Tuesday, March 29, 2005

More on the cost of good nutrition

An earlier post in U.S. Food Policy linked to the Boston Globe's article on the cost of a healthy diet. A new study from Karen Jetter and Diana Cassady at UC Davis went into Los Angeles and Sacramento grocery stores to measure the availability of healthy food choices, the price of a market basket of healthy groceries (whole wheat breads and pastas, skinless chickens, lowfat milk, etc.), and the price of a comparison market basket based on USDA's Thrifty Food Plan (TFP).
Our results show that most people had access to healthier foods, though there was sporadic availability of some healthier items in lower-income neighborhoods. The healthier market basket was more expensive by about $32 to $41 due to higher costs of whole grains, lean ground beef, and skinless poultry. This higher cost is equal to about 35 percent to 40 percent of low-income consumers’ food budgets.
The results on availability of healthy food were interesting, considering the high degree of concern about supermarket access. Supermarket access in the United States is highly variable from place to place. I sometimes refer people to USDA research showing that even most low-income Americans in this country have access to nearby supermarkets, but I have found this observation tends to annoy people who are familiar with a particular low-income community in which access is lacking. In my home town of Washington, D.C., for example, we had fine access to supermarkets in the neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and 14th Street, but in another high-poverty neighborhood across the Anacostia River, access was lacking. To somebody from Anacostia, it might be little comfort that supermarket access is pretty good for the average low-income family in the DC Metro area.

As for cost, the new study found that whole wheat pastas were more expensive than regular pastas. Lowfat milk was a little less expensive than whole milk, and ordinary potatoes were less expensive than the french fries that were classified as less healthy. This fits my family's experience. There is a price premium for any packaged food marketed as healthy, but many healthy alternatives to expensive conventional foods are actually less expensive. Taking protein sources, for example, consider the costs of meats versus legumes. Overall, the Davis study's "healthy" market basket, including packaged food marketed as healthy, was more expensive than the conventional Thrifty Food Plan.

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