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Unhealthy food shoppers and inequality of income, consumption

By Mike Konczal

Jamelle Bouie leads us to an interesting story from MSNBC: "Pricey grocery stores attract skinniest shoppers."

The percentage of food shoppers who are obese is almost 10 times higher at low-cost grocery stores compared with upscale markets, a small new study shows.


In the Seattle area, a region with an average obesity rate of about 20 percent, only about 4 percent of shoppers who filled their carts at Whole Foods Market stores were obese, compared with nearly 40 percent of shoppers at lower-priced Albertsons stores.


“If people wanted a diet to be cheap, they went to one supermarket,” said Adam Drewnowski, a University of Washington epidemiology professor who studies obesity and social class. “If they wanted their diet to be healthy, they went to another supermarket and spent more."


Instead, he contends it’s because healthy, low-calorie foods cost more money and take more effort to prepare than processed, high-calorie foods. In a separate study two years ago, Drewnowski estimated that a calorie-dense diet cost $3.52 a day compared with $36.32 a day for a low-calorie diet.


But, he said, it’s likely that similar patterns might be found elsewhere: Wealthier people who shopped at higher-end stores would be thinner, while poorer people who shopped at cheaper stores would be fatter.

We also know that there've been different rates in the increase in price for different types of food. An interesting graphic from the New York Times:

Now this whole topic should be interesting for those who follow the debate around increasing income inequality. One argument that has become popular recently is that the increase in income inequality isn't quite as bad because both the rich and the poor have different
"inflation" rates -- the prices at which goods increase for the rich have been increasing much faster than the prices at which goods have been increasing for the poor. So even though the poor or median person hasn't had any wage growth, he has much more purchasing power because of this effect.

The lead paper on this topic is Christian Broda and John Romalis's "The
Welfare Implications of Rising Price Dispersion"
(pdf). Will Wilkinson has written that this paper leads him to believe that income inequality and wage stagnation have been "overstated." Scott Winship has written, in his "Low B.S." report on inequality, that this paper helps prove that there is an "illusory" element to the income inequality debate and that "the cost of living has grown less for the poor than for the rich."

Broda and Romalis's paper is a lot about food. Let's start by reproducing charts from it. First, we see that rich and poor people definitely buy food from different places:

(Click through for larger image.)

The rich buy from Whole Foods, and the poor from Wal-Mart. Now here's the interesting part. Let's look at the food inflation rate and the percentage of food that goes into the basket by income:

The "inflation" rate for consuming food for poor people and median people has grown less than that for rich people, and it is increasing across all incomes. The amount of income that goes to food for nondurable purchases is also higher for poor people. The poor spend more money on food that has tended to be cheaper over the past two decades.

Now is there anything from the paper itself that speaks to the concerns that Jamelle brings up? From the paper:

In this section we use Homescan data to document three key facts that highlight the differences in the pattern of consumption across different income groups. First, the basket of non-durable goods consumed differs systematically by income group – the poor consume lower quality products than the rich. Second, the poor consume fewer varieties of goods (fewer UPCs), and this gap with the rich has been widening for food items over the sample period.


The Homescan data reveals that poorer households consume goods with lower unit values,
that are typically associated with lower quality products ... since the poor are only paying 5 percent less for the exact same UPC (Figure 4B), most of the lower average price for the poor therefore comes from selecting cheaper brands and, to a lesser extent, more economical


A second fact revealed by the Homescan data is that poorer households consume fewer food products than richer households, and this gap has been growing. ... The fact that in most categories the poor systematically choose lower unit-value items ... suggests that they place a relatively low importance on secondary qualities of a product, so that poorer households keep substituting towards inexpensive varieties.

This is what we see from what MSNBC and Jamelle brought up. The poor have more purchasing power because, in part, they are buying food that isn't very healthful. And the important thing about this different inflation rate quantification for income inequality is that nobody
gets diabetes.
The long-term health costs of "choosing" a different inflation rate for your food isn't estimated, nor are they included to see if it all balances out economically.

Which is to say that when you hear arguments that income inequality isn't so bad because consumption inequality is less than you'd think, it's important to be skeptical about what in fact is being consumed. Sometimes it is exactly what you think it is: less quality and worse
long-term health outcomes. And the long-term consequences for the health and well-being of the working poor are exactly the type of information econometric stats obscure.

As a last note: special thanks to Ezra and the editors for letting me blog here during the past week. If you find this interesting, please feel free to follow me at my blog or on Twitter.

-- Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

By Multiplatform Editor  |  June 2, 2010; 6:32 PM ET
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"This is what we see from what MSNBC and Jamelle brought up. The poor have more purchasing power because, in part, they are buying food that isn't very healthful."

For a real world example of this, check out the Bodega clip by Rafi Kam on Youtube. Funny and tragic at the same time.

Posted by: tuber | June 2, 2010 9:00 PM | Report abuse

USDA and a variety of NorthEast states are combatting both obesity and supermarket deserts in urban areas.

You don't necessarily have to shop Whole Foods to eat healthy.

Aldi Food Market is a great source of healthy foods. Their fitalive line is very affordable and healthy. Their produce section is a rainbow of healthy fruits and veggies at the very lowest prices. The produce is of very high quality.

So if a shopper learns good nutrition shopping skills, he or she can both eat healthy and save a lot of money.

Posted by: ziggyzippy | June 3, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

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