Making Sense Out of Senseless Grocery Shopping

April 22, 2007

I recall one day in the spring of 2002, shopping at the H.E.B. grocery store on Riverside Dr. in Austin, TX, being struck by the horrible nutritional value on display on the conveyor belt before me. The shopping list seemed to consist primarily of donuts, chips, soda, and a few other items of questionable healthiness (white bread, milk, beef, no fruit, ...). Surreptitiously, I looked up at the woman buying these things, probably to feed her family (I don't remember thinking she seemed particularly overweight herself). I thought to myself, "what mother would feed these things to her child?"

I chastised myself for judging — both are done frequently — and then, without consciously trying, I noticed the Lone Star card come out. For those outside of Texas, that means "food stamps." And I actually became angry — inwardly — at the thought that my tax dollars where paying for all this junk, and yet here I was, at the time nearly poor enough for food stamps myself (thanks AmeriCorps!), trying hard to optimize my dollars for nutrition.

Trying not to dwell on it, I remind myself that I didn't know anything about her situation, and that perhaps I should actually feel sympathy that our system drives people like to decisions like that. Yes, buying child- (and adult-) pleasing junk food is the easy route to parenting. Moreover, though, it is truly the economical route as well.

In today's New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan once again writes insightfully about the nature of the food business, dwelling this time on the inappropriately-named "farm bill" that will once again be up before Congress this year. In summary: the farm bill primarily (over)subsidizes 5 crops: corn, wheat, soy, cotton, and rice. The first three are the primary components in most of junk food in specific and processed food in general. At the same time, healthy options like fruit and vegetables receive no subsidies. High-fat red meat and milk also benefit from these subsidies by the unnatural corn force-fed to our cattle and hogs. Thus we have created a monster that makes economic grocery-store decisions into horrible public-health decisions.

These subsidies have other deleterious effects beyond the nation's diabetes rate. These include the requirements of intense fertilization and pest control and depression of world markets for these subsidized goods. They also lead to famine in nations that technically have the food but cannot afford — for instance in Zambia the World Food Programme is running out of food.

Though there is food to be purchased inside the country, the group doesn't have the funds to buy it, partially because we Americans insist on shipping our subsidized corn instead. But shipping costs money too. In today's global economy, wiring a few million to the WFP to buy local food would be essentially cost-free, in terms of the financial transaction, whereas shipping corn incurs a large transit fee and an un-quantified environmental cost to boot (in terms of CO2).