Posts Tagged by food environment

{Brief} Follow-up: #surviveon35 Final Thoughts

Thank you all for your incredibly thoughtful comments on my last post. I know it’s sort of lame to just give a blanket response to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts, but I don’t know how many times you all would appreciate hearing me say “excellent point!”.  Because people really did make some great points — many that I didn’t think of myself — and it was encouraging to see so many of you taking the time to reflect on this challenge and all its implications. If you haven’t done so already (and find yourself with a little free time), I would highly recommend reading through all the comments. Who knows — maybe they will help you think about the challenge a little differently.

As a quick aside, I can tell you all that during these past few months I’ve thought a lot about giving up blogging (this may not come as a surprise, given how infrequently I was posting for awhile). Sometimes I feel as though I’ve outgrown Health on the Run and no longer have anything of value to add. So when people react to something that I write — something that I clearly feel very passionate about — it means the world to me. And it makes me grateful to have this outlet.

Anyway, I promise I’ll get off my soapbox and move on to other things, but as this #surviveon35 challenge comes to a close, I just have a few final thoughts.

1.) I recognize that the intentions of some of these bloggers are good. I don’t want to discount the fact that this is an issue that hits close to home for some individuals, and that these same people truly are participating because they hope to win money for the food pantry of their choice. This post by Mama Dweeb about her experience as a child is very moving. I honestly do hope that she is able to raise money for the same food pantry that fed her family.

However, that doesn’t change my overall opinion. Whatever the intentions of the individuals participating may be, the poor execution has made for a very condescending challenge…and this has worsened as the week has gone on.

2.) You cannot say that this is a challenge to simply “show that it’s possible to eat healthy on a budget!” I’ve seen this response several times over the past week and it bothers me every single time. Because it’s just not true. When you bring words like “food stamps” and “government assistance” into the challenge, it becomes a lot more than an experiment in budgeting. I don’t care if you are just a healthy living blogger with no real experience or knowledge about the food system — you are still responsible for what you write and the message that it sends. A little more research and a bit more empathy for the segment of our population who live under these circumstances every day would have served everyone participating well.

3.) Unfortunately, many of the meals that I have seen highlighted during the challenge are unrealistic for someone who is actually receiving government assistance, which (in my mind) only furthers the point that this whole thing has missed the mark. Sure, some families may have time to spend a day prepping meals and finding the cheapest prices at local grocery stores. But for many others, this is a luxury they can’t afford. Not to mention the fact that products like Greek yogurt, chia seeds, and bulk bin grains are not easy to come by if you live in a food desert.

Additionally, a lot of the meals I have seen appear minuscule in size. You might be able to survive eating that little for a week, but I can’t imagine feeding a family on so few calories over the long term.

4.) Many of the attitudes that I have seen surrounding this challenge have only continued to disappoint. I can’t imagine that surviving on such a small budget for a week is easy. But if you read a lot of the posts and tweets, you would think the only resulting difficulty has been spending more time planning meals and having to give up fun treats like going out to eat or having a drink at the end of the night. More than anything else, I’ve seen posts that seem to imply how awesome individuals are doing with their super cheap meals.

And I’m not the only observer who has apparently gotten that message. When you read tweets like the ones below from individuals who are “inspired” by those participating, you know there is a major problem with misinformation.

Following the #surviveon35 challenge.  Such a great way to show everyone it is possible to eat real and nutritious food.

 

“Super inspired seeing what people are getting for #surviveon35! Maybe they should start calling it #thriveon35!!” AGREED

Yes, those are actual quotes from real people (whose names have been removed out of respect for privacy). So please don’t tell me I am being too hard on those participating. While I don’t expect them to be able to control everything everyone says about what they write (obviously that’s impossible), I do expect a little more effort to make sure the wrong message isn’t getting across.

So in conclusion, I will reiterate — this challenge proves nothing…except that there is a lot of ignorance about the state of our food system.

And I suppose it also shows us all that these bloggers are good at budgeting (particularly when several do not have full time jobs and/or a family to feed and are being compensated for their participation). While I hope that those who participate do end up getting a little more out of this week than we’ve seen so far, I can honestly say that I would be happy if I never saw a “challenge” like this again.

Oh, and just an interesting observation that I can’t help but share….

Recently I’ve seen a lot of talk about how the organizers are “upping the ante” by raising money for a charity that helps teach low income families how to prepare healthy meals (which, although admirable, still seems to miss the point…but that’s another topic for another day). The goal is to raise $10,000. Every single person in support of the #surviveon35 challenge has been tweeting and re-tweeting the link to the fundraising page, yet last time I checked (this morning), only $255 had been donated. I’m honestly not judging, just observing. I haven’t donated anything to the charity either, and ultimately I know any amount of money is a good thing.

