Food Shopping: Economics Favor Soda Over Milk

I'm sure the beverage company was not pleased when a study of rampant childhood tooth decay in Appalachia called the problem "Mountain Dew Mouth." Since then there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism of sugary soft drinks with repeated links to childhood obesity.

New York Mayor Michael "Nanny" Bloomberg proposes to limit the size of your soft drink, a direct assault on your right to bear a Big Gulp.

If you go to grocery stores you see the mothers with little children in tow with a cart full of soda. It's easy to jump on the idea of irresponsible parenting. But let's look at some arithmetic. You have to do that if you are a low-income single mother receiving food stamps.

Check your local supermarket. You can get 10 two-liter bottles of generic Mountain Dew for $10. That's 20 liters of soda for $10. That's just over five gallons. Go on down the aisle. Five gallons of generic milk is $20.

So the kids like the soda, you come in from a hard day at work and serve them some with dinner, and it costs you half what milk would cost. And if they've been drinking soda all their life, they will likely cry and complain about having to drink milk.

Too often, parents take the easy way out.

The same thing is true with food. Working parents often turn to fast food or to prepared food from the supermarket. Is there such a thing as a pizza that's good for you? I don't know. But you can buy one frozen pizza with spinach and cheese on it that's really good for $7. You can get two classic greasy pepperoni pizzas for $5.

Buy some lean hamburger ($6.57), no fat added, to feed a mother and three children. A small package of buns ($2.59). Cheap generic frozen French fries ($2.99). Then go home and cook. Total cost: $12.15. And that's with nothing to drink.

Stop by McDonald's and get four McDouble cheeseburgers off the dollar menu, total $4, and four small fries at $1.19 each, or $4.75. Total cost is $8.75.

And all you do is put the food on the table.

Chances are, if you live in a poor neighborhood, there is a McDonald's on your way home. A good supermarket? Maybe not.

We often worry about the chasm between the better educated, with better paying jobs, and the less educated, without good prospects, access to technology, or higher pay. But there is also a chasm between the availability of good nutritious food. Some of us have access to really good supermarkets, even upscale ones that provide organic produce and free-range eggs. We can buy farm-to-table from farmer's markets, on Market Square and other places.

Others are not so lucky.

I'm just old enough to remember the Tennessee Valley coming out of the Great Depression and World War II. I remember Home Demonstration Agents in the 1950s. The women in the neighborhood would gather, at the school or at a party at someone's house, and they would take classes on good nutrition and how to preserve food—better canning techniques, how to avoid salmonella or e coli. The newest thing was preparing food for the freezer.

Nowadays I guess it would be presumptuous to send government teachers around to community centers and educate young mothers on nutrition and good cooking techniques. When would working mothers have time to attend?

Food stamps replaced "commodities," which was food delivered to communities. It consisted of things like dried beans, huge blocks of cheese, and large cans of peanut butter. There are those who argue that food stamps ought to be restricted to such basic commodities now, preventing the purchase of processed food, candy, and sugary sodas. But I'm reluctant to punish poor people; it smacks too much of Nanny Bloomberg.

But if the government is getting into the health-care business and we are going to be paying for hip replacements and knee replacements for the obese next generation, the temptation is there to do something drastic.

Let's do it with education. Not coercion.