Proximity to Healthy Foods Doesn’t Matter; Price Does

Most people don’t buy food from the stores that are nearest to them says a new study. And where they do shop, their choice of foods tends to be driven by price. As Sarah Kliff summarizes:

The patrons of the lower-priced grocery store (like Safeway) tended to have a higher rate of obesity than those who shopped at the higher-priced grocery stores in the study (think Whole Foods). That relationship held true after adjusting for variables like education and income. It makes Drewnowski think that “choice of primary food source was driven by price.”

Comments (18)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Alex says:

    Of course. I can buy more pizza at Safeway than I can apples at Whole Foods. If I don’t have a lot of money then I’m going for the cheaper options.

  2. brian says:

    When and if there is a major global food crisis in the future, as some researchers predict, the entire multi-issue/debate over the obesity epidemic/healthy food is going to be turned upside down.

    Am I wrong?

  3. Ambrose Lee says:

    A huge factor for me personally is simply that healthy foods ware far too perishable. Unless you actively plan your eating habits for the forseeable future, you inevitably throw out tons of healthy food that never got eaten.

  4. Lizzie says:

    Of course, prices are not the only driving force here. If some people are willing to go out of their way to buy more expensive food from Whole Foods rather than SafeWay, they are prioritizing the health value of what they eat, not merely the expense of the food.

  5. Linda Gorman says:

    The foods at Whole Foods are “healthier” than at Safeway? Please cite your evidence that that is in fact the case.

  6. Alexis says:

    @Linda: If my understanding is correct, it’s not that the foods at Whole Foods are “healthier” necessarily, but that there are more healthy options available, many of which are more expensive than their less healthy counterparts. With that idea in mind, prices may only be part of the driving factor in deciding where to shop and availability of particular items may be more of a deciding factor.

  7. Devon Herrick says:

    For years I shopped at my local Kroger grocery store. I was keenly aware that many of the people there were overweight, obese or even morbidly obese.

    Now I shop at Sprouts, Central Market and Whole Foods. The cost of food is far higher at these high-end grocers than either Kroger or Albertons. The patrons tend to look far healthier and the obesity rate is very low at these firms.

    It makes Drewnowski think that “choice of primary food source was driven by price.”

    Price is always a consideration. But my experience with the cost of food at Sprouts, Central Market and Whole Foods is that most of the people there place a priority of quality over quantity.

    The average cost per calorie at Krogers is probably a fraction of what it would be at Whole Foods. But people shop at Whole Foods because they want high quality, healthy food — not cheap calories.

    Just as people who prefer quantity (over quality) often dine at buffet restaurants, people who prefer cheap, calorie-dense groceries probably avoid Central Market, Sprouts and Whole Foods.

  8. Devon Herrick says:

    Ambrose Lee has a point. Organic food is rather expensive and 20% of food purchases are thrown out, on average.

    I tend to stop by either Whole Foods, Sprouts or Central Market at least three or four times a week on my way home from work. Part of the reason I shop so often is so I don’t have to plan too far ahead; or waste too much food… Oh, and if I purchased the entire week’s worth of groceries at one time (at Whole Foods, Sprouts or Central Market), I’d probably break down and cry when the charge at the cash register topped $250 to feed two skinny people for a week.

  9. Linda Gorman says:

    Great. We’ve now arrived at the point in the food fight where more expensive equals “healthier.”

    I don’t think that the calories in spinach, carrots, or potatoes at Whole Foods are any healthier than at Kroger, but that’s probably because I’m unconvinced by most of the claims for organic foods. Both chains carry an adequate array of vegetables, dairy products, meats, grains, fruits, and pulses for creating lots and lots of varied meals.

    And I’m unconvinced that frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are not reasonable substitutes for fresh, at least with respect to nutrition. Taste is another story.

    People who shop at Whole Foods obviously want high quality, healthy food, and Whole Foods offers a large variety of beautifully presented, tasty, merchandise.

    However, millions of people know that they can also get high quality, healthy, food at regular grocery stores for much, much less.

