Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Food Money Matters: Why Healthy Eating Doesn’t Have to be Expensive

There’s a scene in the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. in which a busy family of four visits a grocery store. The father has Type II diabetes, the mother is overweight, and their younger child appears to be developing similar issues. In the supermarket, they’re faced with a few choices: four bottles of Coke for $5, broccoli for $1.29 per pound, and pears priced around two per $1.

Though we never see them buying anything, it’s made clear that the produce isn’t a viable option. Broccoli doesn’t provide the caloric punch of either the soda or the dollar menu at their local McDonald’s. Whether they simply prefer the Coke goes unmentioned.

Watching the scene, I have a lot of mixed emotions. On one hand, I’m sympathetic, because the deck is clearly stacked against the family. They:
  • Don’t make much money.
  • Don’t have time to cook.
  • Don’t know a lot about nutrition. (The mother claims she was unaware most fast food is unhealthy.)
Not to mention, Big Agriculture and its ad agencies sink billions of dollars into ensuring they choose the soda. Honestly, the odds of anyone opting for broccoli over that kind of social reinforcement are fairly slim.

Still, I also find the scene frustrating. The producers never establish:
  • Whether the family particularly cares about their diet.
  • That their $5 could be spent on other healthy foods, like seven cans of beans, a five-pound bag of rice, or 23 calorie-packed bananas.
  • That gradually incorporating said foods could eliminate the $260 they spend on monthly diabetes meds.
  • That spending a few extra minutes in the kitchen could be faster than the trip to McDonalds.
Through the representative family, Food, Inc. seems to imply that cheap, unhealthy food is our fate – that we’re relatively powerless against larger cultural forces, that our situations are pretty immutable.

For the most part, I think that’s wrong.

I won’t claim it comes down to personal responsibility; that’s too facile a solution. In a country riddled with food deserts, where soda is cheaper than water in some areas, it’s insulting to ignore how time and socio-economic factors play into our diets. Healthy eating can suck it when you’re just trying to keep your kids alive.

But for many – maybe even most - of us, eating inexpensively and well is possible. We don’t live in nutritional wastelands, we have decent access to transportation, and we have some financial means.

About the money: “healthy food is expensive” is reinforced ad nauseum by the media (see: that movie we were just talking about). And yes, if you’re eating highly processed, prepackaged “health food” like protein bars and Activia, your grocery bill will be astronomical—much higher than if you choose Hamburger Helper and Snickers. If you’re eating out-of-season blueberries or organic Whole Foods oranges, you will not be banking any extra change. If you’re serving lean fish and trimmed meats with every meal … you get the picture.

However, if you’re eating Gingersnap Oatmeal and Pumpkin Turkey Chili and Banana, Honey, and Peanut Butter Ice Cream, you can actually save money, improve your health, and feed your picky kids. Even better, you can open yourself to all kind of new and exciting flavors and foods.

Eating well and cheaply takes time, effort, and most of all, the desire to change. It means:
  • Prioritizing food and eating. It shouldn’t be your #1 priority, but it might have to take bigger precedence than it does now.
  • Planning. Making grocery lists and creating basic weekly menus prevents impulse buys and saves time when you're shopping and cooking.
  • Looking for sales and stocking up. Maintain a good pantry and shop with the circular, and you're halfway there.
  • Buying produce more often and in-season. Seasonal fruits and vegetables taste better, cost less, and have less of an impact on the environment.
  • Reducing your meat intake (though not drastically). Just two vegetarian meals per week can have a significant impact on your food bill and heart health.
  • Spending more than a few minutes preparing any given meal. Cooking gives you power over what you eat, and how much it costs. Once you learn to dig your own skills, you’ll want to do it always.
Again, I know there are valid and understandable obstacles to every single one of these points (the biggest one: probably time). But for many people, if you're serious about making a change, the possibility is there, despite the odds.

Readers, what do you think? Is healthy food expensive? What does it take to eat frugally and well? Can everybody do it? These questions all deal with CHG's core mission, and I'd love to read your opinions.

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Marcia said...

Right on. I comment on a lot of blogs that talk about how healthy eating is expensive.

My response is similar to yours.

Yes, there are food deserts where people who are poor have very few options.

