Is Food in America Too Cheap?

Cheap Meal

The ad above is from a campaign 7-11 is running on billboards and subway stations. To some, $2.99 for two hotdogs plus a 32 ounce soft drink (4 cups worth) is a great deal. To others, a meal that probably has 500 calories of nutrient void “food” at best, and more likely some harmful ingredients, does not seem like a good idea.

We have become so used to cheap food in America that we often forget the real price being paid. The real price is our health.

In the 1960′s about 30% of a family’s available income was used to purchase food. By 2000 that number had gone down to 6-7%. Food prices have recently gone up due to commodities shooting up, but families are still spending less than 10% of their income on food. France and other European countries spend 50% more than we do on food. Brazil – 25% of available income. Poor countries spend even more.

Percent of income spent on food

Now let’s look at healthcare expenditures in the US:


You can pretty much instantly see that the anomaly is the purple line, representing the US.

Does cheap, low quality food equate with rising healthcare costs? Correlation is not the same as causation, but there are some pretty good arguments as to why cheap foods have led to a rise in chronic disease.

1. As a company, would you rather sell soda at a 90% profit margin, or zucchini at 10% profit margin? And as behavioral economics has shown us, people WILL supersize, and WILL eat the cheaper food, even when it’s not healthy.

2. Subsidies for farmers in the US go to the corn and soy growers, not the kale growers. Corn syrup is found in thousands of food items. Kale, in almost none.

3. High profit margins on junk food lead to increased spending on marketing in order to sell even more.Meanwhile the broccoli Growers Association has yet to air a Superbowl ad.

Any suggestions to fix the mess we’re in?

  • Brianne

    Excellent article!

  • PieHoleBlogger (APD)

    What is the Y axis on the Healthcare Expense chart?

    • Fooducate

      healthcare expenses as % of GDP

      • PieHoleBlogger (APD)

        Thanks. I think back flipping on eating behaviours seen in America is going to be very difficult. Now that every WalMart has a Mc Donalds, people would protest removing them.

        The obesogenic environment is so strong, it’s clear many people are no longer truly in control of their choices. There are so many supermarkets and markets with fresh produce, but people have to make that decision.

        • Mike Luque

          Hi. Just wanted to say: Nice choice of words! obesogenic Never heard that word before.

          • PieHoleBlogger (APD)

            Thanks! I write articles about recent nutrition research and nutrition issues, from a dietitian’s perspective. If you’re interested:

          • SixCatFaerie

            Thank you for letting us know about your blog! Definitely some great info & well written to boot!

          • PieHoleBlogger (APD)

            Thanks for the feedback, I’m glad you enjoyed reading it.

  • Michael Legge

    Hi- The problem is that wages have been so low since the Seventies, that even a full time worker needs “food stamps” to feed their family.Fruits and vegetables have gone up in price while fast foods have come down. Big Agriculture and the likes of Walmart use food stamps to avoid paying a living wage. These organisations are the true “welfare bums”. Why is this so?-easy answer. They have bought the politicians who do their bidding. Imagine a congress politician giving a hoot about a broccoli or kale grower. Solution, more women in politics. Cheers

  • Irreverent Alien

    As I posted in previous Disquus remarks in regards to banning junk food for SNAP and WIC, the subsidies need to be either to all agricultural products or even better to none. The kale farmer needs to be able to compete with the humungous corn or soy farmer on a leveled playing field and right now, in the way the subsidies are doled out, the kale farmer is not able too.

    But in the seven years I live here, I have also seen some changes to consumer behavior in regards to cleaner food and I reckon that at the end the consumer will vote with their checkbooks.

    Cases like that of Pink Slime and now HFCS are truly encouraging.

    Once the consumer demand changes, so will the offer. Of course its not a fast process, and still many obese people will suffer the consequences of an unbalanced system, but I am hopeful.

    Salads in McDonalds and alike seven years ago would be unthinkable.

    Chick Fil-A posting calorie counts on their meals, unheard of.

    School meals changing from the so beloved french fries and soda to more fruit and juices, unattainable.

    People are getting conscious throughout the social classes that obesity is a real killer, and are changing their behavior and purchasing system.

    I constantly spread the word about because its education that will change all this, and the faster the education spreads, the faster ads like the one above will be distant memories of our fat past.

  • Mike Luque

    I’ve said many times, a ONE DOLLAR hamburger should scare the pants off anyone.

    The hidden costs of “cheap” food through the two main agents you mention, health care costs and government subsidies, remain off the radar of people entirely too much.

    The idea that fast food is actually cheaper than cooking from scratch at home is also a huge falsehood.

  • Michael Legge

    The graph of showing that the poor spend more percentage of their income on food in America is unfair. I would wager ( I tend to lose wagers) that a Walmart employee who ate a diet recommended of fruits and vegetables would not be able to pay the rent. Are there any statistics on this? Cheers