So how can we help encourage Americans to put down the potato chips and pick up an apple? It turns out that the road to our stomachs may run through our wallets. One important new idea for changing what we eat revolves around changing food pricing and it's being pioneered in South Africa.
Food and agriculture policies have always manipulated prices. For decades, the U.S. government has subsidized efforts to increase agricultural output, no matter what it does to the quality of Americans' diets. The last five-year farm bill, for instance, included $300 billion in spending—but such spending has never been used as a tool to improve the population's nutrition.
For two decades, subsidies to farmers have helped make corn and soy increasingly cheaper than fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Food companies have built entire brands based on these cheaper commodities, which make up the raw material for a range of unhealthy processed foods and animal feed—all at a very real cost to the quality of the calories we consume.
We know that people respond to food-price taxes on fat, sugar or other unhealthy ingredients. The more that food based on such ingredients costs, the less we consume.
But proposals to tax unhealthy foods have been very contentious—and, at least in the U.S., not very successful. Such taxes don't do anything about what consumers may substitute for the newly taxed product. The impact on obesity could be minimal. And the mere mention of taxes on foodstuffs raises the specter of the “nanny state.”
So if Americans don't want to be forced to pay more for unhealthy foods, perhaps we should flip the logic on its head: Reduce the cost of healthy foods.
Would such a program work on a large scale—improving consumers' diets without bankrupting farmers? Fortunately, we have some helpful and encouraging insights from an unexpected place.
For the past four years, South Africa's largest health insurer has operated an innovative program called HealthyFood for its members. Participants receive a 25% rebate on healthy foods (as defined by international dietary guidelines) in 800 supermarkets nationwide. More than 300,000 middle-income South Africans are participating.