I’ve long been interested in the issue of health disparities, meaning the widely-accepted fact that in general poor people are less healthy than non-poor people.  One important aspect of this issue is healthy eating.  The problem of obesity in this country is receiving increasing attention as a public health issue (dubbed the “next tobacco”).

In a recent article titled, “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?”, food writer Mark Bittman challenges the common wisdom that junk food is cheaper than healthy food.  He gives as his example the fact that feeding a family of 4 at McDonalds would cost $28, compared to buying a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk at the grocery store for about $14.  The “typical” McDonald’s meal he used in the example consisted of two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas.

However as many of the commenters noted, the assumption that this meal at McDonald’s is a typical meal for a poor family is not necessarily accurate.  As one noted,

 “Poor people don’t buy the high priced items on the menu. You can get 6 McDoubles, 2 McChickens and 4 small fries for 12 bucks from the dollar menu…28 dollars would buy you a veritable feast. Poor kids don’t get Happy Meals, or soda…the soda comes in a big bottle from Aldi.  . . 28 bucks at McDonald’s can buy you breakfast, lunch and dinner…if you have 28 bucks. Try starting at the bottom of the menu next time, and bring a coupon. :)”

 And here’s another response in the same vein, with a broader perspective:

“Sure, Bittman can assert that a roasted chicken with vegetables can feed a family of four, maybe, for one meal–provided that one has an oven for roasting, pans for cooking vegetables, oil, a family that has time to all eat dinner at the same time, etc., but with a McDonald’s meal, all you have to do is eat once for the day and it keeps you full. That’s what he seems to be missing: there are 2000 calories in a $3 or $4 McDonald’s value meal–you would be lucky if the whole chicken meal had 2000 calories in total (then split it 4 ways).”

This is a complex issue.  In addition to the cost, other culprits that have been cited include stressful lives, time constraints, fatigue, cultural factors, corn crop subsidies, lack of transportation, lack of knowledge, lack of access to healthy fresh foods, addiction to processed food, and ubiquitous advertising.

 What’s the answer(s)?  What kinds of programs are being tried in Minnesota and other parts of the country?  I’ll be writing more about this in subsequent blogs.  I welcome any thoughts you have on this important public health issue.