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The price-nutrition dynamic plays out differentially in the developed and developing worlds. In the former, as a number of studies have noted, fast food constitutes a much greater proportion of the diet of the poor. In the us, for instance, this correlation maps on to an ethnic divide: the minorities--Afro-Americans, Hispanics and Asians--tend to consume more junk food. In developing countries, on the other hand, the dynamic is different. The poor are undernourished in absolute terms, because they have a much more constricted option of cheap food even if it is nutritionally poor.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (Vol 27, No 3, November 2004) found that the distribution of fast food outlets in New Orleans mirrored the correlation between junk food and socio-economic/ethnic background. It reported that predominantly Afro-American neighbourhoods had 2.4 fast food restaurants per square mile as opposed to 1.5in white localities. Though, as the authors pointed out, greater access to fast food did not necessarily lead to greater consumption, the correlation was significant. The study also found that white neighbourhoods had a greater density of supermarkets, which typically stocked healthier foods like fruit and vegetables, than convenience stores, which stocked junk food in greater quantities. A similar study published in the same journal (Vol 29, No 4, November 2005) found that more deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland and England had a greater concentration of McDonald's outlets.
Other studies indicate that the suppositions prompted by this correlation are, in fact, true. A study in Public Health Nutrition (Vol 7, No 8, December 2004) reported higher rates of eating at fast food outlets, higher fat and lower vegetable consumption and higher incidence of obesity among African Americans. Another found that obesity rates were the highest among women in the Hispanic and African American communities and that the gap in the obesity rates between people from these two groups and whites was increasing, says the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, which works on childhood obesity. A September 2005 study published by the ucla Center for Health Policy Research found that Hispanic and African American adolescents consumed more carbonated drinks than whites.
This kind of correlation between poverty and fast, or other nutritionally poor, food holds true for developed countries in a different way. As we saw earlier with Kalyani Koundar and Ruma Ghosh, the nutritional crisis of the poor has a different dimension--that of absolute undernourishment, in other words, not getting enough to eat, in addition to not being able to afford the right kind of food. A doctor in Govindpuri Extension, south Delhi, Jagmohan Singh, made the point starkly when he said he often gave his mostly lower-middle-class patients dietary advice but most of them could not afford to follow his prescriptions. Ironically, however, in India, the fast food culture is primarily the terrain of the affluent middle and upper classes in urban centres, who are sucked into it by a number of factors: convenience, brand seduction and the desire to make flashy lifestyle statements.
But this observation needs a caveat. The poor in India also eat nutrition-poor processed food, of a different kind. Take bread and biscuits, for instance, which are consumed by all strata of the society. The organised segment of the bakery industry has a market share of 45 per cent with the unorganised sector accounting for the rest. In 2004-05, 5 million tonnes of bakery products were made with an estimated value of Rs 6,900 crore. Bread and biscuits accounted for about 82 per cent of bakery products. With an estimated production of 2.7
million tonnes in 2004-2005, the bread industry had a growth rate of 10 per cent during 1990-2000, which fell to 6.5 per cent during 2000-2005. To increase this, the All India Bread Manufacturers Association suggested bread should be included in mid-day meal schemes for school children.
During 2005-06, a total of 1.5 million tonnes of biscuits were produced. "The growth rate is between 10-12 per cent now whereas it used to be around 25 per cent a few years ago," says Govind Ram Choudhary of Anmol biscuits. On the industry's charter is the demand that biscuits should be granted exemption from central excise duty and value-added tax should be reduced to 4 per cent from the existing 12.5 per cent.
The biscuit industry is trying to expand networks, to both realise the potential of the rural market and spread the habit among the poor in urban India. Bigger companies like itc Foods are focusing on the urban market. The company has expanded its network and is promoting its Sunfeast biscuits across 1,000 schools in the country.
On the other hand, Britannia, which is a market leader in the top end, is trying to increase its sales in the rural areas with its Tiger Brand glucose biscuits. Britannia has approximately 35 per cent of the market. Rural areas account for approximately 40 per cent of total biscuits sales, with higher growth than the market average. Parle is trying to break into Britannia's stronghold with its popular Parle-G brand.
The 2007-08 budget proposals have given the industry an impetus by exempting biscuits that sell for less than Rs 50 per kg from excise duty. As we noted earlier, bread and biscuits have become staple, non-nutritive snacks and breakfast fare across social divides.
But the bakery narrative has another important implication. Lobbying by the food processing industry fits into a larger paradigm that has to do with the political economy of food processing. On the one hand, the industry is trying, and succeeding, because of state support, economies of scale and the power of, especially, the big players in the industry, in sourcing raw materials cheaply. This means, on the one hand, that the growth of the processing sector does not have significant knock-on benefits for farmers. On the other, it gives industry the right platform, with duty cuts and other government incentives, to create a mass market for relatively cheap products (see graph: Add-ons).
Relatively cheap is a relatively loaded description, however, given the mark-ups involved in processing food. Process this data. A 200 g packet of ready-to-eat mtr upma costs Rs 12 though 1 kg of sooji, the basic raw material is just Rs 15. A ready-to-eat packet of pindi chana serving two costs Rs 40, whereas the chana itself comes for Rs 60 a kg. A kg of tomatoes costs Rs 11, but a 200 g packet of puree costs Rs 12.50.
Take a more necessary part of our diet. One litre of full-cream milk sells for Rs 22; Mother Dairy sells low-fat milk for Rs 18 per litre; but Amul Lite milk in tetrapack cartons sells for Rs 27 a litre.
Similarly, one litre of milk can be converted into 200 g of cottage cheese at home, the same quantity sells for Rs 20 at local sweet shops and when it comes in a pack, it sells for Rs 22. The same applies to curd. Mother Dairy's full cream milk costs Rs 22 per litre but its curd sells for Rs 45 per kg.
The problem is not just that these cheap products are relatively poor on nutrition, they also constrict supplies of essential food material and this scarcity drives up prices. Look, for instance, at the poultry industry, which consumes 50 per cent of the maize grown in the country and still lobbies for greater concessions (see box: State of supply).
So while, for the food processing industry it's win-win on all fronts, the possibility of the poor getting a balanced meal is getting slimmer and slimmer.
Inputs from Maureen Nandini Mitra in Kolkata, and Archi Rastogi, Sneha Datta, Megha Prakash, Archita Bhatta, Karan Manveer Singh and Samrat Mukherjee