Week 7: Food Dollars - How our Choices are Making us Sick

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish.

While Robert Burton, the Oxford Professor and author, first coined the idiom in 1621 in reference to the English Pound, the enduring expression, currently defined by www.dictionary.com as 'stingy about small expenditures and extravagant with large ones', is perfect for describing our food priorities, including those that have landed us in an increasingly global health crisis, fueled by diet-induced obesity and related medical expenditure. 

In simple terms, the US Government - through its policies and subsidies, and individual Americans - through our choices in how we spend our dollars, are partners in the paradoxical creation of a food desert in the world's richest country.

The reason is twofold.

First, we have drastically reduced the amount of money we spend (or are willing to spend) on food. In a 2012 article in The Atlantic, writer Derek Thompson provides some startling graphs on the shifting nature of the American budget. In the 103 years between 1900 and 2003, family food expenditure dropped a whopping 30%, from 43% to 13% of total income. Ditto clothing, which today consumes just 4% of our budget, a 10% reduction from 1900 levels. Three questions arise from this data. Ignoring clothing for a moment, the first is: what has transpired that caused us to spend that much less on food? Part of the answer is, we have become a lot richer - 68 times richer - than we were in 1900, when over half the country worked in agriculture and there were more servants than sales workers. Thus food prices, which have dropped dramatically while wages have increased - especially since WWII, when manufacturing buoyed the American middle class, simply represent a smaller amount of an increasing budget. The other major reason for our reduced spend can be addressed with a second question: why have food prices dropped? The answer here is less benign: as family farming has withered and factory farming has emerged, in large part due to federal subsidies, the focus on food yield has overwhelmingly replaced the focus on food quality, for reasons of commercial gain. Put another way, we used to grow food to maximize our family's nutrition-based health - or buy it from someone who did so for us. Today, however, we have outsourced that job to large companies whose sole charge is to maximize shareholder profit. This is accomplished two ways: driving down costs by maximizing volume (yield) while using the least expensive source ingredients; and finding increasing ways of parting consumers with their dollars by creating new food products. We will come back to factory farming and the US Government in a minute.

But first, regardless of what Big Ag and Uncle Sam are up to, I can't help but dwell on the fact that we used to readily spend 43% of our precious income on eating; and yet today, as rich as we have become as a country by contrast to our earlier selves, we spend just 13% and complain about food prices vociferously. To understand the full picture, we need to look at where we are spending those dollars, if not on foods that prioritize our long term health.

Which brings us to our third question: what are we doing with the 'extra' 40% in discretionary income? The answers may or may not surprise you. First, housing has become more expensive, and accordingly we have increased our housing spend by 10%, according to Derek Thompson's chart. Income spent on health care costs, by contrast, have risen just 1% over a hundred year period. How? The US Government, both directly and via your employer, has picked up the tab - to the tune of three times what we as individuals spend, according to Thompson. Health care spending today comprises 16% of the entire US economy - a rate that has quadrupled in the past 50 years. In 2005, the US spent $190 Billion treating obesity-related conditions alone, according to a study cited by Harvard's School of Public Health. That money comes from taxes. In other words, we are spending more on healthcare - via taxation - to treat the conditions we have created through our dietary choices.  

But that still leaves roughly 18% more income on the table, once you neutralize the so-called necessities. Where is it going? Chart 43, on page 67 of the linked 2006 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows us that we have increased our spend on non-necessities by 28% since 1900. To quote the final paragraph in the study: 

In the 21st century, households throughout the country have purchased computers, televisions, iPods, DVD players, vacation homes, boats, planes, and recreational vehicles. They have sent their children to summer camps; contributed to retirement and pension funds; attended theatrical and musical performances and sporting events; joined health, country, and yacht clubs; and taken domestic and foreign vacation excursions. These items, which were unknown and undreamt of a century ago, are tangible proof that U.S. households today enjoy a higher standard of living.

So we've chosen iPods over pea pods. But at what cost?

Let's return to what we eat. About 90% of the dollars Americans spend on food goes to buying processed food products, according to Eric Schlosser, author of the seminal Fast Food Nation. But how come there's so much junk food on the shelves in the first place, and where are all the vegetables, fruits and other healthy produce we should be eating instead? To understand this, we need to first look at the American farm. Farming, which before WWII comprised 50% of all US jobs, accounts for less than 1% today. Of the 2.2 million farms that remain, according to the group Farm Kind, 90.5% of those are family-run, small to medium sized farms that produce in total 32% of our food. The remaining 9.5% of farms are large to extra large - what we would term agri-businesses. These mega-farms produce over two thirds of our food, at nearly 67%. Their operations are heavily underwritten by the US Department of Agriculture, which spends $30 billion per year on subsidies to farms - more than half of which goes to the tiny share of mega-farms that are supplying most of our food. Shockingly, over 90% of all funding - for small or mega-farms alike, according to the Cato Institute, goes to just five crops: corn, rice, wheat, soybeans and cotton. Ignoring the last non-food crop, the United States Government, through its subsidies, is in essence paying businesses to grow a very specific set of nutrients - nutrients that are unsurprisingly the foundation of the junk foods on which we spend 90% of our food dollars. We will come back to one of these - corn - in a moment.

