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I dont really buy the "sugar/fat foods are cheaper than nutritious foods" claim at all. IMO a lot of nutrient dense food is cheaper, especially for what you get out of it. For example, you can buy a pound of broccoli for the price of a soda. And even fast food in my neck of the woods isnt cheap. I mean, yeah compared to going out to a restaurant and leaving a nice tip- its cheap. But I sure as hell can buy a lot more quality fresh food ( and prepare in 5 minutes) for the price of a combo meal.


come on, you're quoting the USDA as your primary source? if you want to call "journalistic integrity" at least do some investigation yourself. spurlock is an opinionated fucker who is freuqently wrong, but this is right at the same level. why don't you get the woman who lost weight on her mcdonald's diet to guest post?

Radley Balko

I quoted the USDA because Spurlock himself quoted the agency. The point is not that the USDA is necessarily right or wrong (though that's the only data we really have to go on). It's that his own source doesn't agree with his larger point.

John Thacker

BTW, that chart also lists potatoes under fresh, but breaks the fresh vegetables out into "Potatoes" and "Other." Fresh potato consumption is down in the last 20-30 years, all other fresh vegetables have risen.

Evan Williams


Kudos on a fantastic blog! It's good to see a thorough and ongoing debunking of such an idiot.

Though, reading this entry, I couldn't help but be struck by the number of times you used a sort of "guilt by association" tactic to ascribe certain beliefs/actions to Spur[ious]lock, without actually verifying whether he has actually believes the statement in question or not. I'm not saying that he doesn't; hell, he probably does.

But, when you start going off about "people like Spurlock", or say something like "...a policy Spurlock and his ilk typically support...", it smacks of unverified guilt-by-association. As I said, you're PROBABLY right about these claims, but I don't see them verified. If you're going to make the inference that Spurlock hates WalMart, which he probably does, then it helps to be thorough and show where he says he does.

Just a friendly suggestion; using too many "people like Spurlock" lines to vilify Spurlock himself starts to get down to his level.

John H.


No need for guilt by association. I present an excerpt from an interview with the man himself:

G21: What do you think about Wal-Mart?

Morgan Spurlock: It is so big and it just comes into towns and destroys. The towns just get eliminated. Every other small business gets eliminated. It's the same way with fast food chains. The mom and pop places get shut down because people go to the McDonald's and Burger Kings.

From: http://www.g21.net/nystate44.htm

Decklin Foster

OK, there is no Wal-Mart around here so I haven't been to one since moving out of the sticks. However, I seem to recall that the produce section was, at most, maybe 10% of your average Supercenter (most of it is, after all, clothing, and all that "cheap plastic crap" Spurlock et al love to hate). I can't imagine the margins on produce are very high, even by big-box standards. So isn't the rest of the store subsidizing the produce section, to some extent?

I don't think there's anything wrong with this, in theory. People want to be able to get a variety of things in one place, and big-box scale makes that feasible where specialized stores might get stomped by capricious market forces.

However, if we're just looking at the goal of getting produce to urban customers (assuming for the sake of argument that this needs to be done and it's not happening because it's not economically attractive enough) then we are choosing between having a big-box's profits subsidize the produce department, or subsidizing produce in some other way (I don't know, taxing McDonalds more and giving a tax break to the veggie shop vendor, or some similarly Spurlockish scheme).

If you look at it this way I think a lot of the anti-Walmartians' arguments still hold -- particularly, that the public will end up paying for the subsidy anyway because Wal-Mart workers depend so much on public assistance (particularly health care). That's debateable, certainly, and I'd imagine you're pro-Walmart anyway, but I'm just throwing it out there.

[p.s. I don't really know anything about economics.]

[p.p.s. I always bought my produce at the plain-old-supermarket anyway, because the stuff at the Wal-mart was usually pretty dodgy, and not *that* much cheaper.]

John H.

To be fair, even libertarians are finding reasons to hate Wal-Mart.

To wit:



Great blog and great post.

Here's a factor of the price increased that's being overlooked - the rise of year-round fresh fruits and veggies combined with the growing popularity of "premium" F & V.

Wasn't but a few years ago that most supermarkets only stocked a few different types of F & V at any one time - and then, only in season. But now, you can go into pretty much any store and choose among 5 or 6 different types of apples, 10 different types of lettuce and see mangos, kiwi fruit and other exotica pretty much all year round.

Plus - F & V are going to be pretty price sensitive to the cost of transportation - I'd imagine that's it a helluva lot cheaper to ship a bag of Doritos to my local Piggly Wiggly in Wisconsin than it is fresh grapes from Chile or Kiwi fruit from New Zealand.

IOW - comparing the rise in cost of fresh v "junk" foods is completely misleading unless one counts only a core set of products that was around during the duration of the sample run. Once again, Spurlock and his ilk play loose and fast with the truth in their attempts to "make a point".


Re WalMart

This capitalist HATES shopping there - but loves the store.

There is a difference.

The opposition to WalMart by "do gooders" does nothing more than force the poorest people to pay higher prices and get less choice.

