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?

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