The COVID-19 pandemic has sent prices up for corn, milk, beans and other basic commodities, but even before the pandemic some 3 billion people could not afford even the cheapest options for a healthy diet.
Recent analysis of global food price data reveals that as of 2017, the latest available year, about 40% of the world’s population was already forced to consume poor quality diets through a combination of higher food prices and lower incomes. When healthy items are expensive, it is impossible for people to avoid malnutrition and diet-related diseases such as anemia or diabetes.
The remaining 60% of the world’s population of 7.9 billion can afford the ingredients for healthy meals. This, of course, does not mean that they always eat a healthy diet. The time and difficulty of cooking, as well as the advertising and marketing of other foods, can lead to choosing surprisingly many unhealthy items.
Distinguishing affordability from other causes of unhealthy diets is an essential step toward better outcomes, thanks to a research project we’re leading at Tufts University called Food Prices for Nutrition. The project provides new insight into how agriculture and food distribution relate to human health needs, linking the economy to nutrition in collaboration with the World Bank Development Data Group and the International Food Policy Research Institute.
To measure diet costs globally, our project linked World Bank price data for nearly 800 popular foods in 174 countries to the nutritional composition of those items. Using prices and nutritional values for each ingredient, we calculated the least expensive way to meet national dietary guidelines and basic nutritional requirements.
For affordability, we compared diet costs to World Bank estimates of what people typically spend on food and income distribution within each country. It turns out that nearly everyone in the United States can buy enough ingredients for healthy meals, such as rice, beans, frozen spinach, canned tuna, bread, peanut butter, and milk. But most people in Africa and South Asia could not get enough of these foods to eat a healthy diet even if they were willing to spend their entire disposable income.
Food prices go up and down, but many healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, dairy, and fish are always more expensive than starchy foods, oil, and sugar. The higher cost of healthy food groups often forces people in poverty to eat less expensive goods, or go hungry.
What can he do?
Countries can make it possible for everyone to afford a healthy diet by creating more higher-paying jobs and expanding social protection for low-income people. For example, the United States has the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps low-income Americans buy some of the food they need. Safety net programs of this kind reduce food insecurity, protect jobs during downturns and are especially important for a child’s development.
Combined with higher incomes and safety nets for the poorest, food prices for all can be lowered through public investment in new technology and infrastructure to improve food production and distribution. Innovation and agricultural investment in food markets can save lives and drive economic development – when new technologies and other changes adapt well to local conditions.
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We believe that our diet cost data, which has been produced to guide global agricultural policies, gives people new insight into the state of the world’s food. Previous efforts to monitor global food prices have focused on tracking a few internationally traded agricultural commodities, monitoring conditions in places at risk of starvation or monitoring consumer price indices. Measuring the cost of healthy diets using locally available items focuses attention on consumer prices for healthy foods that low-income people might buy, if those items were affordable.
With better data, governments and development agencies can direct their countries where they want to go, which could one day make it possible for everyone around the world to eat a healthy diet.
World Bank economist Yan Pei contributed to this research.