However the vast majority of folks in this country do not fall into that category.

Missy K said...

You really hit on one of my frustrations with a lot of the new press about our broken food system-- yep, it is broken, but we are not totally helpless to outwit it.

My sister volunteers for a food relief co-op and we have talked a lot about the need for classes on simple, frugal meal planning and prep, and assembly of "meal kits" with directions to make healthier, simpler food..

The time issue is big-- food can be cheap, healthy and good, but not necessarily fast. In our family we have just had to reset our default switch from the drive thru. But most of us who really want to change do have other choices.

There's no way around good old fashioned awareness, and I too thought Food Inc could have done a better job with that segment of the story it told.

Ira said...

Allow me to introduce myself,

I am Ira, a frequent reader first time comenter.

I agree with you on just about everything you said above.

I know thats got to stroke your ego a bit but I watched Food Inc. and had the same reaction when that part came on. I can only justify the scene by believing that they were documenting the uneducated masses that only know what the advertisers tell them.

I am forced to believe that this family doesn't have the time to cook their meals due to it interfering with their TV time (which itself cost $50+ a month). I just wish that we could get them to read a few blog articles that would educate and liberate them from the terrible cycle they are in.

Speaking from personal experience I have always found cooking at home a money and time saver to any eating out (with the possible exception of Taco Bell *mmmmm*). And my recent switch to a meat lite diet has reduced my food bills nicely.

Other than that I really enjoyed Food Inc. and would recommend watching it to anyone who likes to eat in the US of A.

chacha1 said...

Healthy food is not expensive in anything but time and opportunity. As you pointed out, not everyone has easy access to a fresh market. Our inner cities are notorious for having a liquor store in every block and zero grocery stores.

By contrast, my little town-within-a-town has four supermarkets and a weekly farmer's market where, if you go toward the end, you can get a trunk full of produce for $10.

That said, once a family decides to eat healthy they will find a way to get to the places where they can buy proper food. I think this is something churches could be organizing, but individuals also need to think creatively about doing multi-family shopping pools, etc.

And people need to really look at those medications. If it *weren't* for the statins, beta-blockers, Type II diabetes stuff, painkillers, a lot of people would have a lot of "extra" money to spend on FOOD. Which would help them be healthy so they don't need the medications.

Anonymous said...

Last week I was hankering for a veggie stir fry like I make in the summer. I went directly to the produce section at my market and bought: 1 lb. bag of carrots, one lovely medium sized cabbage, a broccoli crown (not a bunch, just a crown), a nice firm, green med. sized zucchini, and an avocado - not for the stir fry - (which was on special). The total was $6.18. I was surprised, thinking I had been undercharged. But no, it was corrrect. This amount of food lasted me for several days, and was used not just for the stir fry. It is possible to eat well without breaking the bank.

Alex said...

I had a similar reaction to that scene. Here, healthy eating on the cheap: bulk rice, flour, pasta. Homemade bread, tortillas, dumpling dough, etc. Canned goods (esp beans). Lots of veggies and seasonal fruits.

We don't eat meat so that doesn't factor in. But if you can gradually build your pantry (spices, baking goods), you can make so many meals based on these basic staple items.

KB said...

Excellent post.

I remember, in my broker [as in poorer] days, having $3 in my pocket, and going to Wendy's because a burger was .99. The bag of rice would have taken all the money, and when I was poor, it was often about instant gratification, not planning for the next five-ten days. Irresponsible? Probably. Understandable? Kinda. Was I doing stupid stuff with money when I did have it? Yeah. I was 19 and screwing up everything all over the place.

Now when I shop, I see what a mistake I was making. My freezer is loaded with .99 bags of frozen veggies I can prep in 5 minutes with a skillet so that when funds and time are low, I'm not back in the dollar menu line.

I think it comes down to the fact that you've got to have the "A-ha!" moment. I'm not excusing the behavior of the folks who opt for fast food over healthy over the perceived "expense," but it is a bit understandable how it can come to that.

Honestly, I think exactly what Kris is doing here is a good start to a remedy... provided folks have internet access and are prodded to look around.

Holly S said...

