Friday, June 3, 2011

$2/day - The Westernisation of poverty

This post is a continuation of a previous post, which was about the kinds of food poor people have access to, and choose to eat, in different parts of the world. My observations, which are not novel at all, are that the poor in less industrialised countries (such as India and Bangladesh), while eating fewer calories, eat hardier foods like lentils, grains and rice; the poor here are no where close to being overweight or obese. Rather, the poor are thin, wiry and muscular, particularly if they are involved in manual labour. This is in contrast to what the poor in industrialised nations such as the US eat - fast food, junk food and soda. The poor in the US are thus obese and overweight. Michael Pollan, in his piece for The New York Times a few years ago, wrote,

"A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat."

However, my friend Sara, who has been living in Bangladesh for the past few years and working on media, health, and poverty issues, observed, "I have started to see a change however, even in just the past few years in Bangladesh, these high in salt foods, soft drinks, chips etc. are becoming more available especially to those living on $2 a day here. I imagine that we will see a shift, and even a double burden of disease to come not only communicable diseases that you mentioned, along with malnutrition, but also obesity, heart disease and long term health risks in Bangladesh and other eastern societies."

I personally have noticed in India that over time, McDonald's food has become cheaper compared to healthier food options, particularly in places where McDonald's is located, i.e., cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Mumbai, as you might know, is one of the priciest cities in the world. Yet when McDonald's first arrived in India in the early 2000's, prices (of say, a burger there) were definitely much higher than the average price of a sandwich off of the street. But as prices of vegetables and grains have gone up over time, street food has become more expensive, while I've noticed that prices at McDonald's have actually gone down. What worries me, particularly looking at presentations like the one here, is the aggression with which companies like McDonald's want to move into India. And with the little neo-classical economics that I know, I am sure they are out to outcompete, undersell and be the cheapest food option available in places like India and Bangladesh as time goes one. What hasn't changed over time, though, is the healthfulness of such food options.

How this might play out over time I'll leave up to you.

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