Evan Williams

John H.:

Thanks for that. I figured he was anti-walmart, I just didn't want Radley to get sloppy and make too make specific inferences based solely on Spurlock's broader ideological beliefs, or the beliefs of those who share his general disdain for capitalism.


You said, "I can't imagine the margins on produce are very high, even by big-box standards. So isn't the rest of the store subsidizing the produce section, to some extent?"

I'll take into your account your own admission that you know nothing about economics. Of course, it's the same with MANY items in WalMart or any other store that is not a limited specialty store. That's the whole idea behind unspecialized retailers: get everything you need in one place. Surely, certain items (such as an obscure electrical part) are "subsidized" by more popular items. That's precisely the idea behind most any retailer: some items are stocked solely for profit-generation; others are stocked in order to bring customers in the door. It's called a "loss leader". Sometimes, retailers will go so far as to take a loss on a product, simply to hook more customers.

What this means for a store like walmart is that the more needs you fulfill in one place, the more likely your customers are to rely on you for all their needs. For smaller retailers, it means bringing in items that won't generate profit and/or don't really jive with the mission of the store, but will invite customers in to hopefully browse the rest of your inventory.

But just because somethng like produce in WalMart doesn't generate as much revenue as, say, cleaning products, doesn't mean that it's without worth. It just means that its purpose, towards the bottom line, is a little different.

"However, if we're just looking at the goal of getting produce to urban customers (assuming for the sake of argument that this needs to be done and it's not happening because it's not economically attractive enough) then we are choosing between having a big-box's profits subsidize the produce department, or subsidizing produce in some other way (I don't know, taxing McDonalds more and giving a tax break to the veggie shop vendor, or some similarly Spurlockish scheme)."

But Balko's point is, it can be done WITHOUT unfair market-disrupting tax schemes or government subsidies. If the goal can be accomplished naturally with free-market principles, it will be better, more fair, and more sustainable in the long run than, say, forking over subsidies and tax breaks to urban produce grocers. But the problem is, the anticapitalists let their vile hatred for WalMart and capitalism in general cloud their rational judgment.

ann arbor is overrated

Do these price "per serving" studies take into account that someone living alone might have to buy vegetables in much larger quantities than a serving, which then go bad before they can be eaten? Fresh spinach, celery, carrots and broccoli, for example, all seem to come in large bunches that a single person probably won't finish.

Decklin Foster

Evan: thanks, I know I was missing something fundamental. What still bothers me, though, is why Wal-mart is *not* considered "market-disrupting" if/when it accomplishes the same thing, which must be, well, a disruption to, er, the market...

(of course, i can *see* this is kind of silly. It's like that scene in Eternal Sunshine: "Will there be any brain damage?")

I won't ask you to be my personal tutor though. :) What's a good book to read on *why* (politically, philisophically... I am admittedly poor at the numbers stuff) we call certain things the market and certain things external to the market? I can see the simple explanation being that the government makes laws and Wal-mart doesn't, but for that hypothetical poor person I would think that what Wal-mart does has a bigger effect on where they can/do shop or work and for how much.

Isn't *some* of it semantics? Or have I spent too much time listening to anticapitalists?

John P.

Decklin -- I don't have a book to suggest, but I would suggest regularly reading www.marginalrevolution.com, an economics blog by econ profs at George Mason U. The bloggers are libertarian-leaning but not doctrinaire. As for your question about Wal-mart, what Wal-mart does IS market-disrupting in a sense, but the difference is that Wal-mart (unlike the government) is fully susceptible to market forces. If it doesn't pay Wal-mart to go into an area, then it won't go there (or it won't stay). And it won't pay for Wal-mart to go into or be in an area if the people in that area don't express their preference for Wal-mart by shopping there. Some "anticapitalists" object to this reasoning on the grounds that Wal-mart is so big that it can use its power to dig into an area even though it loses money there, until its competition is driven out. I think most economists, however, believe that such a scenario never happens in practice, because it doesn't work for the predator.


Whatever Wal-Mart does to the local economy and the small-time retailer, what would make Me feel better about shopping there is if they'd stop persuing 'THE lowest prices, whatever the cost' and treated their employees a little better. The kind of horror stories I've heard make me kinda cringe when I have to walk through those doors, but I have to anyway because they're pretty-much the only game in town.

As for the fresh-veggies vs. processed foods debate. I think the key here is convinience. Americans by and large seem to have collectively forgoten how to cook, and with the exception of one major Cable network (FoodTV.com) there isn't much impetus in reversing that trend, far from it. Going out to resturaunts and buying brand-name processed food products are what helps keep this economy going and the media makes sure to beat you over the head with that all the time. It's easy to poo-poo the idea that this dosn't make a difference, but that's falling into the trap of, "Oh well I know better, everyone else should do." Such is not always the case.


In re your debate with the woman who suggested communism (community-owned farms) to distribute fresh produce to poor areas:
My girlfriend grew up in Siberia when it was still Communist and they had fresh produce a-plenty. Of course, it was only the kind of produce they could grow and can on their own, because there was little in the way of distribution then, outside a rare delivery of bananas or some such.
To make extra money, her father would trap for fur and then hid the furs behind false walls, as a sort of bank.


