American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
January-March 2021

Is Healthy Food Too Expensive? Ask Those Who Know Best

Caitlin Daniel, Postdoctoral Researcher, Nutrition Policy Institute, University of California, Berkeley

Caitlin Daniel

Caitlin Daniel

Is healthy food too expensive? This question is central to debates about why low-income people have less healthy diets than their higher-earning counterparts. It is also surprisingly contested. 

Some scholars and advocates deem nourishing food too pricey. Highlighting that the cheapest calories come from refined grains, sugars, fats, and processed foods made from these ingredients, they conclude that poor people turn to insalubrious offerings to stretch their skimpy budgets. Others deem healthy eating affordable. Pointing to foods like sweet potatoes, oatmeal, peanut butter, eggs, and beans, they argue that wholesome, economical options cost no more than “junk.” From this perspective, the claim that carrots cost more than Twinkies is a “misconception,” if not “just plain wrong:” poor people don’t need more money; they need to use their dollars differently, swapping packaged items for whole ingredients; trading soda for tap water; and eating less meat. 

Claims about cost are about more than facts. They are about politics. Different assessments of affordability support divergent explanations of poor people’s eating habits. If healthy diets seem too expensive, we conclude that cash-strapped consumers have no choice but to eat in harmful ways. If wholesome offerings appear affordable, we infer that they eat unhealthily for other reasons such as limited information or personal preference. In turn, these different explanations give rise to opposing moral judgments. While some observers blame unhealthy eating durable economic inequality, others fault what they believe are poor people’s skewed values, like putting pleasure over health, and convenience over thrift. These judgments have broader political implications. By framing low-income people either as victims or architects of their circumstances, they shape whether we support providing resources or encouraging better behaviors—or restricting the scant resources people already have. 

Although food cost has sticky political implications, establishing whether healthy food is affordable should be a straightforward matter of dollars and cents. However, it’s complicated. There are multiple ways to measure food prices. Should it be per calorie? Per serving? By weight? The choice of metric matters, as different measures change how affordable food appears, supporting different explanations and judgments of food choice in turn. Nutrition experts don’t agree on which metric to use, and when advocating one measure over another, they often infer how low-income shoppers perceive price, asserting, for example, that a quart of strawberries and a bag of chips are equally affordable because each one costs $3.99. But absent from these debates are the perspectives of low-income people themselves. Without actually observing how this group views food cost, we can’t know if analysts’ hunches match consumers’ realities.

By talking to low-income parents and shadowing them at the grocery store, I found that these shoppers experience price in ways that researchers’ calculations don’t capture. As a result, healthy diets that seem affordable on paper can become pricey in practice. 

Factoring in Waste

When low-income parents think of food cost, they think of waste. Brittany wanted her six-year-old son Dustin to be a healthy and adventurous eater—healthier and more adventurous than she was. Self-conscious of her weight, Brittany discussed her body size and eating habits with a disarming mix of earnestness and depleted self-esteem. Despite her wishes for Dustin, Brittany could only do so much. Having escaped a violent relationship, she was living in a transitional apartment, leaning on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families until her situation stabilized and she could start working. Brittany struggled to afford food, skipping meals at the end of the month so Dustin could eat instead. 

When I asked how she managed high prices and low finances, she immediately focused on waste. “I get the things I know that my son will eat and like,” Brittany said. “I mean, I try to mix it up a little bit, like I’ll give him different fruits and stuff like that. But I try not to buy things that I don’t know if he’ll like, because it’s just, it’s a waste.”

Like Brittany, other low-income parents referenced their children’s preferences, waste, and financial loss in the same breath, revealing that they saw them as causally entwined: when children disliked a food, they rejected it, and when they rejected it, they eroded scarce resources. Food rejection is a natural part of children’s taste acquisition. Children approach new food with hesitancy, spurning it multiple times until they learn it is safe. For low-income parents, refused food posed a real financial threat. 

As Brittany admitted with trepidation, “I’m kinda scared to try new things … I’m just scared to waste the money.” Cash-strapped parents like her played it safe, falling back on what their children liked, often processed foods with added sugar, fat, and salt. Brittany wanted Dustin to eat more healthily. But when food scarcity was a monthly reality, she said, “knowing that he’ll eat it, that’s a big thing for me.”

Brittany revealed what low-income parents know to be an economic truth: they pay for what their children eat and for what they waste. If an apple costs 60 cents, and a child wastes half, consuming half an apple costs a full 60 cents. But most food-cost calculations reflect only the amount that is eaten: half an apple costs just 30 cents. As a result, these food-cost estimates understate the true cost of healthy eating. In most cases, the true cost was enough to push struggling parents toward less healthy but more reliably eaten food.  

The Cost of Variety

Eating healthily on a tight budget has another underappreciated cost: variety. A host of wholesome ingredients may be cheap. But affordable healthy food is just a slice of what nature has to offer. After eating the same thing over and over, we start to like it less, and we turn our sights to other options. Called sensory-specific satiety, this phenomenon is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation to humans’ need for a wide range of nutrients from a wide range of sources. Once we get enough of one food, our body tells us it’s time to move on to something else. Often, sensory-specific satiety is used to explain why we enjoy the twelfth bite of burger less than the first. But it also applies to monotonous diets, like those that rest on a small set of healthy, economical staples. When cheap, healthy food loses its appeal, wholesome affordable diets may not be so feasible after all. 

