Good Food Is Not Too Expensive

“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.

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38 comments on “Good Food Is Not Too Expensive

  1. Sue says:

    Loved this post and can relate to this. Hubby and I switched to all organics last year due to health issues–and the transformation has been nothing short of a miracle. I am off all pharmaceuticals and have never felt better.
    You can spend it on your food, or you can spend it at the doctor’s. And looking from the way I used to spend, I can tell you—good food is totally worth it.
    Keep shouting out the message—more and more people will eventually get it—especially if they’re at the point of starting to feel lousy from that so-called food they eat now……..

    Like

    • Bill says:

      That’s wonderful Sue. We’ve heard that same story over and over from customers and friends who have changed their diets. We live in a culture where the norm is to ruin our health with bad food, then try to treat the damage with pharmaceuticals. As Hippocrates said long ago, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” And as Joel Salatin said more recently, “If you think organic food is expensive, have you priced cancer lately?”

      I encourage you to keep telling your story.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. BeeHappee says:

    Thanks, Bill, that statistic of 30 percent in 1950 vs 10 percent now was surprising. I did not know. From what I know of my parents back in Lithuania, 25 percent sound about right, and they also grow a lot of their own fruits and veggies. I see some of my friends throwing these expensive birthday parties for kids, with 2 or 3 kids that adds up to 3 months of budget for healthy eating. . Eliminating trips to Disney, would allow another 6 months of good eating. . . I suppose back in the 1950 we were not spending on laptops, ipads and cellphones. .

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    • Bill says:

      We are privileged to live in a day and time when food is more abundant and less-expensive than it’s ever been. Yet we experiencing a health crisis caused by poor eating. We’re the first civilization in history to be overfed and undernourished. A big part of the problem, in my opinion, is that we undervalue food versus the other things we spend our money on. A comprehensive 2013 study done by researchers at Brown and Harvard shows that on average it costs $1.48 per day more to eat healthy food than unhealthy food. But for many people the cost would actually go down, because they’re eating expensive non-nutritious convenience (i.e. junk) food rather than whole foods.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Joanna says:

    Not sure how much people spend on their food around here in Latvia. Then again a lot grow their own veg and bottle it (can it) for winter use. I do know the wages are not high and the price of food is not especially high though – so I am guessing around 25% might be right too or even higher. Maybe we could share some of our cheap but nutritious meals for the benefits of those who do not know, although it is not as if there isn’t a wealth of information on the internet – just off now to check out the ingredients in Soljanka (maybe BeeHappee has a recipe for that, since it is a popular dish through much of the ex-Soviet countries)

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    • Bill says:

      Growing at least some of your own food is a great way to get nutritious food inexpensively. That used to be the norm of course. Now in some cultures (like here) folks who do it are considered to be somewhat eccentric.

      Education is very important. Many people just don’t know to how to budget, store foods purchased in bulk, prepare their own foods, etc. That’s one of the reasons we find it so maddening when the notion that it’s not possible to eat a healthy diet on a tight budget is repeated as fact. There was a scene in the movie Food Inc. where a family said they were eating at McDonald’s because they couldn’t afford produce at the grocery store. A false comparison and untrue. But many believe it to be true and therefore don’t make the effort, with ugly consequences.

      A couple of years ago Cherie and some friends got a grant and prepared a cook book that is available for free at the food bank with recipes for healthy meals on a food-stamp budget (or made with items available from the food bank). Lots of people just don’t know how to eat healthy food inexpensively.

      Like

      • Joanna says:

        What a great idea of Cherie and friends. I was quite shocked with the Victorian Farm and War time farm (series on British TV) to find out how quickly the Brits had lost their agrarian roots. Quite shocking how far back it goes really

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeff says:

    The .77 price for a one pound bag of long-grain brown rice is a local price in your area, no doubt. That item costs well over $1.00 here in South Florida. But that’s just a factoid quibble – your point about the cost of food being a tiny part of the budget is spot-on. My thought is that because we search for the lowest price everywhere else, we do so at the grocery store, too. So much of the expense of food goes to the middle-men and the advertisers. I quit buying cottage cheese at Publix and switched to Aldi’s because the price went up from $2.99 for a 16 oz. container to $3.05. I switched for 6 lousy pennies. And guess what Aldi sells a 16 oz. container for? $2.29. Big difference. When people shop at places like Whole Foods, they are paying for interior design, pricey location and expensive advertising, not good food. It’s a tough problem to solve and one that probably won’t be solved by repeatedly presenting the facts about prices. People just don’t assign wholesome and healthy food a high priority – their iPads, the clothes they wear and the cars they drive are more important than the food they eat. I think an attitude adjustment is in order.