So, in summary: we are spending less on food and more on lifestyle products and services; what we do spend is overwhelmingly spent on junk foods comprised of corn, soy, wheat and rice created by mega-farms, refined beyond recognition into calorie-empty food products by mega-companies; and the US Government is aiding and abetting the whole enterprise through subsidies, while admonishing us (on occasion) for not eating enough vegetables.


So how much more expensive is it to eat healthy, anyhow, assuming we can resist the temptation of snack foods, we are willing to spend money on real foods, and we will spend time to prepare our own meals with that nutritious produce after a long and exhausting day at work?

As reported in a 2007 New York Times article, Americans spend an average of $7 a day on food - $4 for the lowest income individuals. A 2,000 calorie diet of junk food averages just $3.52, according to the study cited in the article, while they posit that an equal calorie day's worth of high-nutrient, low-calorie foods would cost over ten times that amount - or $36.32. But to stop reading there would be to miss the big picture, for two reasons: first, calorie-empty (junk) foods leave our bodies less satisfied than whole foods, making us consume (far) more of it than we otherwise would, increasing our relative spend; and second, a calorie is not just a calorie, when it comes to nutrition. As we saw in Week 5's post, a 'Double Gulp' from Seven-Eleven, at 750 calories, is the caloric equivalent of 15 servings - or 5 lbs. - of broccoli. The soda delivers zero nutrition - not one vitamin or mineral - starving our body and making it ask for more 'food'. The (hypothetically possible) consumption of that much broccoli, on the other hand, provides 100-3,000% of our daily requirement of eighteen different vitamins and minerals. Besides the insanity of the comparison, the roughly $5 worth of broccoli would provide both nutrition and fullness well in excess of three times the cost of the roughly $1.75 soda, making it a clear value for money, from a nutrition perspective. So when we compare dollars and food choices, we need to look at the correlation between calories and nutrition. In that sense, the numbers don't support a dire conclusion.

A 2008 study by the USDA here used Nielsen Homescan Data to determine the average cost of 153 commonly consumed fresh and processed fruits and vegetables. They found that the average American could satisfy the USDA's dietary recommendation for fruits and vegetables for just $2 to $2.50 per day. At the bottom of each list: watermelon - at $0.17 per cup, and pinto beans, at $0.13 per cup. The 244-calorie beans are an excellent source of 7 vitamins and 9 minerals; while the watermelon is a good source of 6 vitamins and 3 minerals. And that nutritional powerhouse, broccoli? A single 55-calorie serving would cost about $.30. In short, your $2 could go extremely far in supplying you with all of your dietary needs. 

It is not expensive to eat well. It is simply a choice.

Now that we've determined it's possible to eat healthy foods on a budget, we need to look at how those good foods are produced, shipped and sold, to fully appreciate their true cost. While all fruits and vegetables are better for you, on balance, than any other food category, there are several considerations with regard to each food that greatly affect its nutritional value to us as consumers, as well as its price. These include classifications (conventional, organic, pasture-raised...) farming (pre-harvest) practices (fertilization, pre-peak harvesting, mono-cropping...), post-harvest practices (food coatings; chemical bio-retardation; food handling...), food transportation (distance, method...) and finally point of sale practices (handling, pre-processing, storage...). 

All of these have two primary points of influence: 1 - the people creating our food, and the choices they make with regard to what to grow and how; and 2 - the post-harvest life of that food, and its influence over nutrient retention and cost to consumer. 

There has been no shortage of discussion around the subject of 'local' vs. 'global' eating. If anything, the 'locavore' movement is gaining in speed and popularity, with countless restaurants sourcing their entire menu within the 100-mile accepted standard for 'local', and listing individual farms from which they purchase their foods, treating meals like artisanal labors of love. There is also no shortage of studies around the subject. One, by Kathleen Frith - the former Managing Director of the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard Medical School - echoes the conclusions we have read in a number of reports: as a general truth, factory (global) farms focus primarily on yield to maximize profit, at the expense of nutrient density (breed selection and soil richness being two major factors), while small (local) farms focus primarily on taste (which correlates strongly with nutrient density and variation) in order to ensure a strong customer base. On the cost side, large factory farms are production dynamos, using scale and efficiency to reduce expenses, while the inefficiencies of a small family farm has neither the scale nor costly machines of their mega-competitors, driving their prices upward. Conversely, the mega-farms rely invariably on costly transportation - by plane, boat, train and truck - to distribute their goods to consumers to a wide network of buyers, while small farms tend to travel fewer miles to sell their produce, reducing their operating costs in that regard. In the end, however, food bought at a farmer's market, from an upscale grocer or from a food co-op (the three primary outlets by which these farms to reach customers) will most likely cost more money - perhaps significantly - than conventional produce sold to mega-corporations like Costco or national supermarket chains like Kroger. The same goes for an 'organic' product vs. a 'conventional' one: the former costs more because the labor, acreage, supplies and, in the case of livestock, the physical environment that supports the animals' own health - all consume additional capital. So, if dollars spent directly on food are your only consideration, by need or by choice, you can write off the world of small farm, organic, heirloom, wild-caught, small batch, hand-picked, lovingly raised foods as conceits for those with the disposable income to care about these things. And perhaps, you can spend just enough to choose factory-farmed vegetables over snack foods, because in the end, it really is affordable to eat good food, and the gulf between the two food groups' nutrient values to you as a biological machine is the fundamental difference between health and sickness. So if that's all you take away from this, we've done our job. 


