The High Price Of Cheap Food

FastFoodMark Bittman asks and answers the question “Is junk food really cheaper?” in the New York Times:

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…

[continues in the New York Times]

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  • http://twitter.com/jasonpaulhayes jasonpaulhayes

    Do we really need this re-post from New York Times?

    Get a Fucking Clue !

  • jasonpaulhayes

    Do we really need this re-post from New York Times?

    Get a Fucking Clue !

    • Anarchy Pony

      Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

      • gil

        Accidentally liked.

        Was going to say:
        “why ‘even’? If it’s working properly but one hour late, it will never be right. Unless the battery runs out, of course. So sometimes it’s better to have a broken watch than to have one which is always late.”

        • Anarchy Pony

          If it’s working properly but one hour late, then it isn’t broken is it. Besides, it’s just an idiom. 

  • Nunzio X

    People who won’t cook mystify me. As do people who eat fast “food.”

    That aside, Mark Bittman’s MINIMALIST cooking videos are excellent and available on iTunes. Well worth watching.

  • Nunzio X

    People who won’t cook mystify me. As do people who eat fast “food.”

    That aside, Mark Bittman’s MINIMALIST cooking videos are excellent and available on iTunes. Well worth watching.

    • DeepCough

      Honestly, it’s so very much cheaper to cook your own food. I can make a better Big Mac than McD’s can.

      • Nunzio X

        I’ve got some young friends who have never cooked for themselves (and I don’t count shoving a frozen pizza in the oven as “cooking”) but who seem to enjoy my little dinner gatherings (nothing fancy, just one-pot meals like soup, stew, spaghetti, lasagna, or whateve, and a simple side dish like garlic bread with cheese.)

        They think you have to be some kind of professional cook but I say: “One knife, one crockpot, some veggies, spices, and meat—–and you’ll eat like a fucking king.” Any dorm room in the world has a goddamned electrical outlet into which you can plug a crockpot, dump your stuff into it, walk off, and come back several hours later to a good meal. No fucking excuses.

        YouTube is FULL of videos on how to cook good, nutritious stuff on the cheap, using decent ingredients (NOT expensive stuff).

  • Okarin

    the trend is if it isn’t on the receipt it’s too complicated to calculate

  • Okarin

    the trend is if it isn’t on the receipt it’s too complicated to calculate

  • Okarin

    the trend is if it isn’t on the receipt it’s too complicated to calculate

  • Okarin

    the trend is if it isn’t on the receipt it’s too complicated to calculate

  • Wanooski

    Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lanceaworth Lance Worth

    I feel like this article ignores the fact that in many of the neighborhoods where poverty is high, a convenience store is the closest to a grocery store available.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lanceaworth Lance Worth

    I feel like this article ignores the fact that in many of the neighborhoods where poverty is high, a convenience store is the closest to a grocery store available.

  • Haystack

    1. A lot of low-income neighborhoods literally don’t have a supermarket where you can buy produce.

    2. The author does not seem to be aware that McDonalds has a dollar menu. 

    3. An extra value meal at McDonalds is only in the 500-1,000 calorie range, which is comparable to what most people eat for dinner. People who order fast food can control portions just as well as people who cook do (or don’t). You can even buy diet soda.  

    The margin between weight gain and weight loss has less to do with whether you have fast food or couscous for dinner, than whether you spend your spare time snacking on chips or playing basketball. A lot of this preaching at McDonalds and the “cultural attitudes” of the poor just smacks of elitism–”We need to convince lower income people to read Michael Pollan and eat couscous like we do here in Greenwich Village.”   

    • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

      While i won’t disagree with you on the first or second point, I will say a problem with junk food is is addictive like-nature, and the subtle mind-trickery that goes on with it. An example involves sodas, which are very salty, but masked with tons of corn syrup. Because its so salty, simultaneously tasting like it should sate thirst, you will always want more. The high fructose corn syrup also inhibits your satiety, so you can always shove more greasy burgers down your throat. Junk food works against controlling portions. Unfortunately they actually cannot control their portions as well, because they do not get the proper biological signals that people eating wholesome foods get.

    • Brehhah

      The author does take your points into account, which you would know if you read the entire article. I don’t know where your getting this couscous and Greenwich Village stuff; hes talking about eating chicken and canned beans for gods sake.

