Is it impossible to eat healthy if you are poor?

Can one say with confidence that, economically, it is more difficult to eat healthy than unhealthy? When I lived in North Philadelphia on $500/month (my row home cost only $325/month), I struggled to eat properly, but I didn’t know what that consisted of. My experience therefore does not guide me to an answer to this question. Certainly, now that my food is virtually boutique in its snootiness, it is more expensive than it would be if I “bought all conventional.” (And even then, I am coming to believe that by growing much of my own food, I can obviate this cost problem.) But I somehow question this narrative that eating fast food meals is cheaper.

I recently had the following picture linked to me:


This image suggests that a full Big Mac meal is $2, whereas such a meal is not remotely that cheap. And it suggests that 3 apples is $3, even though $1/apple is too much, even where I shop today.

I know that eating complete fast food meals, at $5-6/meal, would likely land me in similar, or even worse, economic straits than eating premium, all-organic fare. On the other hand, if I bought all conventional produce and used largely rice and beans or lentils or potatoes (as a base) to create my meals, I could get by for, I believe, significantly cheaper than that. Actually, this is what I largely do today. *[UPDATE: See below.]

In other words, I am not sure I buy this notion that the primary forces in the inner city preventing people from eating well are economic. To call them purely economic is a good rhetorical/political move, though, since it takes the responsibility entirely off the shoulders of the poor (since they face a hard economic fact, rather than a “softer” cultural one). While this is a useful strategy for white liberals (can get extra funding, political mobilization, etc.), and it may even, by chance, benefit the poor– it may not, nonetheless, actually be true. If it is not true, then it points to solutions that may not address root problems.

On the other hand, food system subsidies would still remain an issue—since the problem is not so much that food subsidies make junk food cheaper, but that they make junk food cheap at all. This making-cheap of junk food externalizes the environmental and health impact—and forces the taxpayer (and future generations) to pay for the difference. It also disproportionately harms the less educated and less affluent—not because junk food is cheaper than healthy food, but because the poor have not developed a cultural barrier against cheap junk food as the affluent have.

The problem with food system subsidies would, then, not be that it makes unhealthy food cheaper than healthy food, but that it hides the true cost of food from the consumer and disproportionately harms the poor. In this way, the problem of junk food is not a strictly economic one, but an interaction of economic and cultural factors.

To conclude with a discussion of a (relatively) recent publication. The following article was published in the New York Times in 2007:

It is unfortunate that, rather than attempt to actually investigate whether there are feasible, low-cost healthy options available to the poor, the article simply compares the most calorie dense foods with the least, effectively “showing” merely that calorie-dense foods are more cost-effective than nutrient-dense foods. Well, duh. But the question is not whether calorie dense foods are more cost-effective than nutrient-dense foods. Rather, the question is whether it is possible to eat healthy, with a respectable amount of produce and a balanced diet, on a short budget.

To date, I have seen many attempts to provide strawman answers to this question, such as the research above. But I have still not seen this question, as such, in fact addressed. One wonders if this is because the answers do not comport to easy, comfortable, clear-cut solutions.

UPDATE: Running some math, my food budget for August 2015 came out to $433. Shopping only at a premium all-organic alternative health store, this budget includes indulgences, such as organic fruit & nut bars, expensive ethnic dishes that I made, unnecessary produce purchases (berries), expensive dairy, and cooking for others. This $433 budget comes out to $27 *less* than a 3x/day fast food budget would come out to—assuming $5 per fast food meal. Fast food is not cheap! It is actually extremely expensive.

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3 thoughts on “Is it impossible to eat healthy if you are poor?

  1. Kevin, certainly interesting and not incorrect thoughts.
    Unfortunately, I couldn’t provide more context on Twitter (@FindingHealth) when I shared the image. This image was devised based on 2009 research in Mornningside Heights (bordering on Harlem) in NYC. In the designated geographic area, there were no fresh produce options aside from the biweekly farmers market in front of Columbia University. Note, at the time, they also did not accept EBT. In the paper I shared, I suggest that EDUCATING eaters is one of the most important changes that needs to happen in food deserts. This is a systemic change that will take many years, but hopefully influence all future generations. Further, this takes the conversation away from the economic arguments (also very important) and puts more responsibility on individuals and communities.
    Not discussed in this comment: socioeconomic barriers preventing poor people from purchasing and preparing healthy food (i.e., time, money, location, education).

    I think we’re actually in the same page, but I wanted to clarify. I love this stuff and am happy to continue this conversation!

    • Thank you for your comment! I do think that economic factors and subsidies remain a really important part of the puzzle, also. I just wanted to complicate the picture a bit. Thank you for stirring up my thinking on the subject!

  2. You might be interested in Leanne Brown’s book – how to eat for $4 a day. It’s free to download. She studies food at NYC. I have tried some of the recipes with mixed success – I would not recommend the apple and broccoli salad, but the jambalaya was good, though far too spicy for my taste.

    As far as food subsidies are concerned – it’s seems to me that the subsidies would have to be for fresh unprocessed fruit and veg only to help. There is also a good scheme in New York – a green cart scheme, where licenses are issued to sell fruit and veg only from carts in business districts and areas where people work.

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