healthy eating costs more. fact or fiction?

Conventional wisdom has it that healthy foods cost more than junk food, that buying and preparing nutritious food is more expensive than eating processed food. How many people bemoan the supposed fact that low-income people cannot afford to eat healthfully: "When carrots are less expensive than chips, then everyone will have access to a healthy diet."

There's only one problem with that. It's wrong. Carrots are less expensive than chips. Brown rice and lentils is way cheaper than McDonald's. I'm not talking about the difference between organic and conventionally grown produce, just the difference between processed foods or fast-food and buying basic ingredients and cooking them yourself. It's almost always cheaper to shop, cook, and eat at home than it is to buy processed food.

So why don't more people do it?

In September of last year, Mark Bittman asked, "Is junk food really cheaper?"
The “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, “when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli ...” or “it’s more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to cook a healthy meal for them at home.”

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

Another argument runs that junk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories. But given that half of the people in this country (and a higher percentage of poor people) consume too many calories rather than too few, measuring food’s value by the calorie makes as much sense as measuring a drink’s value by its alcohol content. (Why not drink 95 percent neutral grain spirit, the cheapest way to get drunk?)

Besides, that argument, even if we all needed to gain weight, is not always true. A meal of real food cooked at home can easily contain more calories, most of them of the “healthy” variety. (Olive oil accounts for many of the calories in the roast chicken meal, for example.) In comparing prices of real food and junk food, I used supermarket ingredients, not the pricier organic or local food that many people would consider ideal. But food choices are not black and white; the alternative to fast food is not necessarily organic food, any more than the alternative to soda is Bordeaux.

The alternative to soda is water, and the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative.

“Anything that you do that’s not fast food is terrific; cooking once a week is far better than not cooking at all,” says Marion Nestle, professor of food studies at New York University and author of “What to Eat” [and author of the excellent Food Politics blog]. “It’s the same argument as exercise: more is better than less and some is a lot better than none.”

The fact is that most people can afford real food.
This an excellent article that I highly recommend saving and reading. Bittman acknowledges and addresses several other factors of why so many people, particularly low-income people, don't eat healthfully. He addresses those factors - but in my opinion, he minimizes or even dismisses the issues that exert great pressures on people's lives. For example:

** Food deserts. Imagine having to take multiple forms of public transit to shop in a supermarket. Such is the insanity of a profit-driven food system, when a community is seen as a marketing opportunity, rather than a collection of people who need access to nutritious food. Living in a food desert is an enormous obstacle to healthy eating, and for some people, an insurmountable one.

** Who's doing the shopping and cooking? Although many couples and working families share domestic work equitably, a shockingly high percentage of women still pull the "second shift," working all day, then coming home to 100% of the home care and child care. A recent CBC story about the inequities women face both in the workplace and in the home cites women spending more than twice the time doing unpaid child care than men, and "even when government supports exist to encourage men to do their share, they don't always do so".

In Canada in 2009, women spent an average of 13.8 hours a week on domestic chores, while their male counterparts spent 8.3 hours. (Soon none of these facts will be available, thanks to Stephen Harper killing the mandatory long-form census. Then we won't have to trouble ourselves with bothersome reality.) Michael Pollan frequently acknowledges that it is unfair to admonish families to cook more if the burden for healthy eating is thrown on one already overburdened person: mom.

** Cultural norms and generational habits. Habits we are born into and raised with can be very difficult to break. We must first recognize these habits as contributing negatively to our lives, and then be powerfully motivated to learn new ones. When I taught inner-city teenagers, the teenage moms gave their kids the same snack: soda and chips. In their world, a snack meant soda and chips. That's what their own young moms gave them when they were hungry, that's what they eat, and that's what their kids eat. Once in a great while I'd meet a young woman who gave her child a snack of raisins or cheese, and I immediately recognized her as a world apart. How do you educate that young mom and break that cycle?

** Exhaustion. I saw this recently in an essay called "Black Women and Fat".
When the biologist Daniel Lieberman suggested in a public lecture at Harvard this past February that exercise for everyone should be mandated by law, the audience applauded, the Harvard Gazette reported.