"If it doesn't pay Wal-mart to go into an area, then it won't go there (or it won't stay)."

Wow. Amazing how banal and sloganish "free-marketers'" comments can get.

I have to wonder what the initial "it" in the above quote refers to. "The state"? "The city government"? "Loss-leading"?

Don't you "free-marketers" get tired of the lies and the propoganda? Do any of you mind the logical end of what your beloved corporate-blowjobbing? Have you noticed what happens when we elevate retailing of cheap goodies above all other civic values? Do you enjoy the looks of Tempe or San Jose or Orlando? An undending string of parking lots for tire stores and shitty chain restaurants and home repair warehouses? Is this what you want to happen to the rest of our country? (Hang on... we're getting there... c'mon, market, keep freeing us...)

Chris I.

Wow, that above post was completely worthless. You know you've lost when you have to fall back on aesthetic preferences in order to provide a counter-argument. Please go live in a hut somewhere and never use a computer again.


There are places in America where there aren't supermarkets a-plenty. A friend of mine just moved to a small town in New Jersey and the nearest grocery store is a 30 minute drive away. Most of her neighbors do their grocery shopping at convenience stores and in these small stores, it's pretty difficult to find fresh fruits and vegetables. Maybe fresher foods are cheaper than processed junk at grocery stores, but at a 711 an apple costs a buck fifty and two hot dogs are 99 cents.

Monique Landry

One pound of broccoli for the price of a can of soda? You've got to be kidding! I just got back from the local grocery store and bought some at $1.69 a pound. As far as buying produce at big-box stores, why would you want to? The produce is not fresh and would most likely be spoiled by the time you got home.I do NOT buy the statement that fresh fruits and vegetables are cheaper than processed foods, and never will. You also have to consider that processed foods last much longer than fresh fruits and vegetables. There are people on fixed incomes who don't have a vehicle and must rely on public transportation to take them to the grocery store, or walk to the corner convenience store.


I'm joining this discussion late, found it via google, but felt inspired to contribute by the reasoned commentary above and in the initial post.

I don't know much about the rest of the country, having been raised entirelly in New York City, or about the specifics of the USDA food study and how they took into account the regional variance in produce prices. I can tell you some truths about living inside New York, where many of Spurlock's comments, or at least the gist behind them, are very true.

The first thing to know about the produce in the city: it is very bad produce. I have been to many, many grocery stores in NY and lived in multiple bouroughs, and with few exceptions the produce is old, wilted, spotty, and poorly stored. The poorer the neighborhood, the more this is true.

The next thing to know is that produce is expensive. I very much agree with jane's comment about $1.69/lb broccoli, that is also aproximately the price here, which is almost half again the $.99 price of a 2lt bottle of soda.

If you're talking about relying on Big Box stores to distribute vegetables, you need to consider the reality of city life and realize that the economics of distribution within a densly populated area are very different from the rural and surburban areas in which the big box stores initially proved themselves. I think it is unarguable that centralized distribution of basic goods simply does not work as well in cities as it does outside of them. The most basic fact about the city is that its density decresses the amount of space available for you while increasing the the time it takes to travel places, effectively increaciny the distance between places.

Simply driving through the city can show you that, and living here proves it everyday. Efficient public transit helps enable people to travel long distances relatively quickly, if you think 20-30 mph is relatively quickly, but, while public transit is very efficient at moving people, it is very poor at moving goods. Everything you want to take on the subway or bus requires that you take it up and down stairs, be able to carry it in both hands while doing so, and protect it from the bumps and pushes of other passangers, who would much prefer to be going home in the space that you are using to transport groceries. As a result, most people walk for their groceries, limiting their general shopping radius to 1/2 a mile or less.

At the same time, the space people have to store things is greatly reduced. Many people do not even have a hall closet in which to store that 20 pack of Bounty from Walmart, let alone a garage, basement, or large kitchen. People buy less and as a result have to buy more often, again increasing the time spent transportating goods. Obviously new york has not been blanketed with big box stores so I can't predict their actual feasability as a vegetable distribution systme, but we have had Costcos and Kmarts for years and I believe there are serious practical, as well as political, roadblocks to their expansion across the town.

More generally, I would echo John P's comment about people forgetting how to cook with a reminder that the two income households structure our society has developed over the past 40 years has greatly reduced the time availably for cooking, causing many to use pre-processed and pre-prepared food to fill in the gaps.

I hope that is helpful.

William Lee

Okay, now keep in mind the artichoke person did not actually bring up Communism in the discussion, you did that yourself Mr. Fox news. Do not forget the extremely important and overall, quite effective system of Democratic Socialism. The United Kingdom is largely a poster child for this economic system, and it works pretty well. I'm not saying it's perfect, mind you, but some kinds of government control/regulation are quite nifty. Besides, I believe the reference was to community-owned produce distribution, away, not government control. But the latter does work.

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