“We’d like to eat good food, like you do,” a friend told me once, “but we can’t afford it.” The friend who told me this has a good job, a nice home and seemingly all the amenities that come with being a middle-class American. But he genuinely and sincerely believed that “good” food was too expensive for his family.
The notion that “ordinary” people can’t afford to eat nutritious foods is a pervasive myth in our culture, and it does a lot of damage. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of us can afford a wholesome, nutritious diet. The reason our society isn’t eating well simply isn’t because good food is too expensive.
First of all, our society spends less of its income on food than any society that has ever existed. Today less than 10 percent of Americans’ disposable income is spent on food, down from approximately 17 percent in 1985, nearly 30 percent in 1950 and over 40 percent in 1900. By comparison, Europeans today spend about 25 percent of their income on food. For food eaten at home Americans spend a mere 5.7 percent of our income. So before concluding that we can’t afford nutritious food, maybe we should ask ourselves what we’re spending the other 90% of our income on. For the vast majority of us, spending more to buy nutritious food would not crowd out the necessities of life.
Perhaps more importantly, for most people a diet of nutritious whole foods would actually cost less than what they’re spending on processed “convenience” foods. Simple, wholesome meals prepared at home usually cost less than a calorie-rich nutrient-poor fast food meal, for example. The staples of a wholesome, things as rice, frozen vegetables and dried beans, are very inexpensive. For example, a one pound bag of long-grain brown rice, which makes eleven servings, costs only 77 cents. Eating healthy simply does not have to be expensive.
It is true that ethically-produced meat and eggs are more expensive than their industrial counterparts. But most of us eat way too much meat these days. By reducing our meat consumption to reasonable levels we could enjoy nutritious, healthy, delicious food from humanely raised animals, without having to increase our meat budget at all. We charged $4/dozen for our eggs last year, which is quite a bit more than factory-eggs at the supermarket. But that $4 buys breakfast for a week, for about what a large bag of Doritos and a Mt. Dew costs.
White Oak Pastures Farm in Georgia put up an excellent blog post recently, addressing this issue for their CSA customers. Check it out HERE.
I was able to show my friend that he was wrong about being unable to afford healthy food, and I didn’t even have to get into the deferred cost of medical care arising out of poor food choices. He had been guilty, as many are, of assuming that eating good food means buying all his groceries at some trendy place like Whole Foods, and he’d never stopped to consider whether his family had made less important (even trivial) things greater budgeting priorities than food. I’m convinced that most people who are eating badly because they think it’s all they can afford would also change their ways if they had all the facts.
So we need to keep putting those facts out there.