The Bad Food Tax
There’s an interesting op-ed article in today’s New York Times. The author, Mark Bittman, is proposing that we tax bad foods to the point where people will naturally select healthy food because they will be subsidized and cheap.
He has lots of statistics to back him up, and if you’re someone like me who reads this kind of thing widely, nothing surprised me. Of course Americans eat crappy food and it’s terrible for our bodies. We know that, it’s old news.
And we all want to know how to fix this- clearly education about nutrition isn’t doing the trick by itself. And I’m the first person who would love to use quantitative methods to solve a really important, big problem. Moreover, if we start to get rid of the evil farm subsidies that are currently creating a ridiculous market for corn sugar (a major reason we have some much soda on the shelves at such low prices to begin with) as well as screwing up the farmers in Africa and other places, that will be a good thing.
Unfortunately, I really think his tax plan stinks. The main problem is something he actually brings up and dismisses- namely:
Some advocates for the poor say taxes like these are unfair because low-income people pay a higher percentage of their income for food and would find it more difficult to buy soda or junk. But since poor people suffer disproportionately from the cost of high-quality, fresh foods, subsidizing those foods would be particularly beneficial to them.
Yes they would, if they could actually buy them in their neighborhood! If he has the idea that the reason poor people buy crappy food is because they go into their neighborhood grocery store with a museum-like display of fresh fruits and vegetables, bypass those foods (because they are too expensive) to go straight to the back and find junk, then I guess his plan would make sense. Unfortunately the truth is, there is no fresh fruit at most of the food stores in poor urban areas – they are typically small and carry long-lasting packaged goods and groceries, from canned evaporated milk to diapers, and don’t have extra space. Moreover, I don’t think a pure price comparison is going to convince them to carry fruit, because it’s not just the higher prices that makes bodegas carry no fruit- it’s also the convenience of packages that don’t go bad. In fact it’s an entirely different business model, which is unfortunately a pretty tough nut to crack, but is essential in this discussion.
In other words, the result of this tax plan would be, for poor people, even higher prices for crappy food, not access to fresh cheap food. Unless the plan has worked out a system for how to get fresh fruit into poor areas, it really is missing the very audience it wishes to target.