Nanny State

Mark Bittman Corrects Fact-Resistant Food Policy Analysts…Such As Mark Bittman

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Thanks to Katherine Mangu-Ward's recent Washington Post op-ed piece about the folly of government efforts to reshape our diets, I noticed a strikingly oblivious Mark Bittman column from last month. "Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?" the headline asks. The short answer: No, it isn't. The longer version:

The "fact" that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, "when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli…" or "it's more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald's than to cook a healthy meal for them at home."

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn't cheaper to eat highly processed food.

Furthermore, Bittman explains, a healthy diet is easily affordable, especially if we are talking about "supermarket ingredients, not the pricier organic or local food that many people would consider ideal." I'd thank Bittman for doing a public service by refuting the persistent myth that people eschew healthy food because it's so expensive, except that he himself was until quite recently reinforcing that very myth—a fact he does not find space to acknowledge in his 1,700-word column. Two months before he set the record straight concerning the relative price of junk food, Bittman was positively giddy about obesity maven Kelly Brownell's proposal to discourage consumption of politically incorrect foods through taxes and encourage the consumption of politically correct foods through subsidies, calling the challenge of implementing this elaborate price control scheme "fun" and "inspiring." As I noted at the time, Bittman overlooked not only the moral and practical issues raised by Brownell's vision but the seemingly relevant fact that price is not the reason people prefer potato chips to collard greens. He was so undeterred by readily observable facts that he even recommended subsidies for "dried legumes," one of the cheapest foods on the planet, with the aim of "making healthy food more affordable." Since then, Bittman seems to have visited a grocery store, but in his more recent column he never admits that he was "just plain wrong" in July.

Such a concession might have instilled some well-deserved humility in Bittman, whose food column I enjoyed but whose work as a public policy commentator is remarkably shallow and ill-informed. To show that a government campaign to change the nation's "food environment" can be successful, for instance, he cites "the 1998 tobacco settlement," which "limited cigarette marketing and forced manufacturers to finance anti-smoking campaigns—a negotiated change that led to an environmental one that in turn led to a cultural one, after which kids said to their parents, 'I wish you didn't smoke.' " For anyone familiar with the history of the anti-smoking movement—or anyone who grew up in the 1970s, when I was nagging my father about his cigars, hiding ashtrays, and posting "Thank You for Not Smoking" signs around the house (yeah, I know)—the idea that it all began with the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement is laughable.

Admitting his past errors might also have encouraged Bittman to think twice before enthusiastically citing former FDA chief David Kessler's insights into eating, which boil down to the observation that restaurateurs and food manufacturers deliberately design their products to taste good. Bittman might also have paused to reflect on the principle he implicitly endorses when he declares that "advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation [aimed at encouraging consumption] of addictive substances"—by which he seems to mean that speech should be censored if it might persuade people to make unhealthy choices. For that matter, having seen how utterly wrong he was in arguing that low prices make junk food attractive, he might have considered whether there is any evidence that advertising does. Maybe he is saving that for his next column, where he can correct another "reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight."

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  1. It is not more expensive to buy healthy food. It is just harder. You have to cook it to make it taste good. Americans are not fat because they are poor. They are fat because they are lazy.

    1. There you have it, laziness, the number one factor for obesity.

  2. Food columnists are as bad as sports writers when it comes to discussing public policy.

    1. Can’t wait to see the Mike Lupica vs. Ken Olberman showdown of genius minds.

    2. yeah,sports writers deserver their own level in Hell,if there is one.Maybe playing the sports they wet dream of playing 24 hours a day.

    3. God, I wish that food writers, musicians, actors, etc. would stick to what they are good at and stop trying to suggest public policy. Bittman’s food writing is great. Why does he think we want to know what he thinks about public health policy?

      1. Of course everyone who suggests public policy should be a Professional Public Policy Suggester and licensed by the State.
        There should be a minimum education requirement of a PhD in Public Policy Studies and an internship of at least 20 years of posting on Public Policy websites.

  3. I like to cook and use fresh food.Some are lazy ,but,some people like fast and junk food,some like beer ,wine ect,some like pot or other drugs.In a free society that’s there business.Oh,I like to cook with wine or beer,sometimes I put it in the food.

    1. Please learn to type. Your comments are blinding.

      1. I’m cooking right now,without the food,and please go to hell,.Not everyone is as perfect as you.I don’t tell people how to eat or type.