A room full of thin affluent people applauding the idea of forcing fatties, many of whom are dark, poor and exhausted, to exercise appalls me. Government mandated exercise is a vicious concept. But I get where Mr. Lieberman is coming from. The cost of too many people getting too fat is too high.
What jumped out at me was the word "exhausted". Exhaustion from the stress of never having enough, from worrying about how you will stretch your food budget to the end of the month. Exhaustion from working two jobs and having full responsibility for unpaid domestic work. Exhaustion because your health is poor, from (in the US) a lifetime of inadequate or nonexistent health care. Exhaustion because whatever work you can find is hard on the body and numbing to the mind. Exhaustion from doing everything the hard way.

Because if you are low-income, you cannot afford any of life's little conveniences; none of the time-vs-money tradeoffs that many of us make without a second thought are available to you. You do your laundry in a laundromat, rather than dropping it off or doing at home while you accomplish other tasks. You wash clothes by hand rather than have them drycleaned. You use public transportation in areas designed for the car, so you spend a lot of time waiting and riding on buses. In many areas, you live farther from your workplace than middle-class families. And when it comes to cooking and eating, you can't afford shortcuts, such as pre-washed lettuce, ready-to-cook vegetables, or salad bars.

Preparing healthy meals may cost less money, but it might cost more energy than we have in the bank. Perhaps shopping and cooking is just too exhausting to consider. That may seem like a poor excuse... to someone with enough money and energy to make better choices.

Bittman highlights two other factors that make junk food a difficult habit to break: its constant presence in our cultural landscape, and its built-in addictive quality.
The ubiquity, convenience and habit-forming appeal of hyperprocessed foods have largely drowned out the alternatives: there are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has decreased by as much as 30 percent; and nearly inconceivable resources go into encouraging consumption in restaurants: fast-food companies spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009.

Furthermore, the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.

This addiction to processed food is the result of decades of vision and hard work by the industry. For 50 years, says David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of “The End of Overeating,” companies strove to create food that was “energy-dense, highly stimulating, and went down easy. They put it on every street corner and made it mobile, and they made it socially acceptable to eat anytime and anyplace. They created a food carnival, and that’s where we live. And if you’re used to self-stimulation every 15 minutes, well, you can’t run into the kitchen to satisfy that urge.”

Real cultural changes are needed to turn this around. Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley. The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.

As with any addictive behavior, this one is most easily countered by educating children about the better way. Children, after all, are born without bad habits. And yet it’s adults who must begin to tear down the food carnival.

The question is how? Efforts are everywhere.
This article mentions a few, like The People’s Grocery in Oakland, zoning laws in Los Angeles that restrict the number of fast-food restaurants in high-obesity neighborhoods, and FoodCorps, a farm and food education program. They seem like tiny, isolated examples - but how else does a movement start?

On the other side of the spectrum, some people focus on reforming the present system. That may seem like sleeping with the enemy, but reforms can have an immediate and large impact, as when McDonald's was pressured into changing its frying oil, or when Whole Foods stopped selling live lobsters.

Almost one-third of the food sales in the US is controlled by - guess who - Walmart. This excellent article at Grist reports on an event where Michael Pollan interviewed Jack Sinclair, the executive vice president of grocery merchandise for Walmart. Believe it or not, Pollan sees an upside to the Food Inc. found at Walmart.
“I’m actually of two minds on this question,” Pollan said: sure, he’s excited by the tremendous energy behind food alternatives like organic farming, food co-ops, and farmers’ markets — but he also believes we’ll need larger changes to make good, healthy food accessible to everyone.

“The upside — if there is an upside — to having a highly concentrated food economy where a very small number of corporations exert tremendous power is that when they move, everything changes,” he said. He pointed to McDonald’s decision, following years of complaints from customers and animal rights groups, to stop tolerating inhumane livestock slaughter. “The way the whole industry slaughtered animals changed overnight,” he said. “You don’t have to love McDonald’s to see that engaging with them might actually produce some positive results.”

