager selection and don't allow for healthy eating.

In addition to expanding food stamp programs and funding more nutritious school lunches, John Edwards' plan to fight hunger and poor nutrition in America includes an interesting proposal to increase access to healthy food in communities that aren't getting enough:

As president, Edwards will launch a public-private partnership to bring fresh, nutritious food to new neighborhoods. He will create a national food access map that identifies neighborhoods lacking grocery stores, emergency food banks and regular access to fresh produce. His new Healthy Neighborhoods Seed Fund will offer needy communities challenge grants for projects including full-service supermarkets, community gardens and food stamp-friendly farmers’ markets.

A lot of the proposals we talk about for fixing problems in the health care system involve cutting private-sector bureaucratic bloat and controlling costs. Those are very important, but it's also nice to see ideas -- especially in areas not usually associated with health care -- which could simply make people healthier. And that's what this proposal promises to do.

November 22, 2007 | Permalink


It's actually not that expensive to have a healthy diet; here's one way that costs about $1,500 a year per person (granted, it pretty much requires a decently stocked grocery store, although in many rural areas it's easy to buy cheap fruits and vegetables at farmer's markets or roadside stands). I think probably the bigger barrier to healthy eating for poor people is the amount of time that it generally takes to prepare a meal using fresh ingredients, and the fact that most food that's sold already prepared is either unhealthy or expensive. But that barrier affects nearly everyone.

Posted by: George Tenet Fangirl | Nov 22, 2007 6:14:12 PM

The issue of available grocery stores with adequate and reasonably priced fruits and vegetables is a HUGE issue for the urban poor. Additionally, for those relying on food stamps or food banks for a large share of their nutritional needs, farmers markets-which could be a good source of fresh foods-are expensive and rarely if ever take food stamps. Local farmers can't afford to give their crops away to the food banks, where the cost of storing fresh produce is prohibitive.

Only Edwards is addressing these issues, the systemic problems of the nutritional needs of the people most in need in this country.

Posted by: edgery | Nov 22, 2007 6:19:32 PM

I completely agree about the tie in to the health care system. Calories are fairly cheap in our country, but nutrition not so much.

His approach also reminds me of the Community Reinvestment Act and the examination of redlining, which I think is good way to look at it.

Posted by: AJ | Nov 22, 2007 7:03:19 PM

A simpler way of doing this would be an immediate elimination of all farm subsidies.

Posted by: Dilan Esper | Nov 22, 2007 7:31:11 PM

i dunno man. i can buy a pound of dry garbonzos for a 89c. 5lbs of onions is 3$. carrots are a dollar a pound. maybe 3$ for a bag of apples.

you don't get to eat yuppie food like baby arugala and pomegranate juice though.

Posted by: yoyo | Nov 22, 2007 7:33:26 PM

not to mention things like potatos and peanuts. Which are well-known symbols of cheap living.

Posted by: yoyo | Nov 22, 2007 7:39:54 PM

Collard greens are cheap at around a 89 cents a pound. You have to boil them for an hour.

I would agree that calories are _cheaper_ than veggies. They are abnormally cheap.

It's my wild ass theory that your body knows when it is eating empty calories like a bag of corn chips. You're still hungry after eating that bag, so you eat another bag, in your bodies attempt to get protein, vitamins, and amino acids, etc etc.

Then, you get fat, and end up short, because you've never eaten nutritious food, just junk food.

Posted by: stm177 | Nov 22, 2007 7:53:14 PM

not completely wild-ass. lots of things get fucked up when you don't get enough nutrition, and that can include in the brain and signaling &c &c

Posted by: yoyo | Nov 22, 2007 7:57:55 PM

Oh yay! we get to hear the 'It's not true ! I can live on $1.09 a day!' argument idiots always come up with as they extrapolate how much a can of such and such was the last time they actually checked and start suggesting the poor eat weevils and ground dandelions if they're so damned hungry.

