For the financially strapped, trips to the grocery store can feel like an algebra problem.
With X number of dollars, how many gallons of milk, loaves of bread, and boxes of cereal can you buy?
Unfortunately, adding to the problem is the price of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables.
These items consistently cost more than so-called junk food like packaged cookies or chips.
Why is healthy food so much more expensive?
We will discuss ten reasons it costs more to get a bag of spinach from farm to table than an Oreo.
Why Is Healthy Food So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
One of the major reasons it’s difficult to get fresh, ripe produce for low prices is its seasonality.
Certain fruits and vegetables are only in season during specific times of the year.
Oranges and other citrus fruits thrive in the winter, while apples are better in the fall, and peaches are ripe in the summertime.
Thanks to genetic modification and expanding growing regions, we can now grow most types of produce at any time of year.
However, it costs far more to grow an orange in the summer than in the winter.
This is because growing produce out of season requires more human intervention.
It can look like speeding up the ripening process after picking the crops.
Sometimes, produce grown out of season has to come from farther away, where the growing season is longer.
This will drive costs up.
Purchasing fruit or vegetables out of season will always cost more than purchasing them in season.
Prepackaged, processed foods, however, have no seasons.
Because of this, their prices will stay steady year-round.
To get the best prices on produce, do some research on what fruits or veggies are in season around your area.
This will ensure you aren’t paying more than you need to.
Fruits and vegetables picked in season also taste better.
To get out-of-season fruit to stores, it has to be picked early, meaning it is smaller and less flavorful
It is then ripened chemically, using ethylene gas.
However, this sped-up ripening process doesn’t produce the nutrition or flavor of naturally ripened crops.
Where you live can also impact food prices significantly.
In California and Florida, finding locally grown oranges is no problem.
Since they’re so plentiful, they typically don’t cost as much as they would elsewhere.
The same is true of peaches in Georgia, potatoes in Idaho, and raspberries in the Mountain West.
Some people live in food deserts—areas (usually urban) where few crops grow and local produce is difficult to come by.
Unfortunately, this limits what types of produce you can get for reasonable prices.
For example, avocados are often expensive throughout the United States, because they are native to Mexico.
Because they need warm weather and semi-humid air, they don’t grow well in most states in the US.
They are grown in California, Hawaii, and Florida.
If you live in the Midwest or Northeast, you likely don’t have access to fresh, locally grown avocados.
To make it to grocery stores in these areas in decent condition, they have to be picked early, transported by refrigerated truck, then ripened manually.
All of these extra steps in the process add to the price of avocados.
On the other hand, many companies that make processed foods have factories across the country.
Most of these foods are made from hardier crops.
For example, potato chips are made from potatoes, which grow best in states like Idaho, Washington, and Colorado.
However, potatoes are very hardy crops and can withstand the pressures of cross-country travel.
They also don’t need to be in perfect condition to be made into chips, thanks to all the salt and oil that is added.
It doesn’t matter where you live when it comes to foods like potato chips.
They are of about the same quality and price across the country.
This is true of most processed foods.
3. Climate Issues
Extreme weather has not just impacted fuel and fertilizer prices.
Droughts, frost, and searing heat have caused food prices to rise because they make growing crops much more difficult.
Wheat prices have skyrocketed over the last several years, thanks to high temperatures and low levels of precipitation.
In the Northwest last year, the worst drought since 1977 devastated wheat farmers across Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
The Pacific Northwest is generally a very precipitous area.
Most farms rely on rainfall to water their crops; very few have irrigation systems.
With so little water in the spring and summer of 2021, most farms produced much less wheat than in normal years.
The wheat that was produced was of poor quality.
Some farms were unable to harvest any at all.
The shortage of wheat caused prices to go up.
Wheat is a major staple in western diets.
Across Texas last year, Winter Storm Uri caused massive losses in several agricultural sectors.
Thousands of acres of crops were frozen.
Thousands of livestock were killed in the freeze.
There were losses in vegetable crops totaling at least $150 million, while the citrus fruit and livestock industries lost around $230 million each.
Each of these industries provides food that contributes to a healthy, balanced diet.
These climate disasters cause the prices of most foods to increase, but healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean meats are often the most heavily impacted.
If extreme weather conditions do not ease up in the coming years, we can expect food prices to continue to rise.
4. Price Of Fertilizer
A supply chain is the series of steps a product must go through to make it to your home.
When prices go up at any step on the chain, those increases will typically be passed on to you, the consumer.
For most healthy foods, farmers are the first step in the chain.
When farmers must pay more to grow their crops, the end product will cost more in the store.
During the pandemic, prices of fertilizer soared.
It became harder and harder to get, and what was available cost around 300% more than it had in previous years.
Fertilizer is essential to growing fruits, vegetables, and feed crops (the plants that are grown to feed cows, pigs, and other animals raised for meat).
The rise in costs happened for several reasons.
First, major storms disrupted the supply of natural gas.
Fertilizer is made with nitrogen and hydrogen.
The prices of these gases are linked to the price of natural gas.
When Hurricane Ida struck the southern United States, natural gas plants were shut down.
In some cases, the outages lasted weeks.
This caused a shortage of natural gas, which was made worse when Tropical Storm Nicholas hit near the Gulf of Mexico.
The area is home to the world’s largest nitrogen complex, as well as the US’s main source of fertilizer.
Another recent event that impacted the price of fertilizer is an energy crisis in Europe and China.
Plants across these areas were shut down to conserve electricity.
This caused shortages of many food-related goods, such as animal feed, dairy, and fertilizer.
As farmers grapple with these increased costs, the prices of many foods have increased as well.
In general, healthy foods are more heavily impacted by these shortages than unhealthy foods, so their prices have increased more.
5. Price Of Transportation
Because many fruits and vegetables must be grown in certain regions, they often have to be transported much farther than other foods to get to the grocery store.
This means that transportation costs for these foods are high even in the best of times.
Recently, however, rising fuel prices and shortages in the trucking industry have caused the price of transportation to skyrocket across the board.
The storms that have hurt the natural gas industry have also shut down important drilling sites in recent months, causing shortages of oil.
This is also true of the international energy crises going on in Europe and Asia.
With demand for gasoline higher than it has been since the pandemic started, there is a shortage of fuel.
This is compounded by strained international relations with oil-rich countries like Russia.
These issues have caused the price of fuel to soar over the last several months, and they are only expected to rise.
The other major issue regarding transportation costs is a shortage of truck drivers.
There is not, however, a shortage of qualified people to drive.
There are simply too many barriers and drawbacks involved in entering the industry.
For one, the trucking industry was deregulated in the 1980s, meaning that many benefits are not guaranteed.
Truck drivers are particularly susceptible to burnout, given the long distances they drive.
Many training programs were delayed during the pandemic.
All of these issues prevent truckers from remaining in the industry for very long.
Many companies in the industry are increasing pay for prospective drivers in an attempt to attract more applicants.
This costs the companies more money to move goods.
Because produce is often transported farther than other foods, its shipping costs are higher.
These prices are then passed on to the consumer.
6. Population Growth
Shortages in fertilizer, fuel, and crops are not only due to storms and other unforeseeable crises.
The world population has been growing steadily for decades.
As the birth rate rises and the human lifespan gets longer, the demand for food increases as well.
When healthy crops are already lacking, this causes an even bigger supply and demand problem.
In economics, supply is the available amount of any given product.
Demand refers to the amount of product that is needed or wanted by consumers.
When supply is high and demand is low, prices on that product will go down in an attempt to entice customers to purchase it.
When supply is lower than demand, however, manufacturers and retailers can raise prices on the product, because they know it will sell anyway.
This is especially true with goods that are necessary for comfortable living, such as housing, water, and healthy foods.
Sellers know that people need to have these things, so they are able to sell them for high prices.
Because the population has grown so quickly and crop production has decreased, the prices of produce have increased significantly in recent years.
However, it is predicted that the next decade will bring a slight decline in population, thanks to a slowing birth rate in many countries.
This may serve to level prices out a bit.
7. Cannot Be Mass Produced
When it comes to junk food like candy, cookies, and chips, supply is not nearly as much of an issue.
These kinds of food can be mass-produced and usually don’t rely on high-quality crops.
Lower quality wheat and corn can be used in these snacks, thanks to the sugar and other additives that are part of the ingredient list.
This means that a factory can churn out packages of cookies all day without worrying about running out of supplies.
When it comes to fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables, however, farmers can only do so much.
They can only plant the number of crops that fit on their farm.
They must factor in how much fertilizer, water, and sunlight is available to them.
Even after all their planning, they are still at the mercy of Mother Nature.
If the crop for the year is subjected to bad weather, like many crops in 2021, they will likely end up being low in both quantity and quality.
With current technology, there is simply no way to cheaply mass-produce high-quality produce.
8. Storage Costs
The final stop in the supply chain before food makes it to the customer is the supermarket.
Fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products cost more for stores to stock than bagged or canned foods.
This is because most healthy foods must be refrigerated to stay fresh.
Refrigeration and lighting make up 65% of a grocery store’s energy usage.
Energy costs can account for up to 15% of a grocery store’s budget—meaning storing refrigerated food is expensive for stores.
To make up for this massive expense, the stores will charge more for refrigerated food than for that which can just be put on a shelf.
In general, food that expires quickly is a liability for grocery stores, because if they don’t sell it in time, they must throw it out.
Discarding unsold food is a massive waste of money for supermarkets.
To ensure they make a profit on the food, perishable items are often marked up.
9. Short Shelf Life
Even when healthy food is sitting in your refrigerator, it can still cost you more than your processed foods.
Because healthy food has a short shelf life, it’s important to eat all of it in a timely manner.
It is estimated that Americans throw out a total of $218 billion of wasted food each year.
An average family of four throws out $1,600 per year just in produce.
If you are throwing out expired food week after week, that wasted money will add up quickly.
The unfortunate truth is that healthy food simply goes bad more quickly than unhealthy foods.
Processed foods are filled with preservatives and other chemicals that keep them from spoiling.
Healthy foods, such as fruits and veggies, don’t have those additives, so they rot naturally.
The key to not wasting your produce is to make sure you’re using it effectively.
First, plan out your meals.
Try to create weekly menus that use similar ingredients, so that you will use up what you buy each week.
For example, the leftover lettuce, tomatoes, and onions from the hamburgers you make on Monday night can be used to make a salad later in the week.
Freezing fruits and vegetables is always a viable option as well.
Freezing food slows down the decomposition process significantly.
Many fruits freeze well and can be used to make smoothies, desserts, or jams later on.
This prevents waste and gives you something to fall back on when you’re running low on groceries for the week.
Canning is another method of preserving produce.
If you have lots of extra fruits or vegetables, you can cut them up and put them in jars.
Seal the jars using boiling water.
These canned foods will last for months or years and are always helpful in a pinch.
10. No Government Subsidies
The federal government offers subsidies to farmers for planting certain crops.
Farm subsidies are a type of financial benefit that helps protect farmers in case of bad crop years.
Unfortunately, however, the government currently only subsidizes five crops: wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton, and rice.
Most of these are grains, which make up 80% of the world’s caloric needs.
They are, of course, essential crops.
However, fruits and vegetables are also a very important part of a healthy diet, and there are no subsidies for them.
This makes growing these crops more of a risk for farmers since the government does not offer them any kind of financial protection for them.
Farmers can always purchase crop insurance, but that makes it harder to turn a profit since some of their money must always go toward the insurance premiums.
If a farm has a bad year for their crop of vegetables, they will likely have to eat that cost.
This means that farmers are more likely to want to grow one or more of the subsidized crops than fruits or vegetables.
If the government were to offer subsidies on fruit and vegetable crops, more farmers would be likely to grow them.
This would help increase the supply of these crops, thereby causing costs to go down.