    One of the great things about the United States, especially for poor people, is that the food one needs to live is not expensive and is of relatively high quality. Too bad a bunch of central planners are trying to change that.

  10. david says:

    Perhaps you are all now understanding why it is that obesity affects the poor more than it affects the rich?

    Could it be that healthy food is too expensive for poor people, who also cannot afford to waste 20% of their food, and do not really have much of a choice regarding their obesity?

    @Ambrose, if that is indeed the case, would this meet your definition of what is outside the control of those it affects? Are we not essentially killing people by ignoring it on the grounds that eating too much is solely the fault of the obese?

    @Brian, this is why I said America’s obesity epidemic is a good problem to have, while it is still a problem. However, your “when and if” is misleading. There is already a global food crisis. 1 billion people live on what $1.25 per day. And that isn’t what $1.25 could buy you in their poorer countries; that is what $1.25 could buy you in America, which is little more than a single McDouble (about 700 calories and nowhere near the variety of nutrients needed). If your definition of a global food crisis is one that requires Americans to shape up, then hubris has gotten the best of you.

  11. Eric says:

    @Linda, I beg you to compare the price of Kroger with those of fast food restaurants.

    Also, groceries require cooking, which costs time and money, the opportunity costs of which are higher for the poor.

    Finally, I noticed you did not include meat anywhere in your post, but protein is essential to health and cooked meat is one of the healthiest foods. That is one of the reasons the use of fire aided our evolution and development so much. Are you going to argue that meat is not expensive?

  12. Linda Gorman says:


    Meat is mentioned in the post. Beans, chicken, and eggs are all sources of relatively inexpensive protein and yes, I’d argue that a pound of chicken for $1.00 is not expensive. Ditto for 18 eggs.

    Why would I compare price of Kroger groceries with the price of fast food? We were talking about grocery stores. That said, I agree that a McDouble for $1.00 is a great deal.

    Please explain why the opportunity cost of food made at home is higher for the poor. I don’t understand.

  13. Eric says:

    My apology for missing the word meat; maybe I need to eat more carrots?

    You should compare costs at grocery stores to costs of fast food because those are the food options available to the poor. There’s no point to say Kroger is as good a buy as Whole Foods if poor people are shopping at Taco Bell.

    Opportunity costs are naturally higher as income is lower, but more specifically: if someone makes $8/hr, they have to work, say, 12 hours per day to provide a subsistence living for their family (these numbers are arbitrary). With only 4 hours left in the waking day, time spent cooking is very costly, especially given that groceries are more nominally expensive than fast food or other, faster, less healthy alternatives. Someone who makes $16/hr (by no means wealthy) only has to work for 6 hours per day to provide a subsistence living. With 8 hours left in the waking day, time spent cooking is less costly and they even have more time in the day to work and provide more than a subsistence living so that groceries are as costly (as a % of income) to the $16 worker as fast food is to the $8 worker.

    Interesting you would read a statistic that 1 billion people can afford little more than a McDouble per day and take from it that $1 for a McDouble is a good deal. It’s a price/calorie achieved only through questionable farming strategies (that often involve abuse of farmers, i.e. Monsanto), our relentless obsession with oil, and often government subsidy.

  14. Devon Herrick says:

    ”The patrons of the lower-priced grocery store… tended to have a higher rate of obesity than those who shopped at the higher-priced grocery stores…” “That relationship held true after adjusting for variables like education and income.”

    Health status is positively correlated with income and education. But people who are obese (regardless of their income and education) probably do not value grocers who charge higher prices, but feature a wider selection of fresh produce and organic vegetables.

    I do not believe anyone is obese because they lack the income to eat healthy. Even though fresh produce costs more per calorie than refried beans (or dried beans bought in bulk), healthy food is relatively cheap in our society.

    I agree with Linda that it is very easy to plan healthy meals using food from grocers like Krogers, if that is your desire (you can also eat unhealthy meals made from foods at Whole Foods or Central Market if you try). But it doesn’t surprise me that obesity is more prevalent among customers at Krogers than Whole Foods.