Always nice to hear that no matter how things change, people are still the same kind of assholes.

Posted by: Soullite | Nov 22, 2007 8:00:52 PM


There's no doubt that the cheapest way to eat is buying processed food from the middle aisles of the supermarket. A 2 liter of Coke and a $4 dollar pizza will feed a family.

That is the semi-conscious policy of the US government.

Processed food is high in calories like high fructose corn syrup, bleached white flour, and corn meal.

My collard greens comment is that there are bitter, tasteless, high fiber, highly nutritious foods that are available, but I should have made it plain that it will be more expensive than the cheapest carbs-laden junk food.

Posted by: stm177 | Nov 22, 2007 8:09:20 PM

Soullite, way to ignore everything except your sense of outrage.

Posted by: yoyo | Nov 22, 2007 8:47:16 PM

Just a guess, Yoyo, I think Soullite was probably referring to your first comment above, which does come off as pretty callous and as assuming that your experience is universal. Check edgery's comment above - it is quite true. In many poorer neighborhoods in my burg (Dallas), residents have to travel miles to find anything like a modern supermarket. Since many have no form of private transportation, they shop at the local markets and bodegas that are typically more expensive and have a much poorer selection of goods. Residents of some semi-rural outlying areas have it just as bad if not worse.

Posted by: jjcomet | Nov 22, 2007 9:07:52 PM

thats not really much related to agribusiness handouts.

Posted by: yoyo | Nov 22, 2007 9:17:04 PM

At the end of the day, poor folks end up eating GFRbage.

Posted by: Petey | Nov 22, 2007 9:58:47 PM

Orwell discussed an important consideration in bad diet among the poor in The Road to Wigan Pier (relevant excerpt at the link) - when your life sucks altogether, a moment's distraction is as sustaining as more possibly nourishing but bland fare. It's one thing to eat simply because you choose to, quite another when you have to, and when all your prospects are bad. Of course, moralizing about the badness of ever wanting a moment's happiness is certainly better than helping do something so that people live lives that only ever have scattered and unhealthy moments of happiness.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Nov 22, 2007 11:09:42 PM

Bruce - good point; isn't this also brought up as a reason why the lower your socioeconomic status, the higher your chances of being a smoker (though affluent teens are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol than their lower-income peers)?

Posted by: Isabel | Nov 23, 2007 12:05:32 AM

...thats not really much related to agribusiness handouts.

Oh really, billions spent on subsidizing the production of corn for energy, a net energy loser but since the EU banned all corn imports from the U.S. due to GMO issues American corn farmers have no place to sell...no China don't want it either, billions down that and other rat holes but that ain't got nothing to do with the plight of the inner city poor.

Say, what turnip truck did you just fall of of pal. Or did you go to school to get so stupid?

Try and grasp the fact that America ain't that place you see when you turn on your TeeBee.

Posted by: A.Citizen | Nov 23, 2007 12:27:11 AM

If you are in the lower income brackets then you can see several problems that impact the ability to improve nutrition.

Few low income housing projects are close to the industrial/business areas. The places where the work is are generally surrounded by mid to high imcome housing. Malls and big box stores which have the best deals on food are close to the money usually between the housing developments and the industrial zones, a buffer region. Low cost housing is therefore relegated to the extreme edges or to areas that business has already abandonned. If you are poor the TIME it takes to get to work or to shop is increased exponentially even if you can afford a car.

The fast food industry is likely to be the only close to home work oppurtunity that you have and it is also likely to be the major source of food in your neighborhood. This creates a relationship that is hard to break as you simply don't learn good nutrition from a fast food takeout window.

School lunch rooms do not reflect the nutrition teachings of the classrooms. When bad eating choices are all that you are presented with then you will not learn good choices.

Cities need to do a better job zoning their territories to improve access to basic services for the most disadvantaged in the hopes of improving the health and finances of all their citizens.