But I have to wonder — who is the target audience for this fundraiser? And if so many people believe so strongly in the mission of the organization, why have so few donated?*

Just some food for thought…

 

*These are actual questions that I really want to know the answer to. So if you can enlighten me, please do! I am happy to admit when I’m wrong about something.

Why #surviveon35 Misses the Mark

First of all, I want to make it clear that this post isn’t meant to be a personal attack on anyone. This is simply the personal opinion of someone who has been reading about this challenge and comes from the perspective of a public health professional. Where we don’t all agree, there is room for civilized debate.

Surviveon35

 

If you haven’t yet heard about the #surviveon35 challenge, the basic premise is this: for 7 days, a team of 10 bloggers (in cooperation with Anytime Fitness and Fitfluential) are being challenged to “survive — and even thrive — on [a] meager allowance” of $35/per adult ($20 per child). This allowance is for their food budget only — while they aren’t allowed to use existing pantry staples when preparing meals, this allotment of money does not apply to any other weekly expenses they may have.

From the Anytime Health site:

When the co-founders of Anytime Fitness went on ABC’s Secret Millionaire earlier this year, they had to feed themselves on a mere $35 each for an entire week, the same amount you’d receive on government assistance. They showed that not only could it be done, but it could be done in a healthy way.

Now, Anytime Fitness is challenging ten health bloggers to do the same. Can they survive – and even thrive – on this meager allowance for a full seven days? We are about to find out!

How does the challenge work?

Let’s do the math. $35, 7 days, and 21 meals. That’s just $1.66 per meal. Of course, those with families to feed will have a larger budget ($35 per adult and $20 per child). It’s no small feat, but our bloggers are up to the task!

These ten brave bloggers will strive to eat healthy and tasty foods within this budget for one week. They’ll be posting shopping lists, recipes, and food photos along the way, so you can follow along.

How will the winners be selected, and what do they win?

At the end of the challenge, two winners will be selected by Anytime Fitness based on the healthiness, taste, and creativity of their meals. Sharing helps, too. We will take likes, tweets, and comments into consideration.

The two winners will receive a $1,000 donation to the food shelf of their choice.

I respect that the founders of Anytime Fitness had a life changing experience as a part of the Secret Millionaire, and that they now desire to draw more attention to the issues of poverty and hunger. I also think it’s wonderful that money will be donated to food pantries at the end of the challenge. So I do see the potential for good in all of this. Unfortunately, that’s about where my positive feedback about the challenge ends.

Because I don’t want my points to get lost, let’s break it down, shall we?

The Wording

First of all, there’s the way this whole thing is phrased. Framing it as a “challenge” makes it sound like a big game — whether the bloggers themselves see it that way or not. I don’t really think it needs to be reiterated that hunger and poverty are not games. For most people, this situation is not a choice. It is a harsh reality they face each and every day. “Competing” to see who can make the most creative/cheapest meals on a food stamp budget makes light of that.

The organizers also call the bloggers “brave” and suggest that people can “thrive” on “the same amount as [they'd] receive on government assistance.

Do I think it’s great that bloggers who are used to spending money on organic foods are stepping out of their comfort zones as they try to form healthy meals on less? Yes. But they certainly aren’t brave. Especially when they are being sponsored by companies to do so, and the worst that can come of all this is receiving negative feedback on their websites.

Secondly, while it certainly is possible to “thrive” on a lower food budget (healthy meals don’t always have to be super expensive), bringing food stamps and government assistance into the discussion sends the wrong message. Besides the fact that food stamps are unfortunately associated with stigma and talks of challenging yourself to survive on them can sound condescending, the way that the entire challenge is phrased seems to imply that a person can thrive on government assistance. Clearly there are a whole host of issues associated with this implication. I would like to believe that this isn’t really the organizers’ intent, but that doesn’t change the fact that this could have been worded a bit more sensitively.

Not to mention the fact that comparing the $35 budget these bloggers will live on for the week to the amount a person would receive on food stamps is inaccurate. Without getting into too much detail, the amount of assistance an individual/family receives depends on many things — such as the state they live in, household size, other resources available (such as wages) or other forms of assistance a person receives, and expenses like child support and rent. (You can find more information here.)

