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High cost for healthy food -- not for this shopper

It must be farm bill debate time again, when facts get fuzzier with each passing day. That’s the only explanation I can offer for an editorial which appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on March 3. It blamed agricultural subsidies for obesity, the demise of the family farm and a host of other ills.

The writer of the editorial, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, believes that agricultural subsidies are keeping the prices of junk food artificially low, thereby causing people to actually prefer it to healthy food, leading to a number of physical and social ills.

Bittman fantasizes about a world in which these situations are reversed. “Imagine support designed to encourage a resurgence of small and medium-size farms producing not corn syrup and animal feed, but food we can actually touch, see, buy and eat – like apples and carrots – while diminishing handouts to agribusiness and its political cronies.”

Bittman first ignores the fact that commodity prices are at historically high levels today and have been for quite some time now. What effect this will have on food prices and consumer behavior is really anybody’s guess.

He’s also wrong about the costs of eating healthy. I went down to my local Kroger store, to check it out.

I purchased a half pound of yellow squash for $1.50, a half pound of broccoli florets for $1.50, three chicken breasts for $5.43 and bread which amounted to less than 50 cents per serving. I baked the chicken, steamed the broccoli and cut the squash in half, sprinkled with salt and pepper and baked it. I added a serving of rice for about 50 cents.

Okay, okay, I confess. My wife actually did the cooking.

The total cost with tax was $10.78, divided by the number of household inhabitants, 2, which came to $5.39. That’s certainly not cost prohibitive for health conscious eaters.

Compare that to the three pieces of artery-fortifying fried chicken, along with a side order of mashed potatoes, a biscuit and soft drink I purchased for $8 recently at a drive through. The difference of $2.41 wouldn’t push me in any one direction. I’m inclined to choose food based on taste, health considerations or convenience, depending on the situation.

That’s the real point though. Real people choose what they want to eat based on what they like to eat or have time to eat. Commodities are ingredients. So are vegetables. The consumer decides how he or she wants to use them.

Chicken is healthy when baked, unhealthy when fried in certain types of oil. Squash is great baked, but a caloric catastrophe in a casserole. A potato can be baked or smothered with butter. Do you prefer your apple alone, or in a pie?

Family farms – large, medium and small – supply the ingredients to feed the world. Consumers, not agricultural subsidies, decide how it looks on a plate.


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