Low Hanging Fruit

Where Telling People What They Oughta Wanna Eat Fails

It’s hard to miss. Some elements of food policy seem to be telling the world what people oughta wanna eat. And the subtext of that message is the idea that people who aren’t listening are eating junk food. You are what you eat. Junk people eat junk food. Healthy people eat healthy food.

A new working paper from economist Hunt Allcott and colleagues asks, why do the wealthy eat healthy, while the poor eat poorly?

A Matter of Demand, Not Supply

In an exhaustive analysis, Allcott et al confirm that access to healthy food is not the issue that public health folklore supposes. Proximity to a supermarket explains no more than five percent of the difference in eating patterns between high and low income households.

Likewise, they conclude that availability and price of healthier items explains less than ten percent of the differences. The real issue, the authors conclude, is demand. People eat what they desire.

Community Preferences

Based on Allcott’s data, the Washington Post singled out Musselshell County, Montana, as the one that buys the least healthful groceries in America. It hit a nerve and hundreds of comments poured in – including many from that rural county. The Post had to revise its article.

It seems that grocery purchases don’t tell you everything about what people in a poor, rural county are eating. Hunting and gardening are things to consider. Maconboy explains:

I grew up in a poor rural place like southern Montana.

As a kid, I thought I was so poor and underprivileged because we only went to the grocery store in town once every 2 weeks.

The vast majority of what we ate was grown on our land. We ate “grass fed” beef because grass was free and corn was not. We ate greens and beans and lots of potatoes and threw in a small cube or two of pork if we had it. Most of the time we didn’t. We dreamed of those fancy pastries in town at the bakery.

Now as an old man, I’m told I was actually “privileged” to have such “health conscious” parents.

Life is funny.

Healthy Eating, Correlation, and Causation

Getting good, complete data on what people eat is hard enough. Supermarket data doesn’t tell it all.

But an even deeper problem is all the tangled factors that go into the correlation between health, wealth, social status, and what people eat. It’s not as simple as healthy eating indexes might lead you to believe.

Poverty and social status have much to do with health outcomes. Do the wealthy truly eat healthy? Or does wealth play an outsized role in defining healthy eating? Is it the food? Or do other things that come with wealth play a bigger role in better health?

Healthy diets come in many forms in many different cultures. Some people eat quite well without ever walking into a Whole Foods Market.

Click here for the paper by Allcott et al, here for more from the Washington Post, and here for related thoughts on food deserts,

Low Hanging Fruit, photograph © Old White Truck / flickr

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February 12, 2018

One Response to “Where Telling People What They Oughta Wanna Eat Fails”

  1. February 13, 2018 at 9:19 am, Allen Browne said:

    Yes “people eat what they desire” and their desire is largely determined by their energy regulatory system and hedonic center. Unfortunately, the executive center comes in a poor third in this race.