Adam Drewnowski, is a University of Washington professor who studies the relationship between obesity and social class. In a recent study in the Seattle area, Drewnowski found “only about 4 percent of shoppers who filled their carts at Whole Foods Market stores were obese, compared with nearly 40 percent of shoppers at lower-priced Albertsons stores.”
Drewnowski concluded: “Deep down, obesity is really an economic issue.” But is it? No doubt that if you are buying processed foods, Whole Foods is more expensive than many local chain supermarkets. No doubt that processed foods at Whole Foods will be at least marginally healthier. So on the surface Drewnowski seems to be right, a poor parent seeking calories to the fill the bellies of their family, seems to be victimized by higher prices at Whole Foods.
The picture Drewnowski paints is a very selective portrait. My family long ago cut back on using Whole Foods as our major source of food for two reasons: they are indeed very expensive and our food needs (mostly non-processed foods) are best served by the local natural foods store.
Most organic whole grains and most beans cost between one and two dollars a pound. If you buy the non-organic version of most whole grains and beans, prices are closer to a one dollar a pound. Organic vegetables can be admittedly expensive, but most supermarkets offer non-organic broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots in the neighborhood of two dollars a pound. In the summer, most cities offer farmers’ markets which sell a cornucopia of vegetables at a fraction of the supermarket price.
A reasonably diligent shopper can feed their family nutritious and filling whole grains, beans, and vegetables very inexpensively. No doubt their food budget will not allow them to drink a fancy organic soda at Whole Foods or partake in the Whole Foods salad bar, but they will be able to sustain their family in a healthy way.
The problem with the Drewnowski’s study is that he negates personal choice. While it is true, you will not find many poor families shopping in Whole Foods, Whole Foods is not the only means to a healthy diet. From my many years of personal experience shopping at smaller natural food stores selling bulk grains, beans, and produce, you will often find shoppers in these stores who—while they may have a fraction of the family income of a Whole Foods shopper—place the health and well-being of their family first. They may lack a flat screen television, they may not even have cable television, they may drive an old used car, but they place a priority on feeding their family nutritious meals.
No, poor families are not a victim of an economic system that deprives them of healthy food choices. Of course, you don’t have to be poor to make poor food choices. The hospitals are clogged with cardiology patients, most with ample incomes, who ate their way to disease.
And there is another important issue. Our government actively subsidizes processed food by making dangerous calories appear to be cheaper than they actually are. The single most subsidized crop in the United States is corn. From 1995-2006, corn subsidies in United States totaled a staggering $56.2 billion. Corn is one the most important ingredients in processed food. In his New York Times essay “When a Crop Becomes King” Michael Pollan writes of corn subsidies:
At first blush this subsidy might look like a handout for farmers, but really it’s a form of welfare for the plant itself—and for all those economic interests that profit from its overproduction: the processors, factory farms, and the soft drink and snack makers that rely on cheap corn. For zea mays has triumphed by making itself indispensable not to farmers (whom it is swiftly and surely bankrupting) but to the Archer Daniels Midlands, Tysons and Coca-Colas of the world.
Our entire food supply has undergone a process of “cornification” in recent years, without our even noticing it. That’s because, unlike in Mexico, where a corn-based diet has been the norm for centuries, in the United States most of the corn we consume is invisible, having been heavily processed or passed through food animals before it reaches us. Most of the animals we eat (chickens, pigs and cows) today subsist on a diet of corn, regardless of whether it is good for them. In the case of beef cattle, which evolved to eat grass, a corn diet wreaks havoc on their digestive system, making it necessary to feed them antibiotics to stave off illness and infection. Even farm-raised salmon are being bred to tolerate corn—not a food their evolution has prepared them for. Why feed fish corn? Because it’s the cheapest thing you can feed any animal, thanks to federal subsidies. But even with more than half of the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually being fed to animals, there is plenty left over. So companies like A.D.M., Cargill and ConAgra have figured ingenious new ways to dispose of it, turning it into everything from ethanol to Vitamin C and biodegradable plastics.
Look at the ingredient list of many processed foods in the supermarket; you’ll see that heavily subsidized (dangerous to your health) high-fructose corn syrup will be a main ingredient. Now, government subsidization of processed food, beef, chicken, and pork doesn’t absolve us of our personal choices, no more than if the government started to hand out subsidized cocaine. But considering the effects of government subsidies does gives fresh light to Professor Drewnowski’s claim: “Deep down, obesity is really an economic issue.” Subsidize anything and you get more of it—more obesity and more disease.