The Cost of Real Food

One of the things that those of us who advocate for better eating hear regularly is that poor people can’t afford healthy food, and that only the affluent can afford to eat organic food.

It is true that organic and naturally produced items are usually more expensive than their industrial counterparts, but the notion that only the rich can afford to eat well is a dangerous myth.

Cherie has addressed this frequently on her blog and she knows all the facts about it better than I do.  Check out her blog for details on this.  But this morning I’ll touch on a few highlights.

Comparing the cost of a fast food meal and the cost of fresh produce is a false comparison.  This is often done to suggest that the poor eat fast food because they can’t afford fresh produce.  This fallacious argument was made in the movie Food, Inc. and it is widely believed.

It is wrong, however, to conclude that if fresh veggies won’t fit into today’s budget, then the only other choice is a meal from McDonalds.  Frozen veggies are cheap.  Beans and rice are cheap.  There are countless options for very inexpensive, healthy meals.  Fattening processed food is simply not the only alternative to fresh vegetables.

Of course most of the costs of processed food are externalized.  The chemical-based farmers who produce the corn and soy are heavily subsidized by federal tax dollars.  And of course we all end up bearing much of the cost of the health care expense that eating this food brings.  If those costs were added to the price of the processed food, then it would be much more expensive than organic.  As Joel Salatin says, “You think organic food is expensive?  Have you priced cancer lately?”

Before I go too far down the rabbit hole, I’ll close with a few thoughts about the cost of breakfast.  Many Americans spend lots of money to buy sugary breakfast cereals.  There is almost no nutritional value in them and they’re produced from the cheapest, government-subsidized grains.  The packaging costs far more than the stuff in the box.

Cherie pointed out to me recently that grits cost 4 cents per serving.  Four cents!  A person could eat a bowl of grits every morning for a month and barely spend a dollar.

We charge $4/dozen for our eggs and $6/lb for our sausage.  That is expensive compared to what’s offered in the grocery stores.  But even at those prices, you could have a couple of eggs with the grits and still spend less than a dollar for breakfast.  If you’re really hungry you could add a sausage patty for another 75 cents or so.

I’ve been on a very tight food budget before and I know what it’s like.  So I don’t fault those who have to compromise sometimes on the quality of what they’d otherwise buy.  But we ought not to reinforce the false notion that it is somehow necessary to eat unhealthy food.  It just isn’t true.

Love Wins


8 comments on “The Cost of Real Food

  1. Excellent point to make. another interesting thing I recently read is that the U.S. is the only country that distinguishes what is considered a breakfast food. Another way that corporations create for public consumption and the advertising that drives consumerism.


    • Bill says:

      I used to do a lot of international travel and it was always fascinating to see what was considered breakfast food in other cultures. It varied, but only in the U.S. would a bowl of Frosted Flakes be considered a meal.


  2. My comment was written by a person who has not had her first cup of coffee yet… 🙂 My syntax improves as the day goes along.


  3. shoreacres says:

    Several things come to mind.

    1. So-called “organic food” may or may not be better. I got stopped in the store last week by a display of “Organic Biscotti”. That was a surprise. I have no proof, but an increasing feeling that “organic” is becoming an increasingly slippery term. Given a choice between organic carrots in the store and local carrots, I’m going local every time.

    2. My personal experience is that eating organic/local actually comes in pretty close to the same cost, primarily because the food is so much tastier (and presumably nutritious) that it takes less food to satisfy me. Put a Lean Cuisine dinner up against a grilled chicken breast, real broccoli and some doctored-up orzo, and there’s no comparison.

    (Side note: did you know that Smuckers is marketing an abomination called “Uncrustables”? They’re frozen sandwiches made of white bread, peanut butter and jelly. They’re useful for those days “when you just don’t have time to make lunch”. Their marketing department says so. What?)

    And speaking of time, it’s a complete myth that it takes too much time to cook from scratch. I would love to know the average wait at a “fast” food drive-up window at meal time. Let’s say 10 minutes, as an average. When you add in the time to drive there, the entire transaction might be 20 minutes. You can do a lot in the kitchen in 20 minutes, especially if you’ve planned out your meal ahead and time and done shopping to be sure you have ingredients on hand.

    Good gosh. All those home ec courses and my mother’s nagging have stayed with me. 😉


    • Bill says:

      We are in full agreement. I always tell people to prefer local over “organic.” The “organic” term has been largely co-opted by industrial agriculture and you are correct to be suspicious of much of what bears the label “organic.” It is often produced in large monocultures thousands of miles away by huge corporations using unsustainable practices, minimally satisfying the gov’t regulations for “organic.” Often local farms which operate naturally and organically will elect not to seek organic certification, even though they qualify for it. For example, we aren’t certified organic and therefore it isn’t legal for us to call our food “organic,” even though it is (I’ll resist the temptation to launch into a tirade about that). Few farms in Virginia bother going through all the red tape and expense to get the government’s permission to use the word “organic.”

      The best practice, imho, is to find local farms and ask the farmers about their practices (or better yet, visit the farms). The “organic” brand doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best available product.


    • Bill says:

      I just looked up the “uncrustables” thing. Sounds disgusting. They even got a patent for it. I also see that it is sold to schools for school lunch menus (despite having no nutritional values) and was subject to a recall in October for contaminated peanut butter. That happens fairly often it seems and just blows my mind. How can you mess up peanut butter? smh


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