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The Cost of Healthy Living

The nation is facing what some public health experts deem an "obesity epidemic"–more and more Americans are gaining significant weight far above "recommended" norms– resulting also in increase of corresponding health difficulties such as diabetes and heart disease. At the same time we see more and more push for weight loss and health crazes: Atkins-mania is sweeping the nation (I think I saw low-carb WonderBread in the supermarket yesterday), Bally's offers its annual holiday membership savings, and fashion models and actors offer us wilder iconic standards to live up to, appearing more anorexic and anemic every year.

While experts and busybodies recommend all kinds of ways to trim down, going on special diets, joining exercise plans, even those with the best intentions of improving America's health seem to overlook a key factor at least as far as "eating right" goes: actual financial cost.

Healthy food, quite frankly, is expensive.

I should know. I graduated from my MA program right into the economic hellpit that was the year 2002–I worked a barely above-minimum-wage job for about a year until I found a "real" job that actually offered to compensate me properly for my level of experience and education. Budget was extremely tight, and I often found myself in a pickle at the grocery store. Fresh produce can be costly (and often for the same price you'll get "more" from frozen or canned), the sodium-rich prepared foods like Campbell's soup are cheaper than the higher quality versions, organic produce is even more expensive than regular produce, lean meat is more expensive than fatter cuts. Although tofu is cheap (perhaps the exception that proves the rule) most vegetarian or organic versions of various prepared foods are often at least a dollar to two dollars more than their less-healthy counterparts. A candy bar is $0.55 but a healthier (even if still high-calorie) PowerBar or the like is usually $1.19, and likewise soda is cheaper than juice–and sometimes cheaper than bottled water!!

Not to mention, being on a low-budget, one is tempted to subsist for longer periods of time on one thing–living for a week on ramen noodles or spaghetti–you can't afford to vary your diet too much. Even vitamin supplements are usually fairly pricey, so if all you're living on is noodles and sauce, you're probably becoming a bit vitamin deficient as well.

Eating out is no better–fast food is cheaper than any other form of restaurant offerings, which is why people who live "on-the-run" often get chubbier than others. And even at fast food restaurants that offer "healthy" alteratives like salads or grilled chicken sandwiches, the healthier offerings are usually a couple dollars more expensive than the standard-burger-and-fries fare. Moreover "value meals" entice you to tack on fatty fries and empty-carb sodas to your order, encouraging you to get more for your dollar. (Only Burger King offers a few value meals with water and a side salad, and that's only if you order their grilled chicken sandwiches–and that may have been a "limited-time-offer" only.) Restaurants that serve good vegetarian fare and palatable non-deep-fat-fried offerings also tend to be in a (sometimes significantly) higher price range.

Finally, in the exercise department, if you're poor, there's no way joining the gym is possible. And if you're poor, more likely you live in a neighborhood where you're not going to feel safe walking around outside a great deal.

Of course, the reason for many of the higher-priced healthy foods relates to the fact that the foods are of course actually higher-quality and are actually worth more. This is not ALWAYS the case, though–food merchants like Trader Joe's have proven it's possible to sell healthy, good quality food at a reasonable price (but you're very lucky if you happen to live near a Trader Joe's). And even if the cost of producing the food itself is the problem, you'd think some health-conscious organization or another would start trying to figure out how to make healthy, good quality food accessible to more people, pushing for government subsidization or private philanthropy support or some such.

Instead, you have the government of California taxing snack food, so indeed, poor people just can't afford to eat anything. (Yes, I realize this is hyperbole. But do you get my drift?) At least that government recognizes that something needs to be done.

Let's not forget of course that the economically-challenged also struggle with health on a higher level, being often without adequate health insurance–but that's a whole other can of worms. Overall, though, it's a mess, an issue of not only public health but also, perhaps, economic justice.

Contemporary American lifestyles–and moreover workstyles–of course don't really encourage good health behaviors. Again, this often deeply effects the underpaid laborers, although this spreads itself throughout the American population. People are working longer hours in increasingly sedentary positions; they are under greater stress from work and have less hometime. Therefore we take less time to cook real meals, relying on sodium and fat high prepared foods or greasy takeout as opposed to freshcooked food where we can control the content directly.

Likewise, we feel we have less time for exercise, and our rear-ends grow larger and larger as they sit on the couch (or desk chair) longer and longer. I read a recent study published in the Sun that reports that denizens of the suburbs are on the average at least five pounds heavier than city-dwellers, because suburban infrastructures are designed for the driver and not the pedestrian–sidewalks are small if they exist at all, and suburban shopping sprawl traffic dissuades folk from braving crossing busy intersections. Outside the city, it's also harder to find public transportation options that might encourage us to walk at least an extra block or two in the morning between work and the bus or subway stop.

We are all ultimately responsible for our own behaviors, and we are all ultimately expected to take care of ourselves. But–being social beings, after all–we need to consider how we can create environmental changes that in turn encourage healthier behaviors. Availability of affordable, healthy food should not be limited to the plus-cost aisle in the supermarket and upscale restaurants. Safe venues for walking and moving–and reasonable work hours, breaktimes, and task expectations need to be set so people feel like they actually have the time and opportunity to take care of themselves. Access to foods and environments that encourage Americas to improve and maintain their health should not be a privelege, but a right.


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All original materials © 2003 R. Pickard