Many of my colleagues think that subsidizing fruits and vegetables would be a major step toward increasing vegetable consumption; I disagree. This turns me into a little bit of an outcast– I had the conversation last night with some first year MS students and today at lunch with my research buddies– but it strikes me as wrong on several levels for a number of different reasons. From the practical analysis to theoretical philosophy, I’ll explain why the subsidy approach is weak and would have little influence.
First, the pragmatic: it doesn’t really work. Economic models generally reveal that people are not responsive to minor long-term price decreases. 10, even 20 percent, decreases only lead to very small bumps in consumption. People are much more responsive to price increases. And, honestly, basic fruits and vegetables in most of the country aren’t incredibly expensive. Fancy things like mixed baby greens, fennel and red peppers can be pretty pricey, but your sweet potatoes, cabbage, turnips, carrots, and frozen spinach are generally reasonable.
Second, we are choosing foods literally designed to make all sorts of fun chemicals in our brains run wild with pleasure. Fat, salt, and sugar are mildly addictive. They taste good, and your brain is wired to seek them out. Choosing otherwise is literally fighting evolution. To make vegetables more appealing, we need to reduce the competition. Why is there a whole aisle of salty chips, and another of sweetened cereal? Most grocery stores only carry 3 or 4 types of apples, and maybe two kinds of cabbage if you are lucky. Let’s even the playing field by upping the produce options and decreasing those processed foods that people buy instead of whole foods.
Third, vegetables have got to get their “sexy” on. If people don’t know how to cook it, or when it’s ripe enough to taste good, they won’t enjoy them and vegetables will be a burden rather than a pleasure. Making them cheap, or even free, will not lead to increased consumption if people lack the skills or interest. Let’s make carrots and apples and parsnips what your average 14 year-old wants to eat. Currently, there’s too much media in direct opposition to it and the grassroots movement is shattered into many pieces. Let’s come together to create a country where produce markets are once again in every neighborhoods and that’s where people meet to gossip, not the local mall.
Finally, if you make some thing cheap, people tend to devalue it. Specialty crops like fruits and vegetables typically requite a lot of labor, inputs (irrigation systems, soil amendments), and are perishable. We should really pay our farmer workers decent wages and support efforts to grow produce sustainably. As it is, a shocking portion of our national food supply is wasted: spoilage, cosmetic damage, prices to low to pay for harvesting, etc. We don’t need to further devalue our produce; we need to build a culture that favors it without popping it up on a pedestle with a crazy high price tag.
We can build a food system that favors healthy choices that prevent chronic diseases. Will making vegetables cheaper be a major puzzle piece in the effort? Unlikely. Other keys are more integral to our surroundings and the way we think. Overcoming them is more important than making your bag of carrots cost $0.20 less than it currently does. However, there is the potential that reaching out with cheaper prices to certain populations could be helpful. Targeted programs can combine information and skills-building with access and affordable or free produce; low-cost vegetable stands or trucks can reach out to neighborhoods in need. In the end, though, it will be a shift in the national mindset that will prioritize nutrition and health.