The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 20, 2011

Food Supply, Food Demand, And Food Habits

October 20, 2011

Food Day—October 24—brings to mind the tomatoes and peaches of this summer as well as the food treats of my childhood. I grew up in coastal Georgia, so for me that means shrimp and grits. But the day also reminds me of an important health policy concern—obesity, with its oversized impact on medical care costs. What you and I eat affects us and our health, and since the costs of poor health get spread across the economy by raising health insurance costs, my diet and yours are legitimate policy concerns.

What I like to eat has a lot to do with what I grew up eating but also with what’s for sale in the market. Had I grown up thinking of chicken nuggets and soda as dinner, of pizza as my school lunch, and of cereal with as much sugar as a candy bar as breakfast, what would my food memories and tastes be today? We all eat what we know. Until I was in high school, I loved the slightly tinny taste of canned green beans and rebuffed my mother’s occasional attempts to foist those green crunchy imitations off on me. Now, it’s the opposite, which means that change is possible.

On the other hand, suppose I craved tomatoes and peaches and fresh green beans but the nearest market with fresh fruits and vegetables was two bus rides away with prices figuratively that far from my weekly food budget? What would I buy?

Our food choices depend a lot on what we want to buy but also on what’s available at prices we can afford. And these two forces interact – demand and supply.

Recent studies show that restricting the number of new fast food restaurants in south Los Angeles didn’t improve residents’ diets. Similarly, the number of grocery stores in poor urban neighborhoods doesn’t correlate strongly with neighborhood obesity rates. These findings disappoint people who want to improve urban residents’ health by increasing the supply of healthy food options.

On the other side, targeting demand raises protests about the creeping nanny state. Greg Mills’ last blog talked about behavioral economics, which highlights the importance of contextual factors in everyday decisions. In a way, then, the “nanny” is trying to change the food context, to nudge people toward healthier choices by making them more visible in the market and less healthy choices less visible.

Influencing supply is an easier policy goal than influencing demand and can take less time. Yet, changing the options in the market (where the supplies are found and the decisions are made) is a key part of what it takes to change demand. Will offering fresh carrots at WalMart, apples instead of French fries at MacDonald’s, and baked instead of fried chicken in the school lunch line really change what people eat? Don’t expect a food revolution, but over time and in concert with other changes, such as restricting soda sales in elementary schools as manufacturers agreed in 2009 and reducing added salt in food as Mayor Bloomberg proposed for New York City in 2010, we could see life-saving and cost-saving change.

It took us a long time as a nation to develop our current eating habits. It will take time to get back to a healthier diet. Policy needs to address both supply and demand… and be patient.

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