There are two additional considerations we must recognize before making that decision. The first of these has solely to do with our health - in terms of nutritional value. Produce crops grown by small-farm, local business owners are by every measure more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. From soil charging to mono-culturing to doubling crop cycles to breeding nutrient-inferior breeds to using synthetic pesticides to harvesting 'sub-ripe' foods to transporting long distances to pre-processing foods, the choices made by factory farms at every step diminish the nutrition in their food products. An excellent report from the Organic Center called Still No Free Lunch - one we encourage you to read - illuminates dozens of studies across the US and UK on the subject of nutrient decline in our food system over the decades. One such UK study found that we would have to eat three apples in 1991 to supply the same iron content as one apple in 1940; and that broadly, British spinach's potassium content dropped by 53%, its phosphorous by 70%, iron by 60% and copper by 96% over the same period. In the US, a 2004 University of Texas study sifted through 50 years of USDA food composition data for 13 nutrients in 43 garden crops - comparing what we grew at home with what is now commercially farmed. Their conclusion? Declines in concentrations of 6 key nutrients: 6% for protein; 16% for calcium; 9% for phosphorous; 15% for iron; 38% for riboflavin (B2); and 20% for vitamin C. By contrast, not one nutrient in any food measured over a 50-year period increased in value.

In this sense, we are incontestably getting more for our money when buying foods grown by the small farm. I could fill an entire blog with examples and data comparing the levels of vitamins and minerals of any crop grown each way. To make the point, I will offer one example for one of the many key decision stages in the life of a food crop: varietal selection. Corn is the biggest crop in the United States, comprising 30% of all US farmland. More than 25% of supermarket foods contain corn, according to author and health guru Michael Pollan. Rick Sietsema, a corn farmer from Allendale, pegs it at 75%. Perhaps more shocking still, a strand of hair belonging to Dr. Sanjay Gupta - CNN's telegenic health reporter - was tested with a mass spectrometer, which can evaluate tissue on a molecular level to pinpoint its sources: 69% of his hair's carbon molecules were made of corn. He is an 'average American' in this regard. Thus, corn's nutritional value is perhaps more important than that of any other food crop. This stunning chart shows the comparison of non-GMO to GMO corn - the latter comprising 88% of all corn produced in the US. The upshot: within the same cultivar (that is, comparing yellow corn to yellow corn), non-GMO corn contains between 6 and 438 times the nutrient levels of phosphate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, sulfur, cobalt, iron, zinc and molybendum as that in GMO corn. The graphic below reviews the toxicity and nutrient decline in GMO corn in detail. Between cultivars (that is, comparing yellow corn to its more historically plentiful cousins, blue and purple, for example), there are also differences. Blue corn contains almost 30% more anthocyanin - a key phytonutrient. This chart from a 2013 New York Times article demonstrates how, through cultivar selection across dozens of popular crops - not to mention their genetic modification - our agri-businesses have overwhelmingly opted to grow crops for maximum yield and robustness, at the significant expense of nutrition. 

Copyright FFFL

The bottom line is this: to maximize nutrient levels per calorie consumed - which does translate to dollars spent, since organic and/or small-farm foods are more nutritious than conventional - we should opt for the least industrial varietals and sources for each. As we've already discussed, the farmer's market is your best bet, while the organic section in your supermarket is a decent second choice.

Our final consideration for spending more money on food than we as a population do today examines the hidden costs - that $190 Billion in annual US spending on obesity-related chronic disease for which we pay via taxes or direct personal expense - that we discussed earlier. Even if you, personally, are 'healthy' - by which I mean you haven't had surgeries such as bypass, bariatric, liver or kidney transplant, colectomy, etc. - you have paid for it regardless via taxes on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have. This money, if redistributed equally among the two thirds of the US population that qualifies as overweight today, would add $2.36 per day to each of their food wallets - enough to pay in full for the USDA's daily recommended intake of fruits and vegetables, in perpetuity.

By several measures, then, we cannot afford not to eat nutritious foods:

  • We used to spend four times as much money on food 100 years ago as we do today, with all our newfound wealth
  • We pay for this privilege with our health, costing US taxpayers an obscene amount of money on disease control - five times what we spent on the same modern diseases just 30 years ago
  • We pay for it with the decline in nutrient values - nutrients which are absent in processed snack foods - but which even for fruits and vegetables are plummeting at mega-farms due to their choices and practices, requiring us consumers to eat an ever greater amount of both to deliver the same nutrients as those foods' pre-engineered, pre-industrialized selves

We strongly encourage you to prioritize healthy eating over non-necessity spending. It's less expensive than you think, in direct outlay; and the hidden costs of not doing so are exorbitant and shared by all of us.

Put down the iPod. Pick up that pea pod.