Fast Food. Slow Killer.
“I want to eat healthier” you say, “but it’s so expensive!”. 83% of Americans say they want to eat healthier food. But when a kale salad is $12 and a fast-food burger is less than $5, the healthy option can often be hard to justify.
Sound familiar? What if I told you that the $12 salad was actually the cheaper option? Just like a mortgage for your house; what matters is not the down payment (what you pay today), but rather the ‘life-time’ value of the decision.
No other country in the world spends less on food, and more on healthcare, than Americans. At the same time as our food-spend has roughly halved, our healthcare spend has increased 5x. This is not a coincidence.
To realize that something is wrong with the $12 salad vs $5 burger comparison, you need only think for a moment about where each of these meals came from and what went into producing them.
- The kale salad was made from ingredients that were dug out of the ground, and if you bought the ingredients from a farmer’s market here in Manhattan, those ingredients probably travelled 50-200 miles - perhaps from somewhere in New Jersey or the Hudson Valley.
- The burger on the other hand is a collection of ingredients that has travelled thousands of miles. A lot of the 'fresh' produce we consume in the North-East comes from Mexico and California. The 1/4lb beef patty in the burger started a cow. It took 1 and 3/4 lb of grain (mostly corn) and 460 gallons (1,750 liters) of water to produce the 1/4lb beef patty in the burger (USGS). The corn was grown on a monoculture farm, which was fed synthetic fertilizers derived from the petrochemical industry to replenish the soil. This food chain may well have started thousands of feet below the surface out in the middle of the ocean, where it was extracted by a deepwater oil rig.
How is it that something as simple as a locally sourced kale salad is so much more expensive than the burger? If you’re starting to think that this isn't making a lot of sense you're not alone.
How Cheap Is Too Cheap?
Back in the 1950’s, Americans were spending roughly 20% of their disposable income on food. Today we spend less than 10%. Over the course of 2 generations, the amount we spend on food has more than halved. Not only do Americans currently have the cheapest food in history, but we also spend less of our disposable income on food than any other country in the world (Note: smart phone users may need to put your phone on its side to see the below graph).
Food Expenditure as % Disposable Income
There are some very logical reasons why food has become cheaper; think Economies of Scale achieved by large corporations to whom we have outsourced our food supply, as well as $20bn per annum in US Farm Bill subsidies. There are also some very bad reasons why food has become cheap. Our focus here is not so much on why or how food got so cheap, but rather the implications of this cheap food for you - the consumer.
Over the same time period (1950's to today) that our food expenditure more than halved, US spending on Healthcare increased roughly 5x; from 3.5% to 17.5% today (as a % of disposable income). Could it be that our food budget hasn't actually reduced at all, but rather we're just giving our money to the doctor instead of the farmer? Has the food industry become a complicated financial engineering instrument, which allows us to pay only a small deposit for our food today, and defer the rest of the costs into the future?
Food and Healthcare spend as % Disposable Income
The health related consequences of our food choices are shocking. A record 36% of Americans are now considered obese, and another 33% are considered overweight. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that excess weight and obesity costs US$2 trillion per annum globally. That's about the same as the cost of smoking and armed conflict. It's not just our weight that is a problem either; we are also dealing with startling increases in diet related diseases such as diabetes, antibiotic resistance, cancer and allergies.
Diet-related disease is certainly not a US-specific issue, however the problem does appear to be much worse in the US than other places. Americans spend 2-3x more per capita on Healthcare than most other developed countries such as Australia, Canada, Japan, France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Denmark, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Despite spending a whopping $8,362 per capita or 17.1% of GDP on Healthcare, Americans actually live shorter lives than all of the aforementioned countries.
The Healthcare Industry has a peculiar relationship with the Food industry. As far as the Healthcare Industry is concerned, you aren't a very profitable customer if you are fit and healthy. Equally, you are of no value as a customer if you are dead. The Healthcare Industry finds its most profitable customers somewhere in the middle of this range. The sweet (ahem, most lucrative) spot is for you to be alive, but on the verge of death. So what interest does the Healthcare industry have in keeping us healthy? Why do we have a medical system that trains doctors in how to respond to diet-related diseases, but not how to prevent these diseases through proper diet and nutrition?
There is a fairly clear relationship between the quality of the food we eat (or at least the amount we spend on it) and the amount we spend on Healthcare. Simply put; the less we spend on food the more we spend on Healthcare.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT THIS?
Do you buy food? Do you eat? Great. Then that means you vote, and you have the power to make change. Most of us 'vote' on food at least 3 times a day in fact, or 21 times a week. The way we currently allocate our food budget is frankly a little odd, when you think about it... For every $1 that Americans spend on food, only 10.4 cents goes to farm production, but at the same time we spend roughly $1.80 on Healthcare.
Expenditure on Farm Production and Healthcare relative to $1 Food Spend
Here are some ideas that might help you give more of your food budget to the people that produce food, and less to the Healthcare industry:
- Cook more. If you don't know how, then sign up for a meal-kit delivery service like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh while you're learning the ropes. Enroll in cooking classes - perhaps on the weekend, or while you're on vacation. Make a date-night out of it. There are millions, if not billions, of free recipes available on the internet too.
- Avoid processed foods. Real food doesn't have ingredients, real food is ingredients. Any 'food' product carrying a label claiming to be a health food is probably not that healthy. The healthiest foods you can possibly eat don't have labels at all.
- Eat local. Shop at a farmer's market, and support businesses that use local ingredients. Eating local food means that your food is likely to be fresher, tastier, and higher in nutritional content. Let us know if you'd like a tour of the Union Square market here in NY - I'm there 2-3 times a week. The number of farmers markets in the US has more than doubled in the past decade.
- Restaurant selection. Choose restaurants or suppliers that put an emphasis on ingredients. Here in NYC we are big fans of places like Dig-Inn and Sweetgreen.
- Grow your own food. Humans started farming around 10,000 years ago. It ain't rocket science. Hopefully if you've read this far you realize that this is exactly what Ernt is all about. We're fixing food, from the ground up. We're putting the power to grow food back in your hands. You can follow us on Social Media via the links below, or click here to join our mailing list.