I agree with you, but I also disagree with you.
Everything you say is true. I personally live so far below the poverty line that I can't see it, but I eat better than anyone else around me because of and in spite of that.
However, I have also worked with many families just like the one in the film. I hesitate to put the onus on them to eat better when they are bombarded with marketing dollars that preach the superiority of fast, cheap, food-like products. Many of these families honestly don't know the hidden costs and dangers of what they are eating, and even if they do, many don't know how to correct the problem.
Yes, it is possible to eat well while eating cheap, but it's also possible for those of us who do know how to pass along that information rather than chattering amongst ourselves about it.

Grey said...

There are some good points here, but I'm also disappointed to see some of the assumptions. Of course, I haven't seen Food, Inc. so I don't know the family in question.

Food costs vary throughout the country. What $6 will buy me in North Carolina is not the same as what it will buy me in New York. Additionally, in poverty-stricken urban neighborhoods, food costs are often higher, and variety is not available - you don't have a Whole Foods or even a Harris Teeter in those places - you've got a convienence store. In fact, if I walked into the store closest to my home (a Food Lion), I'd find that there's a real lack of variety, even if I were shopping for rice and beans (it's probably white rice, and I'd never in a million years find red lentils there). We won't talk about when I didn't have a car and had to bus it/walk it to a grocery and back.

I'm not going to assume the family is watching TV when they could be making dinner. I'm a single parent of three children. I work full-time and then some over-time when I can to make sure we have enough. That, admittedly, does NOT leave me a lot of time to cook, especially when I get home at 6 pm, and there is homework to be done, baths to be taken, household chores, etc. Who has time for TV? And who can afford home internet?

I do a lot of prep work on the weekends - meal planning, cutting up veggies in advance, soaking the dry beans overnight instead of buying canned. The biscuits are made from scratch instead of canned, I freeze leftovers of the healthy meals I DO have time to make, and we eat a LOT of homemade soup. I haven't bought meat in six months - what we last had of meat was a gift from family, and we've been rationing it.

I have a child who is the pickiest eater in the world and underweight due to his medications, that I have to figure out creative ways to feed (why I read this blog).

All of this is not a "woe is me" scenario - but it's to say... be very careful about what assumptions you make in regards to others' decisions. It's not to say that people don't make bad choices... but I'll be frank - on weeks I'm working overtime, dead tired and just focusing on making it from one day to the next -- I'm going to find that $3 frozen pizza REALLY attractive.

The best tips for me are time-savers. Short recipes with a few ingredients, that don't take ages to prepare and would still appeal to children. You can't expect that every grocery will carry spinach-flavored wraps or even barley or couscous in a box - that's actually a huge hurdle for us - we eat a most veg*n diet, but many v*gan recipes call for something that's not found nearby!

Just some thoughts... sorry for the length.

Alex said...

Just want to clarify that when I say, "I had a similar reaction", I meant I was frustrated the makers of Food Inc didn't talk more openly about HOW to purchase healthy food on a budget. I'm definitely aware of the restrictions of urban shopping (ie, only convenience stores and gas stations), that people working 3-4 jobs typically don't have the time or desire to spend 5 hours doing food prep on the weekends, and that people without appropriate public transportation are often unable to buy in bulk. It's disgusting to me that options are so limited, and that so many people are forced to eat toxic waste that corporations pawn off as "food".

And I've been there, too. My diet during my worst days of poverty consisted of one meal a day off the Wendy's dollar menu--and my health was a travesty because of it. I'm incredibly grateful I have the knowledge and ability to eat as well as I do now, although still struggling financially. Basically, I consider my commitment to healthy eating a form of health insurance--it may be more expensive than buying fast food, but the health and energy dividends are enormous.

Heidi said...

So funny! When I read the title of this post, I thought: "Healthy eating is WAY expensive!" Then I read the post and realized that we were defining "healthy eating" in very different ways. Whereas you were thinking of healthy eating as adequate diets of produce, meat, grains, and dairy, I was thinking of "healthy eating" as organic, local produce, free-range eggs, and certified hormone, chemical free milk, meat, and fish.

The obvious disparities between our basic conceptions of "healthy" and "expensive" really helped to highlight to me both how dire this situation is, and how oblivious some of us (me, in this instance) can be to it.

Melissa V said...

