Global Health: Migrants Willing to Pay Price Not to Change Diet, Study Says




Sri Lankan refugees preparing a meal in their home in southern India.

Shuchi Kapoor for The Washington Post, via Getty Images

When migrants move, they often keep to the cuisine of their homeland even if it costs them more money and even if they have to eat significantly less, a new study has found.

The study, by David Atkin, a trade and development economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that poor migrants within India stuck with their dietary preferences — wheat for northerners, rice for southerners — even when they were nearly malnourished and even though the local crop was much cheaper.

The “calorie tax” they paid by eating less food for their money was about 7 percent, he found.

The willingness to pay more to eat less was strongest if the husband and wife were migrants. If only the husband was a migrant, the household was still less likely to adapt to local foods.

For example, Dr. Atkin said, “the husband demands rice even though he’s moved to an area that typically consumes wheat.”

“The husband has more ‘bargaining power,’ which is consistent with male domination of households in many parts of India,” he added.

His study was based on data collected in the 1980s from more than 240,000 households, but there are historical precedents.

In the 1943 Bengal famine, in which up to four million Indians died, a British commission claimed that shipments of wheat and millet rotted in warehouses because it was too hard to “wean rice-eaters from their determined preference for a food in short supply.”

In the parts of Peru and Brazil where wild acai berries are a native crop, Dr. Atkin said, poor people have continued to eat them as a staple side dish even though their popularity as a faddish “superfood” in the United States and Europe has driven up the price of a bowlful.

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