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    • Bill says:

      Yes, I agree. I don’t know why the rice price would be so different. Can’t be any cheaper to bring it here. It’s probably due to higher rents and employee costs. But you’re right that the underlying cost of the food is a tiny fraction of the retail price. If I recall correctly, I think on average only .08 of every food dollar is attributable to the cost of the food itself.

      We shop at Aldi too. The only things we buy at places like Whole Foods are things that can be bought in bulk, like grains and flour, and fair-trade items like coffee and tea. I’m put off by the “upscale” feel of places like that. It’s maddening to see people shopping there to buy expensive versions of junk food (like “organic” pop-tarts).

      Like

  5. Eumaeus says:

    Our federal ag subsidies are too expensive.

    Like

    • Jeff says:

      And they go to industrial agriculture instead of to farmers who produce real food. I’d be happy to subsidize real farmers but I object to subsidizing CAFOs.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eumaeus says:

        “the unholy alliance” is killing us… yeah, you could improve the situation by scrapping the whole shebang …
        that would put the onus (sp?) of food assistance somewhere other than federal shoulders – picked up by communities again would be good in my opinion – In all things DECENTRALIZE.

        Like

    • Bill says:

      I sometimes remind people that one of the reasons food can appear cheap, is because they’ve already pre-paid a lot of the cost with their tax dollars. And the stuff the fast-food joints sell is usually made from the flesh of animals raised in CAFOs and fattened on subsidized commodity corn and soybeans. But sadly I don’t see that changing any time soon.

      Like

    • Bill says:

      By the way Bro, I love your new avatar (although the winking Putin was pretty cool too). One of my favorites. I have a shot of him with drawn bow about to fire an arrow that I was planning to use as my Facebook profile picture. Ultimately I couldn’t decide between that and the young Dylan, so haven’t yet used either. One of the greatest movie heroes ever. Very cool choice.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Laurie Graves says:

    I’m afraid I must be the dissenting voice. Good food is, in fact, more expensive than empty calories. Sad but true. You can go to an outlet or a dollar store and stock up on all kinds of sugary and salty treats for a fraction of what fresh fruit, veggies, etc.. cost. Since 2000, the price of food has risen 44 percent. Salaries? Not so much. While your friend, whom you portray as financially stable, might be able to take a fresh look at his budget to see where he can make changes, those who live on a very tight budget don’t have that luxury. As for how much Europeans spend on food…Perhaps they spend less, but they don’t have to worry about the high cost of health care, education, and housing. In short, they have more services provided by the state than we do. For twenty years, I volunteered at our local food pantry, so I am very familiar with how poor people struggle to feed themselves. But here’s a bit of news that might gladden your heart. When the food pantry offers fresh fruit and vegetables, our patrons snap them right up. One more thing and then I’ll stop. These same patrons know how to cook, and as I take them around, we swap recipes and cooking techniques.

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    • Bill says:

      I’m glad for the pushback Laurie. It’s a vitally important issue.

      I don’t think the comparison should be between junk food and fresh produce. Frozen veggies are often more nutritious than the fresh produce sold in most grocery stores, because the food begin losing nutritional value once picked. Much of that produce comes from thousands of miles away and is weeks old by the time it’s purchased. Most frozen veggies, by comparison, are flash-frozen immediately after harvesting. They’re nutritious and inexpensive. I’m looking at an ad in today’s paper for one pound packages of frozen veggies and they’re 5 for $5. A 10 pound bag of potatoes is $2.49. According to my quick google search, a “Big Mac Meal” at McDonalds (burger, fries and soft drink) costs $5.69.

      I realize that there are lots of people who can’t afford food, especially if they live in food deserts. That is an injustice which should not occur and which we need to work to overcome. But I disagree with the idea that poor people can only afford non-nutritious food. We just finished a delicious supper. We had a salad made of sprouts that Cherie sprouted herself, followed by cornbread and black-eyed peas and rice. We raised the peas, but a bag of dried peas at the store is very inexpensive, as is the rice. I’d guess the ingredients for that meal cost pennies. We drank water with the meal, as we always do.

      It’s great that the food bank patrons in your community know how to cook. That is often not the case here. I mentioned in response to Joanna the grant Cherie got to create a cookbook for our food bank patrons (where she is a volunteer). She also got funding for a demonstration kitchen, used to help teach people how to prepare meals. Sadly many people don’t have stoves or refrigerators, so it doesn’t help them. But it is shocking how many adults (with children) have never cooked a meal in their life. Getting nutritional information to people is important and helpful, but sometimes we need to go back to even more basic things.

      Like

      • Laurie Graves says:

        Good point about frozen being cheaper and perhaps more nutritious than fresh. And, yes, dried beans are economical. Alas, those huge bags of chips and boxes of out-of-date pastries are cheaper still. Also, for those who use coupons, processed food can also be very cheap. Then there is the matter of time. If people are working two or three jobs just to stay afloat, there isn’t much time or energy to cook. As the saying goes, it’s complicated. However, on Treehugger I recently read that the sales for processed food are down. So maybe as a country we are starting to turn a corner. We can hope.