Access to good nutritional choices needs to be supported by good public transit options. This can include placing farmers' markets at transit junction points between housing and work.

We know what we need to do, we need to encourage doing it and educating the public services on the needs.

Posted by: Hawise | Nov 23, 2007 9:22:34 AM

I wasn't entirely talking about anyone specific, but Yoyo's comments kind of had the same ring to it as this generic argument, but your argument is faulty for another more important reason: Prices are not uniform across the country. Where I live, a gallon of milk is about 2.19 and a dozen eggs is 1.09. Someone who lives in a city, and in the kind of neighborhoods where poverty is a problem, will likely have to pay a great deal more.

Really though, anyone who's ever been part of a debate like this, about subsidies, or about WIC guidelines, or about foodstamps, knows the kind of argument I was describing. Some jack ass will invariably show up, talk about how shitty he ate in college, or start calculating the minimum someone could live on if they subsisted entirely on white rice, fish oil, and canned beets. I don't know if thats where some of you were going or not, but why take chances?

Posted by: Soullite | Nov 23, 2007 9:46:10 AM

Hawise: Right on.

Isabel: I think so, yes. One thing about poverty (like mental illness, mentioned here or at Matthew Yglesias' blog recently as a circumstance that makes smoking more likely) is that it's often dull. Poor people and sick people both spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for others to do things, from delays at routine services to the paperwork and scrutiny that comes from agencies - both public and private - providing essential services. Everything takes longer when you're poor or sick, because very few businesses see you as deserving the kind of courtesy that middle-class and wealthy customers expect. Even the people who mean well are likely to be overworked themselves. It all adds up to tedium punctuated by humiliation.

Nicotine and sugar both provide emotional relief from that, in different ways - nicotine relaxing, sugar spiking. Nor is the post-sugar-rush sag necessarily a big problem. Too many bureaucratic offices these days require clients to show up at the start of the business day to have any chance of a session and then scoop out of the pool of waiting people all day. You may as well doze during some of that as not. One more factor in explaining why people eat the way they do.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Nov 23, 2007 10:02:48 AM

Crippled Jesu C on a crutch. Did you actually bother to read the paper?

1) The healthy diet was cheaper in poor areas than in middle income ones. So we now know that the hysteria over the poor being shafted by high food prices is incorrect.

"For both cities the average total price of a Thrifty Food Plan basket of fruits and vegetables was significantly lower in stores located in the very-low- and low-income neighborhoods compared to middle- and high-income neighborhoods."

That's good, no? So at least as far as price goes, there are none of these food deserts. John Edwards seems to be tackling a problem that doesn't exist.

2)"The results are predictable -- in order to meet the USDA guidelines for a healthy diet, poor families would have to spend 70% of their food budget on fruits and vegetables."

Whaaat? Here's what the paper actually says:

"A family of four shopping in a very-low-income neighborhood would pay on average $1,688 annually to meet the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommendations (Table 4). A family of four using food stamps in California receives on average $3,888 each year (33), and so the 2005 Dietary Guidelines fruit and vegetable market basket would require 43% of the food stamp budget."

"Food stamp budget" and "food budget" are not the same thing.
Food stamps are an aid to the food budget, not that budget in its entirety.

"Households in the lowest two income quintiles spend an average of $2,410 each year on food at home (26), which means lower-income households would have to allocate 70% of their food-at-home budget to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines fruit and vegetable market basket."

Again, they're not stating 70% of food budget. They're saying 70% of the food at home budget (something which presupposes that there's a food away from home budget.....I have to admit that when I've been poor that rather shrinks in size relative to the food at home budget).

Further, they are not in fact stating that this food budget is in any way fixed. What they actually say is that the average food budget in these two income quartiles means that if you spend the average food budget then 70% of it should be spent on fruit and vegetables.

And if you combine that knowledge with the fact that food stamp income is already vastly higher than the average food budget, what we seem to end up with is that the poor aren't spending enough money on food. Whether by the standards of what you get in food stamps or by comparison with the advice on what you should be eating.