  • Haystack

    1. A lot of low-income neighborhoods literally don’t have a supermarket where you can buy produce.

    2. The author does not seem to be aware that McDonalds has a dollar menu. 

    3. An extra value meal at McDonalds is only in the 500-1,000 calorie range, which is comparable to what most people eat for dinner. People who order fast food can control portions just as well as people who cook do (or don’t). You can even buy diet soda.  

    The margin between weight gain and weight loss has less to do with whether you have fast food or couscous for dinner, than whether you spend your spare time snacking on chips or playing basketball. A lot of this preaching at McDonalds and the “cultural attitudes” of the poor just smacks of elitism–”We need to convince lower income people to read Michael Pollan and eat couscous like we do here in Greenwich Village.”   

  • gil

    Accidentally liked.

    Was going to say:
    “why ‘even’? If it’s working properly but one hour late, it will never be right. Unless the battery runs out, of course. So sometimes it’s better to have a broken watch than to have one which is always late.”

  • Wanooski

    If it’s working properly but one hour late, then it isn’t broken is it. Besides, it’s just an idiom. 

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    While i won’t disagree with you on the first or second point, I will say a problem with junk food is is addictive like-nature, and the subtle mind-trickery that goes on with it. An example involves sodas, which are very salty, but masked with tons of corn syrup. Because its so salty, simultaneously tasting like it should sate thirst, you will always want more. The high fructose corn syrup also inhibits your satiety, so you can always shove more greasy burgers down your throat. Junk food works against controlling portions. Unfortunately they actually cannot control their portions as well, because they do not get the proper biological signals that people eating wholesome foods get.

  • Paulwhitehurst247

    I dont get it, how cheap is McDonalds in USA?
    I live in Holland and a McDonalds is a once a month treat for the kids if they are lucky!
    For myself, my wife and my 3 children, the bill normally comes to around €27/30. Thats $40……how the hell can that be cheaper than cooking at home?
    My weekly food bill is €80/85 for 2 adults and 3 children. Thats $110
    How the hell is it that that i can’t afford to buy junk food, exept for a once a month treat and you can afford to eat it everyday?

    • Anarchy Pony

      McDonalds in the US is just about the cheapest food you can get here. Comes in under, I dunno, about $5, even less if you use the “dollar” menu. I’ve never been to a McDonalds overseas so I can’t tell you exactly why. Maybe they sell better food to you Europeans because your governments generally try to protect their people.

      • dubious

        I think you meant to say “your governments ‘genuinely’ try to protect their people.”  That is probably true when compared to the Corporate USA who cold care less for the health and well-being of the masses when it comes to profits.  But I genuinely doubt whether either government truly cares about the health of the masses when it comes to campaign contributions vs over-all health. 

      • Belcat2

        McDonalds in the US is subventionized by the US Government.  The corn the cows eat is highly subventionized, the cows themselves are too.  As well, the workers are paid less in the US than most other country.  And the cost of the licensing is probably cheaper in local dollars than other places.

    • SF2K01

      As some have mentioned, McDs is actually cheap and does have a dollar menu. That aside, it’s not always that it’s cheaper than buying food in the grocery store by itself, but the kinds of people who are so poor they work multiple jobs and don’t have time to shop at the store, much less cook a meal, McDs is still their cheapest choice, despite that they are still losing out, since it’s very easy to use the drive through on the way home and just give the kids a meal before passing out.

      The author of the NYT article tries to blame it on laziness since people still watch TV (he’s not taking those people I mentioned who work 3 part time minimum wage jobs as single parents into account), but it takes a lot more than an hour and a half to do family shopping and then cook, and that’s aside from the fact that the produce section is way more expensive than the cornsyrup concoctions in the next aisle.

      • emperorreagan

        Another thing I don’t remember seeing (but could have missed) and to expound on Haystack’s point #1:

        The urban poor spend a lot of time on public transit in many cities.  In my city, for example, the public transit system is awful.  It takes at least an hour to commute 10 miles on Baltimore city buses and sometimes as much as 2 hours, if you don’t live and commute from one wealthy part of town to another or if you’re traveling at off-peak commuting times.

