The Pricing Paradox
|November 22, 2010||Posted by Lauren under Health News|
I eat a lot of vegetables. Not just because I’m a vegetarian and know they’re good for me, but also because I genuinely like them. When grocery shopping, I try to buy mostly fresh produce, whole grains, and individual ingredients, while avoiding (most) packaged foods.
But eating this way isn’t always easy, and it sure isn’t cheap. I know I’m not the only one that feels this way. People are short on time, short on money and short on resources. To make matters worse, the environment we live in isn’t very supportive of our health.
In general, many people know that fruits and vegetables are healthier choices than fast food. But that doesn’t change the fact that fresh produce is usually more expensive than packaged, processed foods or take-out from a fast food restaurant. How can we honestly expect people to buy more of the healthy items when they cost so much more?
One strategy that tries to fix this problem is to lower the prices of healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables. If we could make it cost less to eat healthy, people would eat more of the good stuff, right?
Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. A few days ago, a friend sent me an article that reminded me of a presentation about food pricing that I heard while at my UNC course last summer. The article talked about a study done at the University of Buffalo where researchers made healthy foods cheaper while keeping the prices of junk food the same. They wanted to see how that would effect food choices made by moms in a grocery store. Not surprisingly, when the prices were cheaper, moms did buy more healthy foods. But here’s the catch: the overall nutrition in their carts didn’t change. Instead of using the extra money to buy more healthy foods (or saving it), the moms actually used to it buy more junk. Not quite the result one would hope for.
So then what about doing the opposite? Will the overall effects be better if instead of lowering the cost of healthy foods, we raised the prices of the unhealthy ones? Taxing foods and beverages that have low nutritional value (like soda or fast foods) can encourage people to buy less. But, as you may have guessed, there can also be negative consequences to this. Such as the fact that it has a larger negative effect for families with lower income, and can unfortunately leave them without options if there aren’t cheaper healthy options to replace the foods they now can’t afford. Not to mention the fact that it can be difficult to know where to draw the line. How do we actually define “not nutritious?” And how do you prevent people from buying other unhealthy (not taxed) foods instead?
Well then, if neither option is perfect alone, what would happen if you raised prices of unhealthy foods while also lowering prices of the healthy ones? Sounds like a perfect solution, right? Sadly, researchers have found that this isn’t a great solution either. The subsidy isn’t enough to overcome the negative impacts of the tax.
At this point, I’m sure it must sound like it’s time to just throw up our hands in defeat. Either that, or I suddenly have no faith in my profession and everything we are trying to do.
It may not sound like it, but my goal here is not to sound defeatist. I realize that I have raised a lot of problems without actually proposing a good solution. But my point is that there really is no simple answer. We know that as a country, our health needs work. We don’t eat healthy foods, we don’t exercise enough, and rates of obesity and chronic disease continue to grow. Something needs to be done to fix the health of our nation, but the solution isn’t going to be a simple one. Just like we can’t simply tell people to eat healthier and expect them to change, we can’t just change prices and expect our problems to be solved. Behavior change is a tough thing, especially when it involves behaviors that have become deep-rooted habits. It’s going to take a lot of time and many different strategies to reverse the bad habits of our country.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying! And I’m interested to hear your thoughts about all this. Do you find that buying healthy foods is tough because of the price? And how do you think we can help encourage people to eat more fresh, whole foods, while also making sure these foods are affordable and easy to access?
Allison Aubrey. Why Making Healthful Foods Cheaper Isn’t Enough
Shu Wen Ng. Driving a Response: Considerations for Point of Purchase, Pricing and Promotion (presentation at 2010 Obesity Prevention in Public Health Course at UNC; August 2010).