The $1.50-a-Day Answer to Unhealthy Diets

A new study of the cost of food shows that the difference between unhealthy and healthy is slim.

(Photo: Jullian Ward/Getty Images)

Dec 9, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

“For the price of a cup of coffee” is a unit of monetary measure favored by marketers pushing cheap things. If, for the price of a cup of coffee, something bought and consumed with little thought daily—if not many times per day—can make a difference in the life of an African orphan, support the arts, or contribute to a political cause, then how can you not do it?

Here’s the latest thing that can be fixed by throwing a cup of coffee’s worth of money at it every day: Americans' terrible diets. According to a Harvard analysis of 27 studies from 10 developed countries on the cost of food as it relates to healthfulness, the difference between a healthy diet and an unhealthy diet is just $1.50 a day.

So what does a price-of-a-cup-of-coffee-like fix for the vast problem of unhealthy eating in the United States look like writ large? Spending $1.50 more on food per day amounts to about $550 per year. If you believe, as does one of the study’s authors, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, that the relatively small amounts "should really be an incentive for policymakers” to find a way to supply poor families with assistance that can pay for a healthy diet, as he told NPR, the gap between unhealthy and healthy is a far greater $25.7 billion. That’s $1.25 per day annually for each of the 47 million Americans currently enrolled in the food stamp program.

What can that kind of federal money buy you? For one, a Manhattan Project, which cost the government $26 billion, in 2013 dollars, over the course of four years—including salaries for 130,000 employees in addition to the cost of developing the bomb. Or, more recently, the government spent $26 billion on its Emergency Unemployment Compensation program in 2013.

In other words, probably not the kind of money the government is going to throw around when trying to decide between cutting $4 billion or $39 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Adding $1.50 to the daily average benefit of $4.45 received in 2013 would require boosting the program by nearly as much as the House wants to cut it.

But let’s consider the alternatives, in cup-of-coffee terms. Obesity costs could amount to as much as $147 billion per year, according to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control in 2009. Furthermore, the CDC calculates that the annual economic impact of diabetes was $174 billion in 2007. That’s about 268,500,000 and 318,000,000 cups of coffee per day, respectively. Both of these numbers will continue to rise year over year as health care costs balloon.

How can we not afford to take the approach that equates to buying just one cup of coffee a day for each of the 47 million Americans on SNAP?