Of course, the downside — and there is a downside — to engaging in conversations with representatives of powerful corporations is that they will spend the bulk of the time telling you what their company is doing right. And later, if they do make changes based on external pressure, they’ll frame it as if they’ve simply discovered a new way to be right.

The key, then (and I’m sure Pollan could teach a course in this, too, by now) is to watch your opponent as you would a dangerous animal in the wild. Let him move around at will. Let him feel proud of those talking points. But keep watch for the smallest fissures in his argument, the cracks that illustrate when he has heard your opposition and might just be forced to agree in retrospect.
This doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. We can - we should, and we must - pressure Walmart and McDonald's to adopt better practices, so that people who depend on their products can poison themselves and the environment less. And we can - we should, and we must - create alternatives to the industrial food chain, so that more people can actively withdraw from it.

Peter Rothberg of The Nation highlighted the Occupy Movement's connection to the Food Movement.

Joining Food Democracy Now! is an excellent way to stay informed about the movement against industrial food.
Food Democracy Now! is a grassroots community dedicated to building a sustainable food system that protects our natural environment, sustains farmers and nourishes families.

Our food system is fundamentally broken. A few companies dominate the market, prioritizing profits over people and our planet. Government policies put the interests of corporate agribusiness over the livelihoods of farm families. Farm workers toil in unsafe conditions for minimal wages. School children lack access to healthy foods--as do millions of Americans living in poverty. From rising childhood and adult obesity to issues of food safety, air and water pollution, worker's rights and global warming, our current food system is leading our nation to an unsustainable future.

Food Democracy Now! members have a different vision. We know we can build a food system that gives our communities equal access to healthy food, and respects the dignity of the farmers who produce it. We believe in recreating regional food systems, supporting the growth of humane, natural and organic farms, and protecting the environment. We value our children's health, worker's rights, conservation, and animal welfare over corporate profits. And we believe that working together, we can make this vision a reality in our lifetimes.
The industrial food chain poisons our water with pesticides and antibiotics, it poisons our bodies with E. coli and carcinogens, it impoverishes farmers, it sickens and kills workers, it causes massive and unnecessary suffering to animals, it keeps us unhealthy and obese but undernourished - and it makes corporations and their shareholders stinking rich. Many of us will never be completely free of it, but any small break is meaningful.

Ultimately, the only way to ensure that all people can afford healthy and nutritious food is to eliminate poverty - which means dismantling capitalism. You didn't think I'd miss an opportunity to say that, did you?


redrico said...

An interesting post. I remain unconvinced that eating healthy food at home is really cheaper when you factor in all the costs that you've made note of. The cost in terms of time and energy to plan a meal, make a list, go to the store and buy what is needed, bring it home, cook it and serve it and then clean up is quite considerable. And these all involve material costs as well - bus or taxi fare or gas for your car, less time at work (especially for working parents who have to do a lot of juggling to pull this off), gas or electricity for your stove/oven, water and soap for cleaning dishes and your kitchen, proper cooking and eating untensils, all the auxiliary things you need to buy in order to cook regularly like spices, oils, butters, tin foil etc etc. Many of these might seem like one time costs but if you don't have any of it then those costs come at you all at once and they all involve replacement, repairs and maintenance. When you add it all up I would argue that a hamburger from McDonalds which is terrible for your health is also a cheaper source of nutrition.

I always love to see all the great alternatives that better educated, middle class consumers develop and pursue. It is testament to the fact that ordinary people not fettered by the logic of profit and competition can easily find solutions to all the problems that the corporate food system seems to find near impossible to overcome. That's one of the things that is so great about the Occupy camps is that they put all that human ingenuity on display. It is a small taste of what we can do if we have real democratic control over our lives.

Unfortunately, as inspiring as these alternatives are, they fail to address one crucial question: How do we implement this? Withdrawing from the profit-driven food system is not an option for the overwhelming majority of people in the world. If they did most would starve or be even more malnourished than they already are. The industrial food companies have control of the most important means of food production and distribution and they control advertising and other means of educating (or uneducating) people about food. They determine the real consumer choices available to the majority of working class people. The biggest problem with much of the green consumer movement is that it functions based on one central myth, which is that our consumer choices are somehow democratic or free (something that George Bush would completely agree with). The only choice that really matters is whether you choose to resist the system or not.

redrico said...


