The price elasticity of demand for food negatively impacts health

If you plan to adopt the USDA’s MyPlate food guide, it will cost the average U.S. consumer another $380 a year to eat healthy, according to Pablo Monsivais and team who researched the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and published their findings in Health Affairs this week.

The Dietary Guidelines are based on evidence that shows a nutrient-dense diet bolsters personal health. While such a diet may lower cholesterol and obesity risk, Monsivais et al. found that the diet can raise food costs.

Dr. Marion Nestle has said,  “People are hugely influenced by the price of food. If you don’t have any money and go into the store to buy some fresh fruits, you might decide that it’s cheaper to have a couple of fast food hamburgers.”

While the prices of processed foods and sodas have fallen by as much as 30% since 1980s, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased by 40%.

It’s ironic to note that this week, August 7-13, 2011, was named National Farmers Market Week (“Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food”) by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The good news is that since 2000, the number of farmers markets has more than doubled, from 2,863 markets in 2000 to 7,175 in 2011. Vilsack ushered in the week, asserting that, “farmers markets across the  country offer consumers affordable, convenient, and healthful products sold  directly from the farm in their freshest possible state, increasing consumer  access to fresh fruits and vegetables.” Here is Secretary Vilsack’s official proclamation.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  Is healthy eating the modus vivendi only for the richest health citizens in the U.S.? This week, I had an insightful, energizing conversation with Donna Thompson, the CEO of Access Community Health Network in Chicago. Thompson heads up the largest Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) program in the nation, with over 50 centers distributed throughout Chicagoland, in urban and suburban neighborhoods. We talked about the primary care infrastructure, and she told me how Access has invested in a nutritionist who is making great strides in empowering patients to make better food choices. “Even in the suburbs,” Thompson told me, “it can be cheaper to eat unhealthy food than healthy.” On the south side of Chicago, well-known for being a food desert, an Access center made a food pantry out of a storeroom, where the nutritionist meets with patients and community members who participate in classes about buying food locally. “We’ve seen phenomenal traction as we’ve co-located services under our umbrella: dental, pharmacy, primary care.”

Thompson knows healthy food = health.

Health plans, employers who sponsor health insurance, and providers have a role to play when it comes to nudging enrollees, workers, and patients toward making healthy food choices. This issue begs not for accountable care organizations, but for accountable care communities.

Note that Walgreens is expanding healthy food distribution through its pharmacy footprint, announcing its food program at a Walgreens store located in a San Francisco food desert. As accountable care organizations fully evolve, they should be mindful to include retail-facing components where people live and work, like food and the community pharmacy.


About Jane Sarasohn-Kahn

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn is a health economist, advisor and trend-weaver to organizations at the intersection of health, technology and people. Jane founded THINK-Health after spending a decade as a health care consultant in firms in the U.S. and Europe. Jane’s clients are all stakeholders in health, including technology, bio/life sciences, providers, plans, financial services, consumer products, public sector and not-for-profit organizations. Jane founded the Health Populi blog in 2007, covering health policy, technology, and consumers.

One Response to The price elasticity of demand for food negatively impacts health

  1. Nikko August 22, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    Healthy eating is not for the rich people only. I know because I am not that of a rich person but i have food choices. I eat healthy foods because I want it. I don’t eat burgers because I don’t want burgers. It’s okay for us to choose whatever food we like.

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