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  7. hi bill, you know that I love the message in this post, you know that I support small scale, you know I am a huge believe in gardening and sharing the bounty..

    But…..

    in Canada, spread out among friends and family coast to coast and in the north, this does not hold true to us..

    That bag of rice locally in the cheap store 3.77, a three pound bag of onions, 2.99 this, 3 pound bag of local apples 4.99, ten pound bag of potatoes, almost 5 at the moment, I always buy cabbage, right now its costing me pretty much 4 dollars a head.

    whole healthy foods locally in the stores are NOT cheaper then a package of pasta with a can of sauce.. heck just like the rice, pasta has gone up 150% in the last year, the big sale price is now higher then last years regular price.

    store basic beef burger last week 6.39 cents a pound..

    No one in Canada is eating at that 10 percent mark without either trouble in terms of what they buy or going to get help to fill the cupboards..

    on average for a middle class family at 60,000 they are between 15 to 20 percent, start going to smaller areas and the price will go up, go north and you are easily push 25 percent or more

    I have a girlfriend ask me for help, her family was spending 1400 a month on food, she wanted to bring it down to thousand, I was able to help some.

    I have said it my husband before and I will say it again, if I did not grow it, raise it and have the farm, we would not be able to eat the way we do, we would not be able to afford it..

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Your food prices are much higher than they are here. I don’t know why that’s the case. It’s good that you are able to grow and store your own food, rather than pay those kinds of prices.

      I know there are people who can’t afford food and that is an injustice which should be ended. But far too often I see people who (for example) see that organic potato chips cost more than conventional potato chips and therefore conclude they can’t afford to eat healthy, when the proper comparison is the price of potato chips versus the price of potatoes. I know there are parts of the world where food generally is unaffordable and that is a sad and potentially tragic situation. But I’d be astonished to find that it’s cheaper to buy french fries at McDonalds than to buy a bag of potatoes and cook them yourself, for example. In our culture convenience is often more important than price, although price is sometimes falsely blamed for the resulting poor choices.

      Like

      • To be fair on the level you are talking about, our eating out costs are higher as well, I have read about some of the deals you get at the fast food and stores etc, if you choose to do that here, it will cost you more. as a example you gave for a full McD meal, burger, fried and coke, it would be ten plus change locally. so its not just the basics that are higher its everything..

        However your point stands and I do agree, healthy food is a must but how to make it happen within reason on costs..

        Well, I can not give up the cable, or the cell phone or the second vehicle because we do not have any of that..

        But we made a choice to be land owners and to put our extra money and time and work into both the lifestyle values and our food values.. 🙂

        Like

      • Bill says:

        Good for you! May you inspire others to do likewise. It is sad to think of people spending so much of their money for food that is so destructive of their health. Our food system is a broken mess. I’m convinced that we need farmers like you (and lots more of them) to lead us out of it. It’s a difficult issue and I appreciate your thoughtful comment and feedback.

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  8. Bill, we have discussed this cost issue of food many times here and it’s good that you keep the flawed thinking about it up front on our minds. The blog post you pointed us to read from White Oak Pastures touches on the subject of time. I believe it’s one of the key factors that most won’t eat good solid food cooked at home. In today’s U.S. culture the very devices that have been invented to give us a better life and free up more time from the mundane chores have become an addiction. The very tools we have in our households and on our person steal away time from our schedules. Electronic devices have in many people’s lives, in my humble opinion, stolen the best part of their lives.

    People will change up to a better car, change up to a better house, change up to better clothes but when it comes to food …. not so much. Americans have become a people of finicky, picky, eaters and to mess with their eating habits are fighting words. One of the largest industries in the medical field is weight loss. No matter what diet plan the TV is hawking, it all boils down to amount of food consumption and exercise. I know there are truly some weight related food medical conditions that are valid but most are not. In defense of American people the large food corporations have designed food so that you just can’t eat one. Flavor enhancers and even aroma enhancers are designed to trick the senses into believing real nutritional food is being eaten. To come down off flavor and aroma enhanced food back to normal nutritional food will seem pretty bland because the American people have lost the ability to use spices in their cooking. I know I’m preaching to the choir here on this blog.

    Have a great food educating people day.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Yes Dave. As usual I agree with all of that.

      I sympathize with folks who can’t afford food. I know quite a few people who depend entirely on food stamps for their food and it is very difficult for them to manage (in part because of issues beyond the price of the food). But I also know lots of people who could easily afford nutritious food but continue to ruin their health by eating badly, while under the false belief that they can’t afford good food. I could go on ad nauseum about this, but as you say, I’d be preaching to the choir. I will be addressing it at length in my book. We’ll see how it goes over…

      By the way, our 70+ degree weather was short-lived. It’s snowing as I type this.

