Food so cheap that poor people can be fat is a miracle only dreamed about by philosophers ad economists throughout history. It was previously believed that the labor force needed to produce enough food would outstrip the food they could produce, something like how trying to exceed the speed of light adds too much mass.

Yet it has happened, at least in food. Outracing the speed of light still only happens in arXiv papers once a week but in the last 30 years, despite two decades of pundits like President Obama's Science Czar Dr. John Holdren predicting we would need forced abortion and mandatory sterilization to prevent global starvation, American agriculture has not only produced far more food than anti-science people predicted, they have done it with even less strain on the environment than their ancestors did.

Twin challenges remain" The first is to allow science to make food production more equally distributed, so agriculturally poor countries do not have to rely on the largess of agriculturally rich ones and can feed themselves while competing globally. The second challenge, in developed countries, is to get people to eat less - or at least eat healthier.

Currently, people eat too much because they can. Evolutionary psychologists contend we are hard-wired to eat too much, like they claim we are hard-wired to do everything social, but people are not goldfish; they eat what they want and what they can afford - rich people go out to dinner more and to the gym more. Doritos taste good and are affordable to all, that is why the company that makes them is successful.

Yet studies show that, all things being equal, people will buy healthier foods if they are not priced out of the market.  Organic food proponents try to claim their choices are solely about health but poor people are not going to buy eggs that cost $15 a dozen; a healthy choice is made by people with money and who have local food available and that is why California is home to so many food-oriented people. It's the agricultural breadbasket of the world.

Can healthy choices be made by government mandate? In some cases, sure.

One solution to create fewer obese people is flat out social authoritarianism; New York City wants to ban everything; trans fats, Big Gulps, you name it and someone there wants to ban it. These are the people who also banned pinball.  The other solution to getting totalitarian about the public is a little more positive, though costly and therefore less likely to work; we have a lot more people on food stamps in the last few years and there are proposals to subsidize machines at farmer's markets so people on food stamps can buy 'healthier' food. 

Are vegetables in supermarkets somehow less healthy?  Not if you have discovered this thing called 'science'. If people are poor we want them to use their money as efficiently as possible. 'Buying down' the cost of farmer's market vegetables with the unproven hope it is better for people than supermarket vegetables is not good for anyone.

Researchers from RAND Corporation discuss a program by Discovery Health, the largest health insurer in South Africa, that provides a rebate for 'healthy' food purchases (not you, Doritos - still love ya!) made by their customers. They say the program has over 260,000 households, so it is popular, but we still run into the same funding problem; you can't mandate and subsidize something and then have the free market bring the price down.  There is no incentive to 'sell quantity at lower cost' when the product is subsidized, the budget instead goes to lobbying places to make certain companies 'official', like we have seen with solar and wind-power subsidies in the United States. Or, since it is tax return season in the US, one of the seven 'official' companies you are allowed to use to file your taxes online, all of whom pay a substantial amount in campaign donations and lobbying costs to insure the tax code stays impossible for people to figure out without a program.

There are downsides to the South African approach besides cost; the foods are chosen by a committee composed of nutritionists, psychologists and doctors; no expertise regarding what people actually eat is represented, instead they have experts on what the latest media claim is about what you should eat, fuzzy conjecturing about why people eat and people who have some idea what might happen if people eat the wrong things. And yet if an actual expert were on the committee, the immediate claims would be 'industry' is controlling the results. 

The items without (added) sugar or (added) salt get a special label, further ghetto-izing poor people, but the RAND results of 170,000 households did find that the lower-priced, healthier foods were associated with a better self-reported diet. Fair enough, but paying people not to eat stupidly is no solution. Eventually, it is going to happen that people still choose to eat what they want and the same media companies touting the need to subsidize vegetables and raise the price on Doritos today are going to note how poorly the plan works when it will sell some pageviews. Then a politician is going to rail about the wasted money and, somewhere in a future book, I am going to ridicule the lack of benefit, like I did with Cash For Clunkers and its $25,000 cost to make no difference in the environment in Science Left Behind.

While proponents of the 'let's pay people to buy vegetables" idea will note that a 25% rebate increased healthy food by 10%, critics will note the health insurance is simply too darn expensive if they can afford to give back 25% of someone's food cost. There is a daisy-chain of nebulous 'health costs have an impact of over $100 billion' claims but there is no way to know how much a company would have spent on health costs, any more than a record company can really know how many downloads or CDs they would have sold if a kid in Russia didn't download it for free.

So let's forget about pretend savings being counted as real money. If we want to talk about real money, let's look at someone who has made food work - McDonald's. Clearly what would work better than subsidies for food is a 'McDonald's of healthy food'. Whole Foods is not it; their giant big box stores are placed in areas that match their desired income and political demographic, they are not competing on price and are instead selling the prestige of elite food.  People sometimes pay $15 dollar for a hamburger too but McDonald's is an outrageously successful company selling their food for a buck. 

Even McDonald's can't accomplish miracles. They have tried any number of healthy menu choices. People filling out marketing surveys and journalists who need something to write about lead analysts to believe 'this is the year for healthier food' every year. So it may not be that capitalism hasn't come up with the right solution, it may be that culturally we recognize we are in a Golden Age of plentiful food at affordable prices and we have to grow out of it.

Until then, behavior changes are proportional to price changes, but only slightly.  "When there is a large gap between people's actual eating behaviors and what nutritionists recommend, even a 25 percent price change closes just a small fraction of that gap,"  Roland Sturm, co-author and a senior economist at RAND said in their statement.

So we needn't get too crazy in buying the cost of organic vegetables, or any other vegetable, down. 

Citation: Ruopeng, An; Deepak, Patel; Darren, Segal; Roland, Sturm, 'Eating Better for Less: A National Discount Program for Healthy Food Purchases in South Africa', American Journal of Health Behavior, Volume 37, Number 1, January 2013 , pp. 56-61(6) DOI: 10.5993/AJHB.37.1.6