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Wagdy: The price of produce

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Imagine buying a pound of tomatoes for only 15 cents. I did just that yesterday here in Cairo. At a farmers’ market, I could have bargained down to just 8 cents per pound for tomatoes that taste much better, in my opinion, than the ones in the U.S. The average price of regular tomatoes in America was $1.28 per pound in 2011, according to the USDA. I learned over time that not only are many fruits and vegetables much cheaper here in Egypt, but they are often more affordable than processed and packaged foods. And I think that’s the way it should be for the sake of a healthier society.

I noticed that while a pound of green peppers normally costs around 30 cents, a big bag of chips costs around 50 cents and a box of cereal could easily cost at least $2. In poorer areas, it is difficult to even find processed foods or “junk food” to purchase; here, it is the relatively wealthier families who eat at McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut. Cheaper produce means that low-income families can have a relatively healthy diet and avoid many of the health problems that result from the overconsumption of nutrient-deficient processed foods.

The USDA promotes a balanced diet that consists of several fruit and vegetable servings per day. However, it is evident after a quick stroll through Safeway that fruits and vegetables are very expensive compared to chips, soda and Twinkies. Students on a budget often buy ramen noodles and other snacks not just because they are quick and easy to make, but also because they are cheap. Studies have shown that price is in fact a barrier to eating more fruits and vegetables for low-income families in the U.S. This tells us that low-income families buy fewer fruits and vegetables and usually have a less balanced diet, in part because of the cost of buying fresh produce.

The stark contrast between the cost of produce in Egypt and that in the U.S. suggests that maybe the U.S. should focus on making fruits and vegetables more affordable. There are countless campaigns aimed at getting children to eat healthy and to get their daily servings of fruits and vegetables, but until it makes financial sense for families to buy fruits and vegetables, they are unlikely to do so. And maybe after eating so much processed food day after day, people forget why they were buying it in the first place; they buy certain things out of habit. This conclusion is not new; it is quite obvious, to some economists at least, that the relatively high price of produce is related to lower levels of fruit and vegetable consumption among low-income families in America.

Perhaps it is likely that if produce had been as cheap as processed alternatives for the past few decades, more people would be eating their daily-recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. Maybe we wouldn’t have such a high rate of obesity and other conditions that result from unhealthy diets?

All of this suggests that, right now in the U.S., produce is too expensive and many people do not have a healthy diet as a result. My experience in Egypt suggests that this country does not have such a problem, and I wonder why. Why is it almost a luxury to eat fruits and vegetables in the U.S. whereas it is the norm in a less developed country? Shouldn’t the country that is theoretically more advanced have solved such a problem earlier on?

Perhaps we are not as advanced in some ways as we might think.

If you wish fruits and vegetables were cheaper too, email Fatima at fwagdy “at” stanford “dot” edu.