A few days ago, Mark Bittman, author of How To Cook Everything and NYTimes Opinion columnist – penned an article asking a question that has been on my mind for a long time: 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.” “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. 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. There are, of course, the so-called food deserts, places where it’s hard to find food: the Department of Agriculture says that more than two million Americans in low-income rural areas live 10 miles or more from a supermarket, and more than five million households without access to cars live more than a half mile from a supermarket.
Still, 93 percent of those with limited access to supermarkets do have access to vehicles, though it takes them 20 more minutes to travel to the store than the national average. And after a long day of work at one or even two jobs, 20 extra minutes — plus cooking time — must seem like an eternity.
Taking the long route to putting food on the table may not be easy, but for almost all Americans it remains a choice, and if you can drive to McDonald’s you can drive to Safeway. It’s cooking that’s the real challenge. (The real challenge is not “I’m too busy to cook.” In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there.)
The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch. “People really are stressed out with all that they have to do, and they don’t want to cook,” says Julie Guthman, associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism.” “Their reaction is, ‘Let me enjoy what I want to eat, and stop telling me what to do.’ And it’s one of the few things that less well-off people have: they don’t have to cook.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I, at this point in my life, simply couldn’t afford to eat processed foods. I couldn’t see myself spending $20 on one meal – I could make a pot of seafood gumbo for less than that and still have leftovers for days – let alone one whole day of cooking.
However, I think it’s important to remember the plight of the “working poor.” I get e-mails from people who ask me what they should do, because they don’t have a working stove (or, hell, any stove at all) or they struggle with the idea of cooking at all, because they never learned. Mom or Grandmom got hit by the processed foods bug, and she only passed down how to tear open the box.
Being able to cook is a privilege. It is a privilege of knowledge – having the know-how – and a privilege of access. I’m totally with Bittman on the idea that people do, in fact, have the time and often the money, as well. People who normally talk to me about their experiences with being a part of the working poor will often e-mail me and say “these are my limitations, help me make something of them.” They don’t say “it’s not doable,” as if to really say “leave me the f— alone.” One is, at least, acknowledging the shortcomings while, at the same time, acknowledging that perhaps they’ve been unable to accomplish the task at hand because of something they haven’t considered. The other, completely closed-minded and telling you “it’s not doable?” Yeah, that’s trying to shut down the conversation so they can eat their junk food in peace.
I think it’s also important to note that, as Bittman said, food isn’t always black and white. Just like he says, there is no such thing as an “only alternative.” The only alternative to your big mac isn’t organic, grass-fed beef. (There’s also, mind you, always the option to simply not eat any meat, but I realize that this is, for some odd reason, controversial.) The only alternative to fries isn’t carrots (or apples, for that matter.) Sometimes, when I hear people talking about the cost of food, this is used as a sticking point – “no one’s got all that money for all that organic hoo-ha and vegetarian-fed diet whatever.” That’s when I’m reminded of the convenience that junk food has afforded us.
It’s easy to get used to someone else doing the heavy lifting and the work of cooking for you. (It’s especially easy to make that correlation when one of America’s oldest brands was marketed based off the idea that she WAS a slave intended to harken back to the time when SHE would’ve been making your pancakes for you.) It’s easy to get comfortable with placing an order, never leaving your car, reaching out your window and grabbing your food, driving home (eating it along the way) and then sitting down at your table and opening the little packages like individually wrapped little gifts. It’s pretty easy to get used to that kind of convenience. In a country like ours, things are supposed to become more convenient. That’s how capitalism works – people make money by making life more convenient for you. (Do you buy products that make your life more difficult? I sure don’t.)
I’m also generally annoyed by the poo-pooing of food deserts, mentioned in a passing paragraph. I have no idea how anyone could measure who, of a demographic, could possibly “have access to a car,” but I’m particularly sympathetic to the issue because I used to have to call a taxi to pick me and my daughter up from the grocery store. I had no problem walking there, but I couldn’t possibly bring me, her, and an untold number of grocery bags home safely in the beginning. I feel like someone like Bittman should know better than that, but I am also reminded of the fact that his new book, “Cooking Solves Everything,” just hit shelves (it at least hit the Apple bookstore) a few days ago. The point of this article was to sell the premise behind the book, regardless of whether or not he explicitly stated such. (You know what’s the problem? Not money or access or time. It’s that you don’t know how to cook! But Cooking Solves Everything! Let me tell you how… in my book!) He’s smart, just not entirely transparent.
That being said, I think there was an interesting response in the comments area:
The problem is structural: American food subsidies are in all the wrong places, so high-fructose corn syrup is cheap and staples like dairy or poultry are expensive. There’s also no easy way to get to the grocery store, and there aren’t nearly as many of them: in Berlin, I had a choice of 3 grocery stores in 5-10 minute walking distance and dozens in 15 minutes with public transportation. Transportation, in addition, was reasonably priced and better, also as a result of state subsidies in the right places. Here, I have 2 grocery stores that are walkable, with boring selection at triple the price, and then… nothing. The next grocery store is perhaps 30 minutes one-way, if I time the Metra properly.
Sure, Bittman can assert that a roasted chicken with vegetables can feed a family of four, maybe, for one meal–provided that one has an oven for roasting, pans for cooking vegetables, oil, a family that has time to all eat dinner at the same time, etc., but with a McDonald’s meal, all you have to do is eat once for the day and it keeps you full. That’s what he seems to be missing: there are 2000 calories in a $3 or $4 McDonald’s value meal–you would be lucky if the whole chicken meal had 2000 calories in total (then split it 4 ways).
I’m from the “repurpose the subsidies” camp, but not a single thing about a McDonalds meal is meant to “keep you full.” People eat 2,000 calories meals every day – Cheesecake Factory, TGI Friday’s, Olive Garden – and none of that “lasts all day.” Hyper-processed food, as it is lovingly referred to above, relies heavily on refined starches, fillers and flours (in other words, refined calorie bombs combined with high fat content which turns dishes into calorie bombs. (This is why people report success with “cutting carbs.” It’s usually because the dominant source of carbs in one’s diet is hyper-processed food.) A McDonalds burger bun, upon chewing, gathers quickly with the saliva into one giant wad in the mouth and goes down the throat smoothly, rarely leaving a trace behind it. It was engineered to be that way. Hyper-processed.
Besides, calories don’t work that way. Memory doesn’t work that way. Time doesn’t work that way. The body doesn’t work that way. For the average person, they’ll eat again a few hours later simply because “it’s time to eat.” Therefore, if the “problem” we’re discussing, here, is obesity, then the cause of the problem would, again, be the junk food.
I’m also very wary of conversations about America’s food habits because that initial reluctance that people have is troubling to me. If I start to rail about the trans-fat in oreos, the first person to scream out “Leave oreos alone and stop being my nanny!!!” is usually the one who spends evenings on the couch after work with… you guessed it. Oreos. Food has become a crutch, in so many ways, that people have become addicted to it in one form or another – be it the convenience it affords them in removing some responsibility from their shoulders, be it the feeling of being taken care of, or be it the fact that they may simply have an emotional eating problem – and they don’t like the threat of their crutch being pulled from under them. That’s not to say that I judge, but I definitely wince. Hearing it is like nails on a chalkboard to me.
So, if you ask me if junk food truly is cheaper, I’d have to say no… I’d just also have to acknowledge the experience, knowledge, access and privilege that allows me to say as much, while still committing my time to helping others gain the same. Junk food may be cheap, but time is not, and I don’t think we can shortchange that reality.