Shopping right is not resistance. It is simply participating in the market and that does nothing to threaten the corporate interests that control our food supply. Real resistance is about physically participating in the struggle to gain democratic control over the central mechanisms of food production and distribution and take it out of the hands of the corporations. Of course people can make their own consumer choices and I think the best way to educate people about that is to build the anti-capitalist movement but those choices are not a strategy for change. I see them more as exploring some of the alternatives on offer so we have a better sense of what it is we're fighting for.

I recognize that you're also trying to be sort of pragmatic about the immediate things we can do to educate people but as you have shown poor single mothers, for example, are faced by much more than what to do about dinner. From their perspective, I'm sure they'd love to have healthier food for themselves and their kids but they have so many other pressing concerns associated with poverty and oppression that to try talking to them about food without also addressing these other problems at the same time probably seems more than a little trivial. Putting their energy and resources into finding ways to connect with and participate in the anti-capitalist movement is far more important. I'd rather they take the time to go to a protest or attend a meeting than take extra time to go to the grocery store and cook for the kids (although it's great when the meeting or protest offers childcare and a good meal). And realistically that is the choice that majority of people have to make.

It's been the trend on the left to kind of accommodate green activism and say well, you can do both and not directly criticize green consumerism. That works for young people without families or full-time jobs but for the rest of the class it's mostly one or the other.

So, I agree with the end of your post. Resisting the entire capitalist system is not pie in the sky. It's the real struggle that must be fought. Dropping out, withdrawing, living alternative or however you want to phrase it is not going to accomplish anything but make a few middle class people feel good about themselves while the rest of us continue to be stuck with eating poisonous crap. When Monsanto is occupied and under the control of the 99% then we'll be able to make some real choices about what we're eating.

laura k said...

Thanks, redrico. This

Dropping out, withdrawing, living alternative or however you want to phrase it is not going to accomplish anything but make a few middle class people feel good about themselves while the rest of us continue to be stuck with eating poisonous crap.

sounds exactly like me. :) I write things like this all the time, referring to a lot of DYI and maker culture. That's a hobby or a creative pursuit for the affluent, but it's not a solution to cheap plastic crap filling up the world.

It is definitely cheaper to cook and eat at home if you only tally the cost of the food - as Bittman does. But in reality there are other costs.

Thanks for your thoughts!

laura k said...

but they have so many other pressing concerns associated with poverty and oppression that to try talking to them about food without also addressing these other problems at the same time probably seems more than a little trivial. Putting their energy and resources into finding ways to connect with and participate in the anti-capitalist movement is far more important. I'd rather they take the time to go to a protest or attend a meeting than take extra time to go to the grocery store and cook for the kids

This seems very patronizing and pedantic to me.

Food choices and learning how to nourish yourself and your family is anything but trivial. Food is life in its most basic form. Learning how to shop, cook, and feed yourself and your family is the complete opposite of trivial - it's foundational.

You would rather people go to a meeting - but everyone has to feed themselves and their kids first, including all of us who go to meetings regularly. It's ridiculous, IMO, to juxtapose the two - learning about better eating habits and learning about revolutionary politics - as if they are mutually exclusive.

Also, I want to note that many of the alternatives mentioned here and in Bittman's article are not middle-class consumer fads, but have been created and maintained and are used by low-income people. The People's Grocery is one example, but there are many others. Urban gardeners are, for the most part, low-income - they mostly farm on vacant lots, and those are only found in low-income neighbourhoods!

laura k said...

Another note I'd add to my response to redrico:

People become sensitized to politics, and radicalized, through different paths. Often it's through an issue that has affected their own life. Who's to say that a mobilization of low-income people over food issues could not or would not be a path to radicalization?

In fact, I'm sure that is happening - right now.

laura k said...

Neighbourhoods that are convenient and walkable are a socioeconomic indicator: link.