I do not think this challenge would have suffered in any way had they left out any talk of government assistance. In fact, I think that it would have greatly limited the amount of negative feedback these bloggers have been getting.

The Context

I would honestly hope that none of the individuals participating truly believe that they are experiencing what it would be like to survive on government assistance. Unfortunately, many statements that have been made by both participating bloggers and individuals who have commented in support suggest otherwise. The statement that “I am going to SHOW YOU that it is possible to eat healthy on $35 a week” and the sentiment that: “If I can do it, you can too!” is just ridiculous. Just because a healthy living blogger — who has access to a car to drive to a full-service supermarket, can pay for their own gas, has a working kitchen with many appliances, and is already primed to eat healthy — can figure out ways to survive on a smaller food budget for a week does not mean that someone who is on government assistance can do the same.

This is a challenge set in the wrong context. Individuals who face poverty deal with many more factors than their weekly food allowance. There are huge (often insurmountable) issues of access. Many individuals do not live in an area with a full service grocery store, nor do they have a car to get there. They may need to rely on public transportation (which often has limitations on the number of bags you can carry on – I know the bus system in Rhode Island does)…and this in the midst of any other competing priorities, such as raising a family on a single income, working long hours, dealing with issues of safety, paying other bills. Regardless of the intentions of the challenge, it simplifies the issue in a way that does an injustice to low income families. Particularly since this challenge does not appear to incorporate any sort of education around food deserts, poverty issues, policies that can improve access to healthy foods, the types of foods available at food banks, etc.

Again, just because a blogger sacrifices buying organics for the store brand for one week and knows how to put together a healthy breakfast with Greek yogurt does not make this a realistic example.

The “Cause”

Another term that I have seen thrown around in regards to this challenge is that these bloggers should be commended for raising awareness and support of “the cause.” However – I’m confused about which cause they are referring to? The cause of not being able to shop at Whole Foods for a week? The cause of getting more publicity for Anytime Fitness (because I’m sorry, but if the company didn’t want publicity from this, their name wouldn’t be associated with every tweet and post about it)? Or is it the cause that $35 per person per week is enough food money for a low income family? I truly am baffled by this. Since the object of the challenge is to see who can create the healthiest, tastiest, and most creative meals on only $35, it seems to imply that this amount should be more than sufficient to do so.

I get that operating on a lower food budget for a week requires extra planning and creativity. But I can’t help but think the “cause” would have been better served if there weren’t a winner at the end. And if the purpose of this whole thing was to actually bring visibility to the fact that government assistance should be increased, or that we need to have better policies in place to help more individuals “thrive” on their own — not on food stamps.

The Visibility

You can read what I’ve written above and tell me that I’m missing the point, or that I’m reading too much into this or even that I’m simply being a “hater.” Fine. We can agree to disagree. However, you cannot argue with the fact that the publicity around this thing has been ridiculous.

This is called the Secret Millionaire Challenge. Now, I’ve never been on the show, but I was under the impression that the entire premise was for a millionaire to secretly go into a deprived/low income neighborhood and live on a low budget among the community. Sure, there’s a big emotional reveal at the end, but they don’t spend the entire week telling everyone they come in contact with that they are really rich people who are being so “brave” to go and live as though they are low income.

So I don’t see how this is the same thing. My Twitter feed had been clogged with individuals telling us just how cheap they were able to make their breakfast. It was made clear right from the start that there are two millionaires (co-founders of Anytime Fitness) who were sponsoring the challenge. And part of the criteria winners will be judged on includes Facebook likes, tweets, and comments on their posts. …i.e. the person who garners the most publicity for what they are doing.

You can say you are doing good, but the fact that you need everyone to know it makes it seem just a little bit less genuine.

How it Could Have Been Better

This post is really long already, but I hate to criticize without giving any sort of suggestions about how I think it could have been improved. I do not think the challenge is bad in theory, just in execution.

Here are ways that I think the challenge could have been more positive overall:

1.) Leave food stamps/government assistance out of the discussion.

Instead, frame the challenge as bloggers learning to survive on a restricted budget for the week. Or, better yet, have a two-week challenge where the blogger keeps track of what he/she normally spends, and then is challenged to cut that in half or by a certain percentage the next week and see how they make that work.

2.) If you must talk about government assistance, don’t make this an actual challenge to see who can create the best/cheapest meals, and please stop talking about how these bloggers are going to “show” people that it is possible to eat healthy while living on government assistance.