        1. Whoever’s doing this one, so far, so good. I lol’d.

  4. When I have questions about health and nutrition, I ask a guy with a fourteen-pound slab of fat on his neck.

    1. You might be onto something there, cent sign. I can picture Bittman as a former (c’mon, I’m being kind) fattie who projects his own self-hatred. And every once in a while he’ll scarf a whole box of Oreos and end up sobbing in his shame corner that if only there were a junk food tax, he’d never have to feel this way again.

      1. Didn’t Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn have a movie about that?

  5. This doesn’t account for the cost of labor. Add that in and spending 5 minutes ordering a fast food meal is somewhat cheaper than spending the time to cook.

    Explaining a mass phenomenon with personal behavior choices doesn’t cut it. If it’s simply the case that Americans are lazier (and stupid to the point of spending more than they have to for food!) than other people then surely we must explain that phenomenon as well.

    1. If you feed the troll, I’m not getting you anything for Christmas.

      1. You just fed it, Saint Nick. Coal for you.

        1. Warning someone not to drive off a cliff is not the same as driving off a cliff, tuff gai. Seattle has rotted your already mediocre mind.

          1. What day is it?

            1. Monday, shh, shh… go back to sleep, big guy…

      2. People who use the word troll are universally fat, disgusting gamer pigs. In my mind. Just so you know.

        1. You’ll notice that Tony used “the T word” too so he must be describing himself.

    2. It’s not stupid to pay more than you have to for food IF YOU PREFER THE FOOD YOU CHOOSE.

      This doesn’t account for the cost of labor.

      Your personal labor only has a $ opportunity cost to you if you would have used that labor time for additional paid work.

      If you’re just going to sit around being a lard ass anyway you’re not incurring a labor cost, you’re expending your leisure time. You’re unwilling to spend leisure time on cooking and would rather retain that leisure time by spending money at McDonald’s.

      And if the sentence “I am unwilling to get off my ass during my leisure time even if it’s expensive for me and harmful as well” applies to you, this is another way of saying “I am lazy.”

      Also, not ALL Americans are lazy. Just the fat ones. That’s a lot of people, true. But it’s not all of them. If we’re NOT talking about personal choices, why am I not fat? I watch the same commercials the fat people do.

    3. Explaining a mass phenomenon with personal behavior choices doesn’t cut it.

      At what point does more than one person doing the same thing mean that “choice” cannot be involved? Show your work.

    4. What phenomenon??? It’s not laziness or stupidity, it’s called convenience and, yes, that is a personal behavior choice. I could go home and with some effort in about an hour have a nice healthy meal or I can grab something on the way home and be finished eating in 15 minutes. People don’t stop at a convenience store for a loaf of bread because it’s cheaper than the grocery store, they do it because they’re willing to pay more for the convenience.

  6. I’m glad this ‘healthy food is expensive’ meme seems to finally be dying. Whenever I’m in the vicinity of a Target, I delight at their awesome prices on meat (you never see 99% lean ground turkey at my shmancy urban grocery store, but the Target out in the ghetto ‘burbs has it and it’s cheap), eggs, what limited but perfectly fresh produce they stock, etc. And if you’re really poor and can’t afford high-quality proteins like meat and eggs, millions of people survive on rice and beans.

    It is time people like Bittman cut out the concern trolling and started admitting they just think poor and fat people are gross.

    1. Let’s see; I assume a Big Mac meal is at least $5. I can take some ground beef, a bun, and some cheddar and make the same thing but better for far less than that, and throw in some vegetables as well.

      People who say you can’t cook cheaply are fucking morons.

      1. They are just lazy. Cooking takes work. And no one wants to do that. And it takes a bit of effort to learn how to do it well. I can make a much better hamburger at home than almost any restaurant. But restaurant ones are not bad. And damn it is nice to have someone else do it for me.

        1. Some cooking takes work, but if you buy a crock pot/slow cooker, and just throw a bunch of crap in it in the morning before going to work, by the time you get home, dinner is ready. So even the laziest could conceivably be eating healthier with little effort.

          1. In my time working with TANF and food stamp clients I found that buying and preparing food was just another of life’s basic skills they hadn’t learned. On home visits it was rare to find a family that bought rice, beans or other cheap, dry foods in bulk or had hardy, long lasting veggies and fruit. Frozen dinners and fast food wrappers were abundant. Explaining the difference in nutrition and that you could actually get more food if you bought it fresh usually got blank stares.

            1. This is a great point – there is a food bank in Iowa City that tried to give away local produce, but they found that none of the patrons wanted it. After some questions, the food bank learned that people simply didn’t know what the fuck to do with radishes and whatnot, so now they have cooking classes a few nights a week.

