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Your Waistline in Charts

The New York Times' David Leonhardt has a nice column today laying out the case for a soda tax. But some of the strongest evidence comes alongside the column, in this graph showing the change in different food prices over time.


That's not a huge surprise. An orange has the rude quality of being partially organic. Technological advances can make growing it faster and transporting it cheaper, but you still have to wait for plants to photosynthesize light. Not so when making a can of Coke. Better machines can revolutionize pretty much the whole process. The result is that it's cheaper to consume calories that are produced rather that calories that are grown. It's also quicker. And chemically manipulated to taste good to you.

It's hard to stand against quicker, cheaper, and tastier. Researchers at the University of Washington Center for Public Health and Nutrition recently examined (pdf) a November 2008 release from the US Department of Agriculture that argued the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program provided low-income families with plenty of money to eat a delicious, healthful diet. Here's what the USDA proposed:


The dinner weighed a solid pound. But it only provided 335 calories. It was light on both protein and fat. And it didn't suit the needs of a time-stressed family. "Produce needed to be washed, drained, trimmed, cored, sliced and boiled. The noodles required boiling" Preparation time hit 40 minutes -- and that was with people who knew their way around a kitchen. And presenting your kids with that meal -- for all the work and expense -- would not leave them rapturous.

Which is all to say that Grist blogger Tom Laskawy is probably right. Taxing unhealthful foods has its appeal. So, too, does pulling subsidies from corn and grains. But at some point, it may begin making sense to subsidize health foods, too. This is not a new strategy. We subsidize home ownership because we want people to own homes. We subsidize health insurance because we want people to have health insurance. We subsidize education because we want people to go to school. Last I checked, we also wanted the populace to be healthy, and for our health care costs to go down. And with prices the way they are, the deck is really stacked against that absent some sort of government intervention, at least when it comes to low-income families.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 20, 2009; 4:48 PM ET
Categories:  Charts and Graphs , Food  
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Last year at TAPPED, you linked to a presentation by a guy who said the secret to controlling one's weight was really simple: "Eat more plants." (Tried it. It worked.)

I've never seen a petition in favor of government subsidies for fruits and vegetables, but if I see one, I'll sign.

Posted by: rt42 | May 20, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

For convenience and palate, I find I love some of the frozen vegetables on offer at the supermarket. I guess they are expensive, relative to fresh, but 4 minutes in the microwave, and they are good to go.

And, I have lost weight.

Why don't frozen veggies get more respect? They are nutritious and convenient. And, still pretty cheap, really.

Posted by: brucew07 | May 20, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

With respect to the Coke, high fructose corn syrup is really not far removed from photosynthesis (light => corn => glucose => fructose). The point is that it's subsidized, and cheap, as well as being a very bad idea from an environmental perspective.

Posted by: telliott99 | May 20, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

This graph appears to be index prices, not monthly price changes. Beyond that quip, the idea of a sugar/soda tax is odd. Before we contemplate a sugar tax, shouldn't we first eliminate farm subsidies? I'm all for taxing sugary sodas (depending on it's income elasticity of demand); but, unless we remove the farm subsidies, it's just robbing Peter to pay Paul.

ie-ingredients: (carbonated) water, high fructose corn syrup...

Posted by: witty_al | May 21, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

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