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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Hefty price hikes for healthy foods place burden on health and budget

The fact that healthy foods cost more than junk foods might not surprise you. But what is surprising, is that the price of healthy foods rose dramatically over a short period of time. According to a recent study at the University of Washington, the price disparity between healthy and unhealthy foods is getting father apart, which may be a significant factor in the health of the nation especially at a time when household budgets are extremely tight and many communities have no access to healthy foods.

Though all food prices jumped during the study's timeline from 2004 to 2008, the price of healthy foods rose dramatically more than foods void of substantial nutrients. The Center for Public Health and Nutrition at UW tracked the cost of nearly 380 food items over a four-year period and found that nutritionally void foods rose in price by 16 percent while the price of nutrient rich foods rose by dramatic 30 percent.

Before the study began researchers suspected there would be a price gap between healthy and unhealthy foods, though they were shocked by level of price hikes for nutritious foods. For instance, the price of a basic red apple rose from 99 cents per pound in 2004 to $1.99 a pound in 2008. Given that many of the foods with expensive prices tags are singled out in the draft of the USDA Dietary Guidelines this could prove somewhat contradictory to policy discussions regarding America's health. "The findings have serious implications for national dietary guidelines and related policy discussions taking place in communities across the country," said Pablo Monsivais, the lead researcher at CPHN. Monsivais said the healthy foods weren't only produce; items such as shellfish, canned pumpkin and fortified breakfast cereal also showed big price hikes.

The study didn't examine the whys of the price hikes, though Monsivais said he suspected the reason may have something to do with government subsidies for crops used to make processed foods. The Centers for Disease Control believes the price discrepancy and availability of healthy foods is contributing to the rising obesity rates. "It's hard for people to eat healthy when there isn't healthy food accessible to them," said Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, the CDC director. The CDC recommends that states and local communities develop zoning regulations and economic initiatives to improve the availability of healthy foods.

Some states have already stepped up their efforts. Pennsylvania adopted the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which encourages the development of food retailers in undeserved Pennsylvania communities. To date, the initiative raised $63.3 million in funding for 68 grocery stores in 27 counties, and created 3,700 jobs. The hope is that the Fresh Food Initiative will be implemented on a national scale.

In Baltimore, the libraries offer patrons grocery ordering and pickup. The City Health Department's Virtual Supermarket Project lets individuals living in areas without grocery stores that offer healthy foods at reasonable prices order and pickup groceries at the library. In Hartford, Conn., an Advisory Commission on Food Policy improved bus service routes to grocery stores and passed an initiative to reduce food prices in low-income areas. From libraries to bus lines, above all the solution will take a multifaceted approach in which retailers will play a significant role. As CDC's Frieden said, "Obesity is a societal problem and it will take a societal response."

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