Obesity and the cost of food

As Jane Galt and Brad DeLong noted some time ago, the secular collapse in the ratio of food prices to wages is among the best measures of the growth of human well-being. But a shorter-run set of trends is less encouraging.

According to a study by R.S. Strauss published in American Family Physician in 1999 (and cited by Aaron Lopata and Fred Kim, two master’s students in my program, in a paper on community strategies for obesity prevention), the prices of such unhealthy foods as soft drinks have been falling in real-dollar terms over the past two decades, while the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables are up (again adjusted for inflation) by between a third and a half. This sounds like bad news to me. I wonder what the causes are.

The obvious guess is that fresh produce is more labor-intensive than processed food, and is benefiting less from technological advance. But the enormous spread in prices between supermarkets and big retail produce markets is really quite staggering; red bell peppers that cost $3/lb. at Ralph’s or Von’s are 69 cents a pound at the Farmer’s Ranch Market; a head of red leaf lettuce costs me $1.29 at the supermarket and 49 cents at the Farmer’s Ranch, and so on and on, with the average difference being something like a factor of three.

Anyone who actually understands what’s going on is invited to tell me, and so is anyone with any ideas about what to do about it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com