      Like

  9. Faz d' Hoo says:

    To me “can’t afford” is a red herring. Trying to come up with reasonable meals for myself and my daughter is a never-ending source of frustration. The real issues are time and cooking ability. I’m sick of buying fresh food and having it spoil before I finish eating it. I struggle to prepare a meal my daughter will eat. My cooking skills are 10 times better than my mother’s which puts them at mediocre. If I (as is often the case) am not at home for a meal, it is hard to find something even marginally healthy from most restaurants.

    There is no easy answer for any of this.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I agree. I’m convinced that for most people (but definitely not all) poor food choices are driven more by convenience and a preference for the taste of salty fatty foods, than by price. And it’s easy to understand. We live hectic busy lives and the days of one person staying home all day and cooking big healthy meals for a large family are largely gone now.

      Our business is fresh food and we encourage people to buy and eat it whenever they can. But we’ve had lots of people share your frustration of having it go bad before they could cook it or cooking it and having their family (children especially) refuse to eat it. Those kinds of things aren’t easy to overcome. Buying nutritious food that can be frozen or easily stored (like grains, flour, potatoes, onions, etc) is an option, but ultimately, as you said, there is no easy answer. We have to figure out what works best in our lives and for our families.

      Good to hear from you Faz. Hope you and all my old Sabre pals are well.

      Like

  10. Interesting discussion, Bill. Our food bill, including eating out, costs about 20% of our disposable income.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      In my (admittedly biased but hopefully not unreasonable) opinion, I think that is more in line with what our culture should do and expect. I realize it won’t be possible for everyone, but historically we’ve spent much more on our food than we do now. We need to take a hard look at where our non-food spending is going, in my humble opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. avwalters says:

    “would not crowd out the necessities”
    It is that determination of what is a necessity that may be the root of the problem. Is cable tv a necessity? Not in my home. That’s a $1200 savings per year–and I get to think clearer, have more time to be engaged with people and community and reserve head space for creativity and critical thinking. Most Americans spend much too much on clothing (in the pursuit of fashion), household products (can you imagine even the existence of something like Glade Plug-ins?) and convenience foods. Many own oversized homes that they cannot afford and do not need. Where do you stop? For us, quality food is a given.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I’m on your side on this of course. While I realize it’s possible to overgeneralize, and that everyone’s situation will be somewhat different, when I read that as a society we’re spending less than 6% of our income on food eaten at home, and when I see the consequences of our ongoing health crisis, I can’t help but conclude that way too many people have got their spending priorities messed up.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. EllaDee says:

    I always say buy the best you can afford. That way the emphasis is on ‘best’ not ‘afford’. I can afford restaurant meals and takeway if I thought that was best but I choose as best produce from a farmers market. Your friend could afford it, he just didn’t understand what really was best and how he could access it.
    I’ll be sharing some thoughts along these lines too, soon on my blog. Because without information sharing I wouldn’t know and care so much about good food.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Thanks EllaDee. I’ve appreciated your feedback on these kinds of issues in the past. I look forward to seeing your post. This subject needs to be discussed.

      Like

  13. Good discussion here. I remember writing an article years ago in which I compared the cost of a 10 pound sack of potatoes to an equal cost in potato chips—name brand chip prices back them provided only 28 ounces for the same price. Probably not much different today.

    Processing adds huge costs (environmental as well as financial) while subtracting nutrients. A net loss to the consumer. Growing 10 pounds of potatoes is, of course, even cheaper. They can grow in large pots on a sunny apartment balcony.

    We all know organic whole foods are more expensive than their conventional equivalent. But if we pay close attention, we see we’re getting more nutrients and no toxins. That’s priceless.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I’m in full agreement of course. Processing does not make food cheaper, even if it creates that illusion. If a person can afford food, they can afford healthy food. The industrial food system wants us to believe otherwise, but I am going to keep banging on that drum. The stakes are high.

      Like

  14. Gunta says:

    Not to mention how much money the junk food industry has put into R&D to make their processed food create a craving for the sugary-salty-fatty stuff they produce. I like to see more and more posts and articles pointing out the false economy of buying cheap processed stuff to eat. Preparation can even be relatively simply and fast once you learn some basic recipes using real food. I take it a step further by doing my best to buy produce in season and locally grown as much as possible. This cuts down the price and adds to the nutritive value.
    Good post, Bill!

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Thanks. You’re right about how food scientists are designed products intended to induce overconsumption. We’re paying a heavy price for that too.

      We’re enthusiastic advocates of seasonal eating. As you say, it saves money and you get more nutrient-dense food.

      Like

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