I'm certain that anyone who reads Cheap Healthy Good has an intimate understanding of little can spend on food and still be healthy. Case in point, my husband and I are going through our annual month spending $56 on food.

The issue is at hand is that there are too many people who consider food a reward, a challenge, a novelty, a treat, something to do when they're bored, something to be avoided if their clothes get too tight, or a distraction. There are so many cultural associations with food that many forget that its primary purpose is to keep us alive and (hopefully) healthy.

The other problem is that too many people think good=expensive, instead of good=quality. This isn't limited to food, and can be especially seen in our car and clothing options.

And now that I've added to the list of problems and offered no solutions, I'm going to get back to work and hope someone else has the time to work on fixing this. (oops! there's another problem ;-)

Elizabeth said...

True and true. It is often much more difficult for poor, especially inner-city, people to access real food. I appreciated that you did not place the onus entirely on them, and recognized that they are struggling with many adverse circumstances. But it is also true that--the food industry notwithstanding--it is possible to eat well on a budget. Beans, grains, and eggs provide excellent protein. And frozen vegies, even some canned--like corn and tomatoes--are tasty and nutritious while still very affordable. We are not helpless in this regard. If only we could have as much positive influence over Congress as we do over what we put in our mouths!

Daniel said...

This is some great writing Kris, and some great thoughts from commenters.

But I think it's worth asking what exactly was the point of that particular scene in the movie. The movie is a polemic, right? The purpose of the movie (and of that specific scene) is to make the case that the food game is totally rigged against the average person.

But is that really true? All you need to do is spend a few cursory minutes paging through Kris's blog to find dozens of recipes that can provide a full day's nutrition for $5--or even less.

On one hand I'm happy that this movie exists, because it is causing us to have so many great conversations about the nature of food costs and food health. But I'm also frustrated because this movie deeply misrepresents the realities of inexpensive healthy foods.

Casual Kitchen

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

Kris, I so agree with you. I saw that clip on TV and had the same reaction. Broccoli seriously is NOT crazy expensive compared to potato's just not as convenient or shelf-stable, and to most people, it's not as appetizing.

Like you said, some of the basic, plain foods are some of the most inexpensive...brown rice, oatmeal, carrots, beans and other similar foods are very, very cheap.

Wendy (The Local Cook) said...

Good points, everyone. I won't repeat, but bring up another point - sometimes people are so obsessed with couponing they think that's the only way to save money. And at least back when I got a newspaper, I didn't see many coupons for things like eggs, beans, and rice. I actually had someone tell me that they'd like to eat more healthy, but don't want to give up their coupon hobby!

GrowingRaw said...

I hear the response, "I don't have time," so often when I ask people about healthy eating or growing their own food. Like you said Kris, healthy eating needs to move upwards in people's list of priorities. If you can make enough time to watch tv you can find 15 minutes each day to water and weed your veggies or chop up fresh produce for a simple meal.

I think the problem is that it doesn't start off easy. There's a hump to get over for people who are learning about healthy eating, and it takes practice to get your meal preparation times down to a reasonable limit. Once people do get started though healthy eating habits become self-perpetuating, because you start to feel so much better. Personally I also find it fascinating to learn more about nutrition and food production - I'm really having my eyes opened about the food business!

Growing some of your own food is a good way to reduce the costs of eating healthy. Even sprouting on your kitchen bench-top can save you money. When people start small it's more manageable, for example with a large container on your deck full of salad and smoothie greens.

Christine said...

I completely agree with you and thought the same things when I watched the movie.
Sure broccoli is more than $1 a pound, but I could make a fast, healthy meal for the $11 total dollars they spent at the drive through.

LB said...

While I think it's important for people to realize that diet and exercise can help prevent or manage many chronic diseases, it's equally important to realize that there are a lot of other factors involved, and some, such as genetics, are beyond our control. I feel like this has been lost among the health care reform debate in the US and especially thanks to people like the Whole Foods CEO who seems to think that all you have to do is shop at his store to reduce health care spending or the incidence of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. That's vastly oversimplifying things and I don't think an attitude of blaming people will make them receptive to ideas for how to work on the things they can change.

