At a recent Atlantic Magazine Food Summit in Washington D.C., there was universal nodding and agreement to the idea that "the reason people are so fat is that healthy foods are too expensive." Is this widely accepted conventional wisdom actually true -- or could it be a distraction from a more fundamental economic challenge facing the country? Some digging into the USDA’s own research databases reveals things may not be as they seem. On the surface, a visit to the produce section of the grocery store suggests that fruit and vegetable prices are indeed on the rise. So what's going on here? Are farmers or retailers gouging the customer? Are other economic forces at play?
While it's true that the rising cost of gas and raw materials put upward pressure on prices, a longer review of fruit and vegetable prices, going back nearly thirty years, reveals that when adjusted for inflation, these prices have been on a steady decline, pressured downward by fierce competition and innovation. Take, for example, the inflation-adjusted cost of bananas, which went from 40 cents per pound in 1980 to about 24 cents per pound in 2008. And apples? They decreased from about 70 cents per pound to under 50 cents per pound from 1980-2006. The federal government's Economic Research Services show similar price declines for lettuce, carrots, celery and cucumbers. While there were some notable exceptions -- e.g., broccoli -- the overall trend was a better deal for customers in real (vs. inflationary) dollars.
Why might this be? Fruit and vegetables are largely a commodity business, where competing produce companies strive for lower costs in order to secure retailer contracts. Inflation is driven in part by macro-economic policies, determined at the federal level. But regardless of how prices are set, isn't the real issue the comparative difference between junk food and healthy food prices? Not necessarily. In one preliminary study, behavioral scientists demonstrated that when you lower the price of fruit and vegetables shoppers take most of the savings and buy more junk food, driving the total calorie count of the purchase up, not down! In the end, common sense trumps conventional wisdom: Our non-scientific comparison of different food items shows that junk food isn't cheaper than healthier alternatives.