Posted by: CJ | March 26, 2009

Food & Income

Food & income discussions always have a special place in my heart for two reasons. The first is purely personal. Coming out of the midwest, and the working-class rustbelt midwest at that, I grew up with certain notions of what good food and a good meal was. Dating a white-collar Bay-area California girl challenged those notions, and we had a long and interesting dialogue on food, income, and regional quirks.

The second reason is it’s an example of a topic where people do not act in a purely rational way, or even a good approximation of purely rational. So approaches to the problem using naive economic or utilitarian reasoning fail, badly. Some sociological reasoning, common sense, and ability to empathize with people is required. And this is something that George Orwell understood writing in 1937! In the linked essay, he describes how a low-income English family eats, and points out that even though they could eat a very healthy diet on their budget they instead eat things that taste good. And, according to Orwell, this is easily understood. With so few pleasures in life, of course a low-income family will choose tasty food over healthy food.

I’m thinking about this because of a recent report from the USDA that computes some statistics to show how changes in price levels would affect fruit and vegetable consumption amongst low-income Americans. They give statistics in the report showing that low-income Americans don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables according to Federal dietary guidelines. Their conclusions, which are posted in the report summary on the linked page, essentially show lower prices in fruits and vegetables would increase consumption very dramatically.

Before going on I should mention I haven’t read the report in agonizing thorough detail, so my comments should be taken more as “food for thought” instead of “exceedingly germane criticisms”.

My first question, looking through the report, is if there’s any way to estimate what the long-term effects of the subsidy would be? I would like to presume that cheaper fruits and vegetables could, over time, make more pronounced changes in consumption than the report shows. But I don’t know.

By targeting I think the subsidies could improve their effects. Instead of just subsidizing all fruits and vegetables, what if that money was used on school lunches instead? Unless school lunches have changed drastically since I graduated from high school, they have a pretty abysmal quality and range of choices. Improving the fruits and vegetables in school lunches would, I’d hope, bring children up to have a greater taste for fruits and vegetables. I wonder if there’s a way to test that?

(H/T Ezra Klein)



  1. You do realize that because of quirks in how school lunches are substidized for poor schools, you watched poor kids be given an outrageous amount of access to junk food at school for lunch, right?

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