So, with the family featured in the film, it's possible that improved diet and exercise could lead them to eventually reduce their dosage of medication if they're able to control their blood sugar better, or maybe take fewer kinds of medication, but they might still need to visit their doctor and still take some meds. But it's a huge leap to assume that they won't need any medicine at all and they'll be able to pocket the $260 they now spend on meds. The goal should be improving health. For some people, good health includes access to the medications they need.

Becca said...

That movie really did frustrate me as well. I never really got a point with that scene. I was hoping they would come back to it, but they never did. They just left you to make assumptions.
However, I was in that situation at one point where I didn't really think about what I was eating. I just knew I could get so much food at the dollar menu and didn't know how to get that much food elsewhere. It took a lot of time and effort to overcome those mental hurdles and realize that I could eat very well for much less money if I did focus on whole foods instead of processed. Unfortunately, a lot of American families don't want to learn or don't think they can. And it doesn't help when you go to the library to check out cookbooks and half of them are sponsored by big name corporations, which of course feature their products. If you don't know that you can substitute store brands, you will buy the brand names and then you are spending even more. Then there are the people whose mothers and fathers either didn't cook or cooked mostly pre-processed meals (my husband for example), so they have another hurdle to jump because they never learned how to really cook a meal without opening a box. I was lucky that my mom taught me how to cook when I was young (I'm only 25 now) and that I was able to develop a passion for it. But a lot of people just see it as something that has to be done instead of something that can be enjoyable.

DMBY said...

Good discussion here!
I think that a big part of the issue could be time - not necessarily because people are watching too much tv, or that it always takes a long time to cook a healthy meal, but the time you have to invest to actually know how to make a few cheap healthy good meals, and the skills to do it in a reasonable amount of time.

I never really *got* this until I did a semester away for grad school and my husband was cooking for himself. He was an only child, and had mom, pop, and a doting grandpa to take care of him - so he never picked up any real cooking skills besides microwaving and making sandwiches. Things I do automatically, like get all my ingredients together, calculate how much will be leftover, and even clean up as I go along, take much more concentration on his part. He's gotten significantly better, and is very proud of himself, but it still takes him forever to chop an onion.

I can just imagine how daunting it would be for a family like the one in the movie to try some of the things that seem so basic to us. At the same time, I want to kick them in the teeth and yell 'why don't you care about yourself'?! I certainly don't eat cheap healthy good all the time. But I'm trying - and we all should be!

Anonymous said...

I am so tired of people blaming the fast food companies, the media, the government for their poor eating & lifestyle habits. Every grocery store in America has an abundance of affordable healthy choices available to us. I am a single mother of two young children, I have an extremely tight budget, every penny is counted for and yet I manage to feed all of us with no fast food in sight. It is all about choices, and I choose to feed my family healthy fresh foods not big-macs, soda and fries. I choose to save money on things like television, cell phones and video games so that I can ensure I have enough money to feed my children well. It is high time people take some personal responsibility for the size of their waistlines!

Organic said...

good points kris. the point of the scene in the movie was to point out how stupid and or ignorant people can be. also, just wanted to add that most people (on earth) don't have this conundrum. most humans, though less educated than americans (and way way more poor than very poor americans) still don't choose food this poorly.

Kris said...

I'm reading everyone's comments with great interest, and am thrilled that disagreements are being expressed so eloquently. Thank you guys for doing that.

A few commenters pointed out that many more cultural factors play into our diets than are mentioned in the post. This is absolutely true, and part of what makes talking about American eating habits so difficult. Circumstances differ, and one person's experiences can't be universally applied. I always have to keep this in mind when the discussion arises.

Organic, while your point about diets in other countries is a good one, "ignorance" is a harsh word. I hope that's not what the post implied.

A few years ago, I knew next to nothing about health, cooking, or money. It's not that I was incapable of obtaining the info; I had other priorities, and feeding myself wasn't one of them. I can't fault anyone else for the same.

Healthy Eating Made Fun said...

I couldnt agree with you more! Healthy food does not need to be expensive.

I am a vegetarian however I do eat fish. What does that make me, a pescatarian I think.

We eat very well in our house and we don't spend fortunes on food. In fact we cook what we will eat therefore there is no wastage. It is in fact all the wastage that adds up to a greater expense.

Preparing food carefully and cutting away only what needs to be thrown away can