        So while the city isn’t a food desert, it can become one because of the time one has to invest.  The time spent to cook at home is much more than just the time invested in the act of cooking.  It’s the additional time spent on circuitous routes to get from the areas where there actually are jobs, out to a grocery store, then back to a stop near home where you’ll have to walk a few blocks with those groceries.  Or you can choose the neighborhood corner stores which are all marked up much more than the supermarkets the author is using as his baseline.  

        Or you can go to the neighborhood McDonald’s/fried chicken shop/fast food establishment.

        I think there is a pretty strong tendency to minimize the challenges facing the impoverished in America in these types of articles.

        The other point I think the author misses is that grocery stores in the US really cater to the sort of people that are going to go grocery shopping pretty infrequently - package sizes for many staple items are geared towards the type of person who gets paid biweekly and shops on that sort of time scale.

  • Paulwhitehurst247

    I dont get it, how cheap is McDonalds in USA?
    I live in Holland and a McDonalds is a once a month treat for the kids if they are lucky!
    For myself, my wife and my 3 children, the bill normally comes to around €27/30. Thats $40……how the hell can that be cheaper than cooking at home?
    My weekly food bill is €80/85 for 2 adults and 3 children. Thats $110
    How the hell is it that that i can’t afford to buy junk food, exept for a once a month treat and you can afford to eat it everyday?

  • Paulwhitehurst247

    I dont get it, how cheap is McDonalds in USA?
    I live in Holland and a McDonalds is a once a month treat for the kids if they are lucky!
    For myself, my wife and my 3 children, the bill normally comes to around €27/30. Thats $40……how the hell can that be cheaper than cooking at home?
    My weekly food bill is €80/85 for 2 adults and 3 children. Thats $110
    How the hell is it that that i can’t afford to buy junk food, exept for a once a month treat and you can afford to eat it everyday?

  • Wanooski

    McDonalds in the US is just about the cheapest food you can get here. Comes in under, I dunno, about $5, even less if you use the “dollar” menu. I’ve never been to a McDonalds overseas so I can’t tell you exactly why. Maybe they sell better food to you Europeans because your governments generally try to protect their people.

  • DeepCough

    Honestly, it’s so very much cheaper to cook your own food. I can make a better Big Mac than McD’s can.

  • Shoelesselmo

    I  for one, I have been subsisting almost solely on fast food for the past 6 months or so, although I ABBHOR FACTORY FARMING AND CORPORATE MONOCULTURE. There are a few reasons why I do this 1. I dont like cooking at my home (messy roommates) 2. I hardly go home anyhow except to shower and shave as Im working in my shop almost always 3. My shop dosent have a kitchen 4. Im really busy. So this is what I eat almost every da; Brunch; Dunkin Donuts, large iced coffee & raisin bagel toasted w/ cream cheese $5.50+$1 tip. Dinner; Subway, Footlong veggie sub w/ everything large soda and chips. $7.50+$1 tip Sometimes Ill shake things up with a tuna or blt. Thats all I eat. $15 bucks a day. Yes  I could save some money eating quiona and beans and stuff and not support the corporations, but with my situation it works.

    • Jin The Ninja

      Are you telling me you live in a city with no local chains or  decent places for take away? Maybe in tdot i’m a bit spoiled, but if someone abhors corporate monoculture/ factory farming (like i do) they should make it a POINT not to engage in practices that support it. It is possible to eat take away and completely avoid corporate stores. before i got married i used to be the king of it.

      • Shoelesselmo

        Your right, Im just being lazy. Im gonna get my self a toaster oven and rice cooker. Ive been missing good quality bagels for too long.

  • Shoelesselmo

    I  for one, I have been subsisting almost solely on fast food for the past 6 months or so, although I ABBHOR FACTORY FARMING AND CORPORATE MONOCULTURE. There are a few reasons why I do this 1. I dont like cooking at my home (messy roommates) 2. I hardly go home anyhow except to shower and shave as Im working in my shop almost always 3. My shop dosent have a kitchen 4. Im really busy. So this is what I eat almost every da; Brunch; Dunkin Donuts, large iced coffee & raisin bagel toasted w/ cream cheese $5.50+$1 tip. Dinner; Subway, Footlong veggie sub w/ everything large soda and chips. $7.50+$1 tip Sometimes Ill shake things up with a tuna or blt. Thats all I eat. $15 bucks a day. Yes  I could save some money eating quiona and beans and stuff and not support the corporations, but with my situation it works.

