The USDA reports that the cost of vegetables and fruit rose 120 percent between 1985 and 2000, while the price of junk like sodas and sweets went up less than 50 percent on average (p. 12)This may be true, I'm not sure. Spurlock's source is a 2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencier article, and the reporter gives no specific source for the claim, other than the tag "according to the USDA."
Spurlock uses this same S-I article a number of times, but never bothers to doublecheck its assertions. He could have at least cheked with the USDA to verify.
If he had, he'd know that the USDA did commission a highly-publicized study on how much it would cost for the average person to get his full daily requirement of fruits and vegetables.
The answer? Sixty-four cents. Or, about twelve percent of the average American's food budget. There are "127 different ways to eat a serving of fruits and vegetables for less than the price of a 3-ounce candy bar," the study says. The notion that processed food is cheaper than fresh food was dismissed by the study, too: "Researchers found that nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables studied were cheapest in their fresh form."
In fact, according to the USDA, per capita fresh fruit and vegetable consumption has gone up by 20% since the 1970s!
I know what you're thinking. "Doesn't the government count the potato as a vegetable? Isn't most of that increase probably due to french fries and potato chips?"
Actually, no. Check out this table from the USDA (from this report). Potato consumption is included in the "frozen" statisitics, not the fresh (as you might imagine, it is up, by about 21 pounds per year).
This makes sense. Revolutionary improvements in agriculture, shipping, and preserving fresh foods, together with a rapidly growing economy (there's all that awful "consumption" again), have created a market for diverse, fresh produce, and a means of satisfying it.
Typically, nutrition activists' response to this is to point out how hard it is for low-income people to access fresh fruits and vegetables. Indeed, that's Spurlock's next paragraph. He points out that low-income areas are often dotted with fast food joints and convenience stores, but few if any outlets for fresh produce.
Here, he's right. And I sympathize. But I have a solution: We have business models that can deliver good food at low cost to low-income people. They do it by stocking huge inventories at very small mark-ups, and by cutting costs just about everywhere they can. They're called big box stores, and they've been doing it all over the country, except in urban areas. The best in the business is Wal-Mart.
The problem is, every time Wal-Mart attempts to open a Superstore (the Superstores carry a full line of groceries, including fresh produce) in an urban area, it's people like Spurlock and his nutrition activist allies who raise holy hell to prevent it from happening. We've seen it happen in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and here in Washington, D.C.
People like Spurlock want low-income people to have access to fresh, preferably organic, cheap, diverse produce, but only if the means for delivering said produce isn't evil Big Box Retail. Sorry, but that's asking too much.
One nutrition activist I debated a few months ago had an interesting solution -- communism! Or at least a localized application of communism. Her comments on artichokes are particularly amusing.
UPDATE: In the comments section, Evan Williams says there's too much guilt by association in this post. He's probably right. But a subsequent commenter passes along this link, in which Spurlock expresses the very opinion of Wal-Mart I suspected he might. Williams is still probably right. But the post is ultimately right, too.