Tracey knew this well. Shortly before I met Tracey, her three children had started to rebel against their dinner plates. It didn’t matter that she cooked with love and sacrifice, standing over the stove through exhaustion and neuropathy-numbed feet. Her children were bored. Tracey explained, “We have the same probably 12 to 13, maybe 14 staple items that I make for dinners, but they’re just sick of it ‘cause my shopping list is pretty much the same. I have to stick to a budget.” Tracey used to cook other foods—vegetable lo mein, Chinese chicken wings, and crab Rangoon. She broke the boredom with a monthly splurge on take-out. She could afford to fill their plate with vegetables instead of offering just a few spoonfuls. But recent financial hits cut Tracey down to beans, rice, pasta, chicken quarters, frozen vegetables, tortillas, cheese, some fruit, and marked-down produce past its prime. But with this diet, her children’s patience was tried.

If anyone was going to eat healthily on a razor-thin budget, it was Tracey. Raised by an Italian mother who dried hand-rolled pasta over a broomstick, she knew how to cook. Tracey was resourceful, too, trawling the internet for healthy recipes and budgeting tips. Her Pinterest page had 219 recipes for hummus alone. But try as she might to placate her family’s shifting palates with yet another rendition of legumes, rice, and chicken thighs, her savvy had its limits. “They’ll actually not eat instead of [eating] something that they don’t like,” Tracey sighed. “I truly don’t know what to make them for dinner.” 

Tracey’s children would have happily eaten something else. Tracey joked wryly that they would have happily devoured fast food every night. But homemade Chinese food, roasted vegetables, and salad also figured among their requests. They weren’t in the budget. With more varied healthy food out of financial reach and monotonous healthy food out of the running, Tracey was left with the variety she could afford—Hot Pockets, packaged chicken nuggets, frozen burritos, and ramen noodles. She cringed with guilt. “I’m like, when did I become this? I used to do healthy food!” But for Tracey, the choice was not between junk and filling staples. It was between junk and children who simply might not eat. A narrow range of healthy foods did fit her budget. But when monotony shifts an eater’s tastes, what is affordable in theory might not be viable in practice. 

Packages of Food: More than I Need, More than I Can Afford 

A protein- and vegetable-rich peanut stew costs $1.06 per serving. That amounts to $6.38 per recipe. The total cost of ingredients—not just the amount used—would be even more. Families could manage these larger sums when government food assistance or a paycheck came in. But toward the end of the month, when they have mere dollars to spend, even nourishing staples can remain out of reach.

Rebecca loved healthy food. Raised by a “health nut” mother, she called herself a “big vegetable freak.” In an ideal world, Rebecca would have bought fresh produce, unprocessed meat, organic dairy, and fewer starches such as pasta and bread. She did what she could, restricting juice and insisting that her three children eat vegetables at dinner before getting their entrées. But Rebecca worried about running out of food all the time. She would serve pasta for dinner later in the month. “Unfortunately, that’s all I have left in my cupboard right now, until we get money to go shopping again.” During these crunch times, when both cabinets and budget were low, Rebecca turned to fast food. She explained, “You could go to Wendy’s and get a 99-cent cheeseburger, or you could go to the store and get [ingredients for] burgers for five bucks. So what are you going to do? You’re going to take your fast food option.”

Per serving, homemade cheeseburgers would have cost slightly less than their dollar-menu counterpart. But with just dollars on hand, Rebecca didn’t define affordability based on servings. She focused on total cost, weighing beef, buns, and cheese for $5 against three 99-cent burgers, one for each child. In contrast, many diet-cost estimates reflect the price of what is eaten, not of what must be purchased for it to be eaten in the first place. From this perspective, three slices of cheese would cost 45 cents, even though it takes $2.39 to buy the whole package. The discrepancy between per-unit price and out-of-pocket cost poses fewer problems when money is more forthcoming. But when consumers have just dollars to feed themselves, we overstate their ability to afford healthy food.

Understand Perspectives 

As these mothers show, low-income people view food cost in ways that outside observers might not expect. For them, price intertwines with practical issues such as waste, boredom, and cash on hand. These practical matters don’t just pile non-economic challenges onto a tenuous budget. Rather, they shift people’s very sense of what is affordable because they add unmeasured costs to the equation: the cost of food waste; variety; and entire bundles of ingredients, not just single servings. Because food-cost calculations largely omit these considerations, they risk understating how much money healthy eating truly takes—and because different assessments of affordability support different explanations of food choice, omitting these costs could lead to the wrong conclusion about why poor people eat what they eat, and about what policies would support eating more healthily. This conclusion is made possible not by imagining how cash-strapped shoppers view price, but by understanding people’s choices from their perspective—using the tools of sociology. To understand whether healthy food is too expensive, we need to ask those who know best.

Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.