Better guidelines could have encouraged bloggers to shop at convenience stores or even a Price-Rite/Shop-Rite. It can often be much harder to find fresh produce and healthy meal options at these types of stores than your local Publix or Stop ‘n Shop. Finding ways to make healthy meals on $35 based on shopping at a convenience store would have been a much more difficult challenge — one that required creativity and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. Guidelines also could have required that bloggers only go to one store, or get there by public transportation…basically anything that would more closely mimic other obstacles that a person on government assistance would face.

3.) Include some education.

I know this challenge has just started, so we don’t know what will come of it. I truly hope that bloggers do more than write about their cheap meals for the week. If they took this opportunity to educate themselves and their readers on the issues, investigate local policies, see what types of food products are carried at their local convenience store or offered in the food pantry, I believe a lot more good could come of this.


In summary – - the tl;dr version: I know that the end result is money donated to a food pantry, and I think that’s wonderful (I really do!). I just wish the challenge would have been better thought out. Because as it stands, #surviveon35 really missed the mark.

 

Out With the Pyramid, In With the Plate: USDA’s New Food Guide

Remember way back when this used to be a running and a public health blog? I know, the memories are fading for me too. Although it may not have seemed like it over the past few months, I assure you the public health nerd in me is still alive and well. So if you come here to read my rambles about all things running, stay tuned for my next post. Because today I want to talk about something a little different…

In case you missed it, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has done away with the traditional food pyramid. And in its place, a new icon has been released. Yesterday, Michelle Obama and the USDA revealed a new food guide that’s based on something a little easier for most of us to understand – a plate. (To read the press release, click here.)

myplate_icon.jpg

This new graphic, which was released along with the website ChooseMyPlate.gov, is meant to be a “new generation icon with the intent to prompt consumers to think about building a healthy plate at meal times.” The plate is the prompt; if you want more information, you are encouraged to visit the Choose My Plate website, which has basic recommendations (including to “eat less” and reduce sodium and fat), examples of foods that are inlcuded in each group, and interactive tools to give Americans even more guidance in planning a healthy diet.

MyPlate is completely different than the past food pyramids. But before I talk anymore about that, let’s take a very brief tour through the food guides of the ages.

{*Please note, I am not a registered dietician. I work in the field of public health. So when I discuss these food guides, it is from a public health perspective.*}

The USDA Food Pyramids Past

Remember this guide from the 90s? This 1992 pyramid is the one I grew up with:

USDA Food Pyramid_1990s.gifAlthough the original pyramid tried to clearly show us how much we should eat from each food group, it was thrown out and revamped in 2005 because of all the criticism it received. Apparently the food industry didn’t really like the fact that people were being told to eat less meat and dairy than grains, fruits, and vegetables (It doesn’t matter that doing so is actually the healthier choice, because we all know that the food industry always has our best interests at heart…{please note the dripping sarcasm}) But even beyond that, nutritionists also voiced concern because the pyramid encouraged Americans to eat too many grains.

So in 2005, USDA released MyPyramid – a new graphic that was supposed to be an improvement. But this one didn’t stick around nearly as long as the first. And I can’t really say I’m surprised. Does anyone really know what this means?

USDA Food Pyramid_2005.png

It made the food industry happy, and apparently tried to show the “whole” picture by throwing in a little stick figure being active. But I’ll be honest – when I looked at that little guy walking up the stairs, my mind never jumped to “physical activity is important!” Instead I always wondered what the heck stairs had to do with the food groups…and why this was all still in the shape of a pyramid anyway. Were we supposed to eat less food when we got to the top of the stairs??

Personally, I think this version was worse than the original. Even though it made some adjustments to the recommendations, the whole thing was just way too complicated.

MyPlate

It seems like the federal government has taken all those criticisms to heart. This new version is incredibly simple. It is meant to convey information quickly, in a way that most people can relate to and understand. Instead of giving foods a hierarchy or breaking them down into a specific number of recommended servings, it just simply shows you – this is what a balanced plate should look like.

The graphic is based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines that were released in January, which encouraged us to eat less salt and fat, and more produce.

Major Differences in Recommendations

  • Fruit and vegetables make up half of the plate
    • This is a huge increase from previous recommendations
  • The “Meat & Beans” group has been changed to just “Protein”
    • Meat isn’t even named on the pyramid. This shows an understanding that there are more ways to get protein than just by eating meat. The new guidelines even reflect the various forms of soy protein that are available and encourage Americans to eat lean meats only.
  • Protein is clearly recommended to be a smaller portion of the overall diet
    • Hopefully this will encourage a change in the standard American diet. It would be great if the standard meal shifts from a huge piece of meat and a small side of vegetables to the opposite – a huge plate of produce with a small side of meat (or other protein).
  • Milk & Cheese” has been changed to “Dairy,” and it’s shown on the side of the plate
    • The new graphic shows dairy as a side, which seems to de-emphasize it.

