Pricing Fat Away

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The Nike way, "Just Do It," is not the solution to the many addictive consumption patterns in the US. The core of my book is an argument that these patterns are deeply embedded in the cultural environment, so deeply that the best intentions of individuals fail in the struggle against the cultural pressures. Writing in the New York Times, Natasha Singer finds this true in the particular case of obesity.

Unfortunately, behavior changes won’t work on their own without seismic societal shifts, health experts say, because eating too much and exercising too little are merely symptoms of a much larger malady. The real problem is a landscape littered with inexpensive fast-food meals; saturation advertising for fatty, sugary products; inner cities that lack supermarkets; and unhealthy, high-stress workplaces. . . In other words: it’s the environment, stupid.

The solution lies in part in changing the food supply system at its roots so that healthy eating is cheaper than the present alternative. Economists would describe obesity as an externality in the food delivery marketplace. The cost in terms of medical expense, loss of self-image, lost opportunities in the workplace, and so on are not included in the price of groceries or institutional meals. The food we do see out there is skewed toward the stuff that is a major cause of obesity--high caloric, fatty items--because it is artificially made cheaper than the good stuff through a long standing mix of policy-based subsidies.

Fast-food restaurants can charge lower prices for value meals of hamburgers and French fries than for salad because the government subsidizes the corn and soybeans used for animal feed and vegetable oil, says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Market subsidies were designed decades ago to support farmers during times when the market was weak and uncertain, and to expand exports, but those reasons disappeared along with the demise of the family farm and the availability of crops from other parts of the world. Similar to many other instances of public policy, these supports are locked in by the political strength of the farm lobby and come back year by year.

The article, and many other sources as well, argue for a reversal of this practice. These goods should be made to be more expensive than junk food through policy interventions. Some companies are putting in workout centers with healthy snacks and deliberately reducing stress, another causal agent in obesity. These firms have recognized that obesity is costly and that it is economically worth while to spend money to reduce the incidence in their employees. Restrictions on advertising "bad" food and eating habits has been instituted in the UK. The article points to a clever program in the UK that aims to teach children in school how to cook healthy meals so that they will not be so dependent on fast food when they grow up. This reminds me of the home economics course I had to take in high school. I can still remember making applesauce and burning the biscuits. Perhaps, it was part of my life-long interest and involvement in cooking good meals.