Last week, The New York Times published an editorial begging the question of whether junk food really is cheaper than good, healthy food. It’s conclusion was more or less no, that buying ingredients at a grocery store and cooking at home will always be more cost effective than picking up fast food. We must teach people to cook, and address the problem of those without ready access to grocery stores.
On this point, I do agree. Particularly when one is feeding a family, it will always make more sense to buy ingredients, such as chicken, pasta, rice, etc. and cook in bulk at home. If you’re a smart shopper, you can buy good ingredients and cook healthful meals — even without the aid of a Trader Joes or Whole Foods… and the pocketbook to shop at either. Generally, I recommend the article — pertaining the specifics the author argues, I cannot find fault. However, it’s the point the article DOESN’T address that I find more interesting. The article opens thusly:
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.”
Emphasis is mine — this is the item the article doesn’t really address. Really, what that statement should be is “when a package of ramen costs less than a banana.” Because it DOES. Ditto for products such as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. The article continues (after rightfully skewering the fast food, ie MacDonalds, is cheaper argument):
THE fact is that most people can afford real food. Even the nearly 50 million Americans who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) receive about $5 per person per day, which is far from ideal but enough to survive. So we have to assume that money alone doesn’t guide decisions about what to eat.
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.
Kudos for not trotting out the yuppie argument about grass fed beef and whole foods, but what is “real” food? Pasta… hello Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and ramen noodles. Both are packed full of artificial flavors, chemicals and salt… but they’re CHEAP and one can buy them at the grocery store and “cook” them at home! (add to this list also: flavored pasta/rice packs, Hamburger Helper and any other number of “quick” meals that primarily contain additives, chemicals and contain negligible nutrition). Rice & grains — cheap. But so is the gravy, the sauces, etc. that people will pair with them (and they will likely buy the cheap white variety, not the actually-good-for-you brown rice alternative). And this does not even take into account all the fatty, terrible ways one can prepare “real food” — what good is a piece of chicken if it’s been in the deep-fryer, or a bunch of green beans coated in butter, bread crumbs and gravy? Grocery store shelves are packed full of terrible, cheap food… and even when Americans do cook, so many have no clue how to cook “real food” in a healthy way. (and, yes, the BEST foods to eat ARE the most expensive)
Also a favorite: the author exalts the cooking of a chicken at home, and all the healthy calories one will get… from cooking it with olive oil. But, if you’re living in a food desert, living on food stamps — $5 a person, per day — are you going to buy the $28 bottle of olive oil (even the $10 is steep for someone pinching pennies) or buy actual food? Tell me how many people who are poor and trying to get “bang for their buck” are really going to invest in olive oil? No, they will pick up the cheapest oil cooking substance you can buy — vegetable oil and other not-very-healthy varieties… or just cook with butter.
The cheapest items at the grocery store win, and nine times out of ten, those items are the shittiest. How many of us lived off ramen noodles, mac & cheese and pb&j in college? They are the over-produced stuff of the corporate food giants and, yes, Virginia, junk food IS cheaper. So are many, many products that are stuffed full of high fructose corn syrup and other corn-derived (and fat-making) products — thank you government subsidies of the corn industry. So while cooking > fast food is a wholly sound argument, you can just point people towards grocery stores and cooking and expect the problem to go away.
Ultimately, we agree on some of the other issues, even if our author ignores that not all cooking is created equal:
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.”
And this, plus pervasive food advertising, contributes to the problem of cheap, non-nutritious, readily available food… in grocery stores, that one can “cook.” There IS a disparity in nutrition and health between those with ready access to funds and those without, and not just because poorer demographics allegedly eat at MacDonalds every day. The answer isn’t simple — ie: go to the grocery store and cook — but complicated and multi-faceted. The piece scratches the surface (very well), but we have to challenge food subsidies and food advertising (and truth in advertising!) if we want to see any real change. We live in a world where salt-laden, reconstituted pasta costs less than fresh pasta + fresh tomatoes, basil & olive oil. Where soft drinks cost less than water. Where people choose potato chips for snacks, not carrot sticks. There’s a lot to work on.
I want to hear your thoughts!
(and for the record, I really, really liked the NYT article… just felt it suffered from upper middle classism just a smidge — the sweet assumption that the average person can simply walk into a grocery store and make affordable, healthy choices for cooking. Come on. Nine times of ten I would choose ramen & mac & cheese… and I know better!)