    The foods sold at Krogers, Albertsons, Safeway, Sprouts, Trader Joes, Central Market and Whole Foods are mostly a function of the customers who patronize these establishments. These firms serve a market niche — people self-select the store that fits their lifestyle. Whole Foods’ customers probably have a healthier weight (on average) than customers of lower-cost grocers because their patrons place a higher priority on healthy meals.

  15. Eric says:


    I checked when I got home and I need to know which Kroger you’re shopping at! I pay $3 for a pound of chicken and $7 for a pound of lean hamburger meat. Add in preparation costs (including time as an opportunity cost) and that’s certainly not cheap! That’s not even taking into account what the chickens would have to say on the matter–do you know the reason that chicken only costs $3!?!?

    Devon, just because the relationship held true doesn’t mean income wasn’t a factor. Did it hold true to the same extent?

    Either way, the study shows that cheaper foods are less healthy. People with lower incomes buy cheaper items, therefore less healthy food.

    And who says healthy food is relatively cheap in our society? I shop at Kroger and spend $100 on groceries a week just for myself. That would be 1/3 of a minimum wage paycheck. If you were to add another mouth (especially a teenagers mouth), that paycheck is just about all gone before you’ve put a roof over your head. Shop at McDonalds however, and you’ve saved $30 per week. It doesn’t seem like much to us, but that’s a valuable tank of gas for others. In other words, I could save 30% on food costs by super sizing myself.

    I don’t, and I avoid McDonalds whenever I can, but that’s because $30 is worth less to me… My opportunity costs are lower.

  16. Linda Gorman says:


    Chicken is whole bird, on sale. Wal-Mart has them as I type, Kroeger is selling chicken drumsticks, cooked, for $1.19 a pound. It often matches Wal-Mart, at least in my market.

    Here in flyover country lean hamburger from a specialty meat market frozen in 10 one pound packages goes for $2.00 a pound. The mechanically separated stuff in the tubular plastic packages sells for much less.

    You might enjoy blogger Ari Armstrong’s accounts of what it was like to eat on a food stamp budget for a week in 2007 and 2009:

  17. Eric says:


    He spent $4.72 per day for a week, which is under the $4.74 per person for a family of four. That’s fantastic.

    Here’s the problem:

    A) Some of his savings were due to buying wholesale at Costco–that membership costs $0.15 per day, putting him over his limit.

    B) Where he wasn’t buying wholesale, he was buying reduced price groceries. There’s something to say for being frugal, but are we really going to be satisfied saying that the health of our nation’s poor is not a concern because they can eat healthy so long as they know how to find a good sale? If that’s a tenable position for you, fine by me.

    C) He traveled to 3 different stores. I’m guessing he had a car, so that probably took him 2 hours maybe? For someone without a car, that’s more like a 4 or 5 hour trip, carrying groceries (many of which are frozen and now ruining) on a bus.

    If his point is that a low-budget meal doesn’t have to mean an unhealthy meal, I have no objection. However, you have to consider the circumstances of the people you are trying to help–many of whom probably don’t know what Omega-3 is or how much of it they need in their diets or what foods provide it. Many of them probably don’t have the access to internet that you used to link this article. These are all considerations that have to be made…

    A drumstick is probably 50% bone. I have known people to eat bones, but that can hardly be considered nutritional value and it’s hardly the price of chicken per pound.

    The ability to buy in bulk is also a luxury not afforded to many poor. If we stick to the food stamp budget of $33, then $20 of that for one week has disappeared so that one person can have enough meat for 2 or 3 months. When people live paycheck to paycheck, buying food in bulk does mean savings, but often at a buy-in of greater opportunity costs. If saving $10 over the next 2 months means one can’t pay the heating bill, are you going to suggest that person buy in bulk? I’m not.

    Economists deal in terms of incentives and opportunity costs. That it is possible to be healthy on a low budget doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for an economist to say it is the fault of the unhealthy poor that they are both unhealthy and poor. Too many right-wingers ignore the entirety of the situation in which many of this nation’s poor are faced because it is simply enough in their minds to say “it’s possible” when, in reality, its lack of probability makes it, for all good intents and purposes, impossible.