              Supposedly, they are now giving away more of the healthy stuff as the po’ folks learn to cook with it.

              1. Well, a quick google search let me know that is not simply an Iowa City, but seems to be a fairly common trend in Food Banking…

                The more you know

          2. Agreed, cooking your own healthy food does not take more time than getting fast food as long as you 1) plan ahead and 2) cook in large amounts so you have enough to keep/freeze for several meals. I spend about and hour or an hour and a half once a week chopping vegetables, cooking steaks and chicken breasts and brown rice, etc. And as you said the crock pot is easy, esp. if you get a large one and make several meals at a time. Bonus with the crock pot is that you can use cheaper, tougher cuts of meat and after cooking all day they are tender and yummy.

        2. “And damn it is nice to have someone else do it for me.”

          It won’t be if Our Heros at Zucchini Park have their way!

          http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2…..ys_ca.html

      2. Well, what does the current food mafia want us to believe about what’s healthy? Is red meat still on the no-no list? That delicious, affordable homemade burger might be what is Making America Fat this week.

        1. Use 99% fat free turkey and make yourself a turkey burger. It’ll be a little dry, but it should shut the food police right the fuck up.

          1. The idea that “fat free” is healthy way to eat is one of the most pernicious myths in our culture. That bun is doing a fuckton more to make you a fat slob that dies at 60 than the fat in the meat.

        2. Grass-fed beef is not only OK but totally awesome and trendy in their minds. It’s good to drop $10 on a burder at one of the trendy burger joints that fries its locally-grown potatoes in duck fat. Such food is only forbidden when cheap, meaning produced at induistrial farms and sold my corporations. What Bittman is talking about here is spiritual salvation through the communion of slow food. It has nothing to do with health.

        3. Actually the bun is far worse for you than the burger. And grass-fed beef is better no matter what hipsters say – nutritionally and flavor-wise.

          1. ^This. There is NO, I repeat, NO reason to eat ground turkey.

          2. Flavor-wise, yes, you can tell the difference, but nutritionally there is no difference.

            1. Unless you are looking for omega-3 from your beef.

      3. —“I can take some ground beef, a bun, and some cheddar and make the same thing but better for far less than that, and throw in some vegetables as well.”—

        But can you but just one hamburger patty, one bun, one or two slices of onion, cheese and tomato, and one small packet of your condiment of choice for less than $5?

        If I want one or two hamburgers, I’ll buy that for the convinience. If I am having a BBQ, then it is certainly cheaper and better tasting to make larger quantities on your own.

  7. I just ate chips.

    1. I just ate half a sleeve of E.L. Fudge DoubleStuffed cookies. I feel kind of gross, but also pretty happy.

      Quitting smoking is really really hard.

  8. Has anyone yet mentioned how much Biteman looks like that fast-food junky Thomas Aquinas?

    http://asksistermarymartha.blo…..at-as.html

  9. There is no inconsistency here. At the margin, increasing the price of unhealthy food and decreasing the price of healthy food will cause some consumers to shift to healthier foods. That’s true whether or not healthier foods are currently cheaper than unhealthier foods. The simple fact that unhealthy fast food is not the cheapest food on the market is pretty weak evidence that the demand is inelastic. I read Bittman’s earlier article and it didn’t state anywhere that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food.

    I’m not saying that taxing fast food is a good idea. I’m just saying that this attack on Bittman is economically unsound.

  10. Double plus not fair comrade Sullum! You should praise citizen Bittman for the fluidity of his thoughts, and not bothering to consider if what he says today has any coherence with what he said yesterday. This good citizen is improving his ability to duckspeak and soon may not be able to make any point at all!

  11. I have a great recipe for Poisson a la Japonaise.
    1. Catch a fish.
    2. Eat it.

  12. eat.eat.eat.eat.eat.eat.eat…….

  13. There’s a factor that that the people arguing over cooking vs fast food should consider; some people can’t cook. I don’t mean that they lack a kitchen (although that happens), but they have an amazing ability to carefully follow a recipe that other people have no trouble with, and produce an inedible mess. They aren’t faking. They don’t just need some home ec. lessons. They simply CAN’T cook.

  14. There is no inconsistency here. At the margin, increasing the price of unhealthy food and decreasing the price of healthy food will cause some consumers to shift to healthier foods. That’s true whether or not healthier foods are currently cheaper than unhealthier foods. The simple fact that unhealthy fast food is not the cheapest food on the market is pretty weak evidence that the demand is inelastic. I read Bittman’s earlier article and it didn’t state anywhere that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food.

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