Earlier today I circulated an NPR report on the co-existence of hunger and obesity among the poor. In that report, it was asked why a cash-strapped parent might give a child soda instead of milk and a representative of a local food pantry commented: “A gallon of milk is $3-something. A bottle of orange soda is 89 cents . . . Do the math.”
I was so pleased to see the milk-soda comparison made in this story; this is something that’s been bugging me every since my earlier post about how the far-right wing Heritage Foundation points to obesity in America as proof that hunger isn’t a real problem. (These are the same people who snarkily accuse the Obamas of “flip-flopping” because of their simultaneous anti-childhood hunger and anti-childhood obesity efforts. Yuk, yuk.)
In making their case, one “myth” the Heritage Foundation likes to attack is the fact that poor people often turn to fast food and processed foods because such foods are cheaper, and thus a person can be both food-insecure and obese. Not true, says the HF! And then it trots out this little factoid, among others:
“[A]s a source of calories, brand name soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi are often more expensive (in terms of calories per dollar) than milk.”
This “fact” about milk and soda is such a favorite of the HF that it was even included in its recent Congressional testimony submitted in opposition to any increase in funding for childhood nutrition programs.
But ever since I saw this milk/soda comparison, I’ve been wondering: Could it be true? Is milk really somehow cheaper than soda, despite the glaring difference in price tags ($2.99 per half gallon (which is almost exactly 2 liters) for milk in my area vs. $1.69 for two liters of soda)?
Now, I’ll say up front that I’m a liberal arts major and a lawyer, and there’s a reason I never went to business school — math is not my strong suit. But here’s what I was able to figure out:
Using the prices quoted above, two liters of soda costs .03 dollars per ounce and each ounce provides 12 calories. That means that for one dollar, I get about 396 calories. Approximately two liters of skim milk, on the other hand, costs .05 dollars per ounce and each ounce provides 10 calories. So, for one dollar, I get 200 calories.
Hey, wait a minute! That doesn’t work at all! On a calorie-per-dollar basis, soda is the hands-down winner. Am I missing something?
You bet I am. What the HF conveniently forgot to tell Congress, but which is buried in a footnote in their original report, is that it bases its comparison on ”the non-sale prices of two-liter bottles of Coca-Cola Classic, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper compared to two-gallon containers of whole milk in six stores in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.”
Whoa there, HF. What’s up with that?
First, why are you comparing two gallons of milk with two liters of soda, when the actual volume equivalent of two liters of soda is a 1/2 gallon carton of milk?
Second, in a position paper all about combatting obesity, why would you use WHOLE milk as the basis for comparison, when every dietician in America would agree that a person seeking to lose weight shouldn’t be drinking whole milk?
Could it possibly be that this is the only way to make your specious milk-is-cheaper-than-soda claim remotely plausible? (Sure enough, when you use whole milk and the price for two gallons, milk “wins.”)
Moreover, what all of these details miss is the fact that it took this over-educated person about twenty minutes to figure out an accurate “calorie per dollar” calculation; the average shopper had better not head off to the market without solid math skills, a calculator, and a whole lot of extra time.
The bottom line is, we’d all like to see poverty-stricken people cook up a nutritious, cheap and filling pot of beans and rice, but maybe that’s not always realistic for a person who lacks education (to know this is the better choice), cooking skills (maybe these weren’t modeled at home), time (working two jobs?) or access to such foods (as when one has to rely on a convenience store for groceries). The sad truth is, when real people want to get the most filling food for their money in the most convenient way possible, they’re often intuitively drawn to high-fat, dirt cheap items — fast food, candy, soda and the like.
There are arguments to be made against using federal funding to provide food assistance to the poor and I’m fine if the HF wants to make them. But stop trotting out the “myth-busters” that rest on squirrelly math.