OK, poor people misallocate their budgets seems to be what they're saying here. And this is new information?

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Nov 23, 2007 10:14:24 AM

OK, poor people misallocate their budgets seems to be what they're saying here. And this is new information?

No, but it's worth repeating. The left wishes to ignore this and other poor habits that keep poor people poor. Emotional choices such as not wishing to take the time to cook, not wishing to take the effort to get an education, not caring what you eat as long as it's fast. Smoking. Drinking. Drugs.

Of course, if you ask the libruls, they can assign no responsibility to the poor..NONE...for their station. No one is suggesting that there are systemic issues with the poor, but the view that they have no control at all is ludicrous.

Posted by: El viajero | Nov 23, 2007 10:38:24 AM

"What the profession needs to do is figure out not just the science and appropriate guidelines but how to help people meet those guidelines," said Cassady, an assistant professor of public health sciences at the University of California, Davis.

This seems to me to be the most important line in that report. Left and Right are aware of the stats and the propensity for those on the lower economic scale to make bad choices in the face of overwhelming scientific data. Of course, people don't live their lives by scientific data, they live them by access and incentive. I will buy better food when I can find it in a convenient timeframe. I allocate a certain amount of budget for food but if the transportation cost is such that I can't afford to get it then I will buy closer to home. If the choices closer to home are poor then those are the ones that I will go for in the face of financial and time pressures. If I have a 3 hour daily commute on top of an 8 hour workday with no reasonable food choices within an hour travel time and I can't afford a new fridge, my choices are going to be limited. So I guess it is all emotional choices that are the problem. It can't possibly be that we have created a society that is designed to accomodate one sector of society over another and that predatory corporate tactics may be making that design even more dangerous for some in society.

People do make poor choices, people do make emotional choices and no one is going to be let off the hook for that. If we set up society so that the greatest number of people can make the better choices, then we can find and deal with those who consistently make bad choices. What we cannot do is let those who try to do right fail over and over because they cannot do it consistently enough to make a difference. Indifference to suffering because some are irresponsible is not a good societal trait.

Posted by: Hawise | Nov 23, 2007 11:08:41 AM

Why does it always come down to this? If el viajero or any of his right wing avatars can find *any* way to "blame" someone for a problem they will do so. When young white boys don't do well in school el viajero will blame women's lib, or affirmative action, and demand that we all do something to bring up the scores or life chances of young white boys. When the army can't fill its quotas el viajero will blame the democrats or the mass media or hollywood for failing to make the army look great to teenagers. But when poor people can't afford to live in a good area with excellent supermarkets, or can't afford the time (from their two or three jobs) to cook a nutritious meal, or can only afford high starch and high fat foods, its *all their fault.*

I figured out how to deal with this--just make your social policy prescriptions *sound punitive* and then el will sign up for them. See how this works: instead of arguing that we should replace one intrusive, high priced, government intervention (farm subsidies for agribusiness focused on grain, sugar, and beef) that el agrees with (because the money and advantage goes to rich people) try rebranding. We won't *give subsidies to the poor so they eat better* we will *require the poor to eat better* by forcing them to spend their money on vegetables we subsidize. I'll take it slightly further--we will *force the poor to eat nasty greens and spinach* *even if* we have to artificially lower the price by subsidizing local truck farmers.


Posted by: aimai | Nov 23, 2007 12:38:40 PM

Hawise: People do make poor choices, people do make emotional choices and no one is going to be let off the hook for that. If we set up society so that the greatest number of people can make the better choices, then we can find and deal with those who consistently make bad choices. What we cannot do is let those who try to do right fail over and over because they cannot do it consistently enough to make a difference. Indifference to suffering because some are irresponsible is not a good societal trait. - that right there is exactly why I gave up on libertarianism and turned left. I agree entirely.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Nov 23, 2007 12:42:39 PM

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