Overall Thoughts

Overall, I think the new MyPlate icon is a huge improvement over the previous food pyramids. It un-complicates things and serves as an easy visual reminder for the average family. Once you know what the colors mean, you don’t even need to be able to read to understand it. Kids can follow the colors to build their plate. The campaign as a whole also emphasizes choice – Choose My Plate gives recommendations and guidelines, with the overall goal to make “the healthy choice the easy choice” (this is a phrase you hear a lot in the public health world).

I do find it interesting, however, that the administration didn’t really address that there are other ways to get calcium, etc than by eating dairy (like they did with the protein group). Especially in light of the increasing popularity of the vegan diet. I would be interested to see how vegans feel about this.

Additionally (without going off on too much of a tangent), I think the huge issue of conflict of interest within the USDA needs to be addressed. The same agency that is giving us recommendations about what to eat also supports the very things it tells us to eat less of. There are large subsidies to farmers for things like dairy, sugar, and feed grains (for livestock). And that’s not all. Remember this New York Times article from back in November about Dairy Management - a marketing creation of USDA that teamed up with Domino’s to create new pizzas with 40% more cheese? So while telling us to eat less fat, USDA had also created a marketing group to promote it. The article is a clear example of the competing interests of money and the protection of public health that exist within the agency. And until those are removed or another agency is put in charge of the health guidelines, the health crises in this country will not be fixed.

Finally, I think it is important to call the new graphic what it is – an educational tool. Although I don’t think the administration is touting it as such, I believe it needs to be said – MyPlate is not the solution to the obesity problems in this country. Yes, it is a very useful graphic to help people make smarter food choices. But unfortunately, that graphic alone is not going to fix what years of bad habits and unhealthy environments have created. We can recommend that people do all sorts of different things. I can preach the value of a plant-based diet and regular physical activity all I want. But until we change the environment, we aren’t going to make any sort of lasting change in this country. People aren’t going to eat more fruits and vegetables because you tell them to. They will start eating more if they become affordable, and easily accessible. They will start exercising more if we make it easier and safer for them to be physically active where they live. And our health as a nation will only improve when we start subsidizing things other than corn and soybeans, when we make fresh food cheaper than fast food, and when federal agencies don’t answer to food lobbyists.

And with that, it’s time to get off my soapbox. Now I want to know – what do you think of MyPlate? A huge improvement, or another useless guide? Is it easy to read? And will it really guide people’s decisions when in the grocery store or when cooking meals for their families?

 

“We Love Vegans Too”

It’s not often that I get the chance to watch Oprah. But as “luck” would have it, yet another snow storm was raging through New England today. And while that meant slippery roads and more shoveling, it also meant that for once,  I was home early enough to catch her show this afternoon. I can honestly say that I was so happy I did. Today’s episode was all about Oprah’s Vegan Challenge. In case you missed it, the basic premise was that Oprah challenged all her employees at Harpo to go vegan for an entire week. In addition to highlighting some of their experiences, the episode also talked about the meat industry, our food system, and a basic introduction to veganism. (You can watch select clips from the show on Oprah’s site.)

To avoid being redundant, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the show itself. But I did want to share some overall thoughts about it from the perspective of an {almost} life-long vegetarian. And I’m interested in hearing your thoughts as well.

Before I go into The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, here are a few interesting facts:

  • We eat about 10 billion animals a year; 33 million of those are cows
  • Heifers at the Timmerman Feeding Corp (a feed lot in CO where cows live to get fattened up before slaughter) stay there about 200 days
  • The cattle gain 3+ pounds per day, and will weigh about 1200 lbs before being sent to slaughter
  • Cargill is the biggest meat producer in the world — they bring in 4,500 cows per day

The Good

  • I really liked that Oprah had both Michael Pollan (author of books like In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food Rules) and the General Manager of Cargill on the show. It made for some respectful, educational dialogue.
  • The show was informational without being preachy. Along with Kathy Freston, author of The Veganist, Oprah provided some general information on veganism, and shared stories from those who are sticking with it even after the challenge has ended (along with those who aren’t). Maybe it was all in the interest of being politically correct (or avoiding a lawsuit!) but no one was really pushing the vegan lifestyle, or talking poorly about the meat industry.
  • The producers focused on many of the health benefits you can achieve from eating less animal products. Even including the fact that it made many people more, shall we say, “regular.” ….though honestly, I’m not sure what these people were eating to make them so stopped up before!!
  • They touched on the fact that being vegan doesn’t necessarily mean being healthy. It’s very possible to be a “junk food vegan” (or vegetarian). There are a lot of animal-free processed foods that still aren’t good for you. If you’re not really careful about eating a balanced diet, you could easily gain weight after giving up animal products.
  • Overall, there was a big emphasis on just being aware of where your food comes from. Lisa Ling went into a slaughterhouse and yet still eats meat. But now at least she has an appreciation of how that meat gets to her table. I think that’s a very important lesson for all of us.

The Bad

  • Besides the fact that the entire episode seemed to be sponsored by Kashi, there also seemed to be a huge push for meat substitutes. Now don’t get me wrong, I really like fake meats. Believe me — I used to live off of those things! But as with any highly processed foods, eating too much of them is not good for you. Plus, they are expensive! Those Gardein products that were highlighted on the show cost around $5 a package — and they only serve one or two people. Instead of focusing on how you could replace a real meat with a fake one, I wish the show had talked more about how you can make delicious, protein-rich meals with just vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, etc.
  • Similarly, there wasn’t a big focus on eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. Yes, I realized how important it is to show consumers that you can find a substitute for any animal-based product you want. I appreciate the educational aspect of that. But the reality is that the majority of people in the US do not eat enough fruits and vegetables. And one of the great parts about giving up meat is that it encourages you to find new, creative ways to incorporate produce into your everyday meals!
  • I’m sorry, but there’s no such thing as “vegan-ish.” You either eat a vegan, or you don’t.  (Confused? See this post.) I’m not trying to be a stickler here. But let’s be real about it. You can say you don’t eat red meat, or are trying to eat more plant-based foods, or even that you limit animal products. But the truth is, if you eat any meat, dairy, etc, you’re technically not vegan.
  • Veganism shouldn’t be presented as a “diet.” It’s a way of life. If you choose to eat vegan, that’s your lifestyle. Just as if you choose to eat meat.

The Ugly

If you watch at least one part of the episode, I highly suggest you watch the clip where Lisa Ling goes into a slaughterhouse. Yes, it is a little graphic, and yes, you may find it disturbing. But as Michael Pollan says, it is important to at least be aware of where your food comes from. This is a completely un-glamorized view of what goes on — a straight-forward, matter of fact tour where the general manager explains the steps and the reasons behind them. For me, that view alone would be enough to stop eating meat (if I hadn’t already). But, I know that’s not true of everyone. Like I said before, Lisa Ling reports she is still eating it.

Anyway, at the end of the show, Michael Pollan (who is not in support of a completely vegetarian/vegan lifestyle I should add) talks a little about responsible farming. He is a huge proponent of free range farms, where the animals have a supposedly “happy” life….and “one bad day.” I have to admit I take some issue with this. It’s really easy to love the idea of a wonderful place where happy cows and chickens are allowed to wander about eating as they please instead of being cooped up in a pen all day. And I’m sure that is a much nicer experience for them. BUT (and this is a big but), if these animals are ultimately being raised for human consumption, does any of that really matter? Sure, it may be easier for us to swallow, but honestly — if a cow is born into the world with the sole purpose of being fattened up to become someone’s dinner, does it make that much of a difference how happy his life was?**

Finally, one of the last remarks made by the General Manager of Cargill was “We love vegans too!” Now seriously…as much as I appreciate the fact that they allowed the Oprah show into the slaughterhouse with their cameras, I found this statement a little hard to believe. Do you really love vegans Cargill?? Because if the whole world were vegan, something tells me you wouldn’t be all that excited about it.

Overall, I thought the episode was a good one. I love that Oprah brought information about veganism and the food industry to a mainstream audience. And now I’m very interested to hear your thoughts.

What did you think of the show in general? It’s portrayal of veganism? And do you think the whole emphasis on the slaughterhouse “respecting the animal” and “showing it dignity” is true or a bunch of media-hogwash?

**(I realize that eating meat is probably going to be a part of our normal culture forever — it’s a bit unrealistic to expect everyone to take up a plant-based diet. And of course I’m not advocating for animals to be mistreated since they’re going to be eaten anyway. So it’s important that the industry change and adopt humane standards for the livestock they’re raising. But, this is still something that I admittedly struggle with.)

The Pricing Paradox

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?

Lets-Go-Shopping

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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?

Sources:

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).

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