  • Anonymous

    Are you telling me you live in a city with no local chains or  decent places for take away? Maybe in tdot i’m a bit spoiled, but if someone abhors corporate monoculture/ factory farming (like i do) they should make it a POINT not to engage in practices that support it. It is possible to eat take away and completely avoid corporate stores. before i got married i used to be the king of it.

  • Anonymous

    As some have mentioned, McDs is actually cheap and does have a dollar menu. That aside, it’s not always that it’s cheaper than buying food in the grocery store by itself, but the kinds of people who are so poor they work multiple jobs and don’t have time to shop at the store, much less cook a meal, McDs is still their cheapest choice, despite that they are still losing out, since it’s very easy to use the drive through on the way home and just give the kids a meal before passing out.

  • Brehhah

    The author does take your points into account, which you would know if you read the entire article. I don’t know where your getting this couscous and Greenwich Village stuff; hes talking about eating chicken and canned beans for gods sake.

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    Fast food is a problem of mindset for food consumption. It follows a theory that you can run people on the highest calorie per pound of food. Humans burn resources very slowly, and these high efficiency foods are not exactly what we’re meant to be consuming.

    Theres a reason we don’t try to compact thermite and put a string in it, and call it a candle. Theres a reason we don’t fill a lamp with napalm, and call them a good light source.

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    Fast food is a problem of mindset for food consumption. It follows a theory that you can run people on the highest calorie per pound of food. Humans burn resources very slowly, and these high efficiency foods are not exactly what we’re meant to be consuming.

    Theres a reason we don’t try to compact thermite and put a string in it, and call it a candle. Theres a reason we don’t fill a lamp with napalm, and call them a good light source.

  • AJR65

    A fat dumb and lazy population is VERY easy to control. We wouldn’t want people to actually start thinking would we?

  • Anonymous

    A fat dumb and lazy population is VERY easy to control. We wouldn’t want people to actually start thinking would we?

  • AJR65

    In the 1600′s in Europe, the population drank a brew called “Mead” all day long (which was a cheaply made fermented booze from honey) The population was drunk and happy and stupid. Coffee finally made its way to Europe and Coffee houses became popular, and what happened was people starting WAKING up realizing that the government was fu****g them!! This made the Government scared and mad, so what did they do? BAN and OUTLAW coffee. Anyone drinking coffee would be put to death. Don’t believe me? Look it up.

    • CaseyLee

      I just bought some mead, too. Now you’ve made me too depressed to drink it.

  • Anonymous

    In the 1600′s in Europe, the population drank a brew called “Mead” all day long (which was a cheaply made fermented booze from honey) The population was drunk and happy and stupid. Coffee finally made its way to Europe and Coffee houses became popular, and what happened was people starting WAKING up realizing that the government was fu****g them!! This made the Government scared and mad, so what did they do? BAN and OUTLAW coffee. Anyone drinking coffee would be put to death. Don’t believe me? Look it up.

  • emperorreagan

    Another thing I don’t remember seeing (but could have missed) and to expound on Haystack’s point #1:

    The urban poor spend a lot of time on public transit in many cities.  In my city, for example, the public transit system is awful.  It takes at least an hour to commute 10 miles on Baltimore city buses and sometimes as much as 2 hours, if you don’t live and commute from one wealthy part of town to another or if you’re traveling at off-peak commuting times.

    So while the city isn’t a food desert, it can become one because of the time one has to invest.  The time spent to cook at home is much more than just the time invested in the act of cooking.  It’s the additional time spent on circuitous routes to get from the areas where there actually are jobs, out to a grocery store, then back to a stop near home where you’ll have to walk a few blocks with those groceries.  Or you can choose the neighborhood corner stores which are all marked up much more than the supermarkets the author is using as his baseline.  

    Or you can go to the neighborhood McDonald’s/fried chicken shop/fast food establishment.

    I think there is a pretty strong tendency to minimize the challenges facing the impoverished in America in these types of articles.

    The other point I think the author misses is that grocery stores in the US really cater to the sort of people that are going to go grocery shopping pretty infrequently - package sizes for many staple items are geared towards the type of person who gets paid biweekly and shops on that sort of time scale.

  • Nunzio X

    I’ve got some young friends who have never cooked for themselves (and I don’t count shoving a frozen pizza in the oven as “cooking”) but who seem to enjoy my little dinner gatherings (nothing fancy, just one-pot meals like soup, stew, spaghetti, lasagna, or whateve, and a simple side dish like garlic bread with cheese.)

    They think you have to be some kind of professional cook but I say: “One knife, one crockpot, some veggies, spices, and meat—–and you’ll eat like a fucking king.” Any dorm room in the world has a goddamned electrical outlet into which you can plug a crockpot, dump your stuff into it, walk off, and come back several hours later to a good meal. No fucking excuses.

    YouTube is FULL of videos on how to cook good, nutritious stuff on the cheap, using decent ingredients (NOT expensive stuff).

  • dubious

    I think you meant to say “your governments ‘genuinely’ try to protect their people.”  That is probably true when compared to the Corporate USA who cold care less for the health and well-being of the masses when it comes to profits.  But I genuinely doubt whether either government truly cares about the health of the masses when it comes to campaign contributions vs over-all health. 

  • Jamie

    As has been mentioned by a few other comments, the issue is time, not funding.

    I used to babysit for a single mom (friend of my mom’s, so I was babysitting for free), she would get her kids up every morning, take them to day care, pick them up, pick up some fast food for them, and then drop them off at my house before rushing off to school. She didn’t have time to do any cooking for them, and since I was already babysitting for free we didn’t necessarily have the food to feed two extra mouths every day.

    • Jamie

      Forgot to throw in work between day care and picking them up, but you get the gist.

  • Jamie

    As has been mentioned by a few other comments, the issue is time, not funding.

    I used to babysit for a single mom (friend of my mom’s, so I was babysitting for free), she would get her kids up every morning, take them to day care, pick them up, pick up some fast food for them, and then drop them off at my house before rushing off to school. She didn’t have time to do any cooking for them, and since I was already babysitting for free we didn’t necessarily have the food to feed two extra mouths every day.

  • Jamie

    Forgot to throw in work between day care and picking them up, but you get the gist.

  • Anonymous

    McDonalds in the US is subventionized by the US Government.  The corn the cows eat is highly subventionized, the cows themselves are too.  As well, the workers are paid less in the US than most other country.  And the cost of the licensing is probably cheaper in local dollars than other places.

  • Anonymous

    McDonalds in the US is subventionized by the US Government.  The corn the cows eat is highly subventionized, the cows themselves are too.  As well, the workers are paid less in the US than most other country.  And the cost of the licensing is probably cheaper in local dollars than other places.

  • CaseyLee

    I just bought some mead, too. Now you’ve made me too depressed to drink it.

  • Shoelesselmo

    Your right, Im just being lazy. Im gonna get my self a toaster oven and rice cooker. Ive been missing good quality bagels for too long.

  • zapit

    I’m unemployed and I can only afford to cook at home, always healthy and I never go hungry, and I’m thin.  It’s amazing that every obese American finds junk food to be such a cheaper alternative, it’s a lame excuse for the lazy and fat.

    • Ted Seeber

      Key word there is “unemployed”  See post above about the time it takes to shop when you don’t have a car or a grocery store within walking distance.

  • zapit

    I’m unemployed and I can only afford to cook at home, always healthy and I never go hungry, and I’m thin.  It’s amazing that every obese American finds junk food to be such a cheaper alternative, it’s a lame excuse for the lazy and fat.

  • Ted Seeber

    And judicious ordering off of the Dollar Menu can reduce that $28 bill to $10, if you’re willing to forgo the extra veggies in the Big Mac and just go with three cheeseburgers instead.

    Yet another aristocrat who doesn’t understand how poor people live.

  • Ted Seeber

    And judicious ordering off of the Dollar Menu can reduce that $28 bill to $10, if you’re willing to forgo the extra veggies in the Big Mac and just go with three cheeseburgers instead.

    Yet another aristocrat who doesn’t understand how poor people live.

  • Ted Seeber

    Key word there is “unemployed”  See post above about the time it takes to shop when you don’t have a car or a grocery store within walking distance.

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