The United States and other countries face the rather odd problem of having a significant portion of the population both overweight and malnourished. One factor that contributes to this is that calorie dense and nutritionally empty foods are cheap and accessible while foods that are nutritionally rich tend to be more expensive and less accessible.
To anticipate a likely response, a person’s diet is also obviously also a matter of choice-people are not forced to down Twinkies, burgers, chips and cola at gun point. However, a person’s choices are obviously impacted by factors like cost and accessibility (as well as marketing). As such, it is hardly surprising that people tend to choose the food that is cheaper are more readily accessible over the food that is more expensive and takes more effort to acquire.
While calorie dense and nutritionally lacking food tends to be cheaper than more nutritionally rich food for a variety of reasons, one reason for price differences lies in differences in state subsidies. In an interesting irony, the federal nutrition recommendations are a reverse of the federal food subsides. This is nicely illustrated by the following pyramids:
This, as might be imagined, raises some interesting moral concerns in the area of food ethics. The most obvious concern is that the United States government’s subsidies impacts the pricing of food in a way that food that we should (by the government’s own recommendations) eat less of will tend to be cheaper than the food that we should be eating more off. As such, as the heading says, a salad will tend to be more expensive than a fast food burger, despite the fact that the salad is better for a person nutritionally.
To focus directly on the ethics, by making less healthy food cheaper through subsidies, the state is making it more likely that people will make harmful dietary choices. That is, that they will pick the calories rich and nutritionally lacking foods (such as fast food and junk food) over the nutritionally rich food. In short, the folks who make these decisions are contributing to harming people, which certainly seems to be wrong (if only on utilitarian grounds).
If the state is going to subsidize foods, then the rational and ethical approach would be to subsidize foods based on legitimate scientific recommendations. That is, the food that is better for people should be subsidized and food that tends to not be good for people (or is actually harmful) should either not be subsidized or should be subsidized proportional to its nutritional value.
The reality is, of course, that subsidies are not based on concerns of health or food ethics, but rather based on political influence. As such, the subsidies help create a situation in which unhealthy food is cheap and hence tends to be consumed more than healthy foods. This in turn contributes to health problems (obesity, for example) which costs us even more. Thus, we are paying to eat poorly and then paying again for the effects of these poor diets. This seems to be something we should not be doing, both from a practical and a moral standpoint.