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Obesity's hidden factor: high cost of healthy meals

Obesity isn't entirely – or even primarily – a question of willpower, but has a lot to do with socioeconomic status. Federal policy should address this by making healthy foods cheaper.

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End childhood obesity within a generation – this is the goal of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative. Mrs. Obama's campaign focuses on sedentary children and lots of unhealthy snacking as the drivers of childhood obesity. In the national dialogue on obesity among adults, the discussion isn't hugely different: Overweight Americans lack the self-control to pursue a healthier lifestyle, while certain agricultural subsidies make the unhealthiest foods the cheapest. But the obesity crisis is a lot more complicated than that.

It turns out that the kind of diet that complies with the Department of Agri­cul­ture's official dietary guidelines is un­affordable for many Americans.

A researcher at the University of Washington found that an income level that qualifies a family for food stamp assistance makes it nearly impossible to put healthy and balanced meals on the table. Though food stamp benefits are calculated to allow families to buy the lowest-cost foods that are still nutritious, the USDA's own research shows that food prices vary widely across the country. That means if you live in a region with high prices (such as the Northeast), it may be unaffordable for you to feed your family healthy meals.

Beyond junk food and willpower

Obesity isn't entirely – or even primarily – a question of willpower, but has a lot to do with socioeconomic status. Federal policy should address this by making healthy foods cheaper.

Journalists have popularized a link between cheap junk food and subsidies to the corn industry. But this isn't the reason why junk food is cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables. Even with no subsidies for corn production, fresh produce is more expensive because it has a short shelf life. It has to be picked, shipped, stocked, purchased, and eaten quickly to prevent spoilage. Rolling back commodity supports won't make healthier options the cheapest. The solution, as proposed by former US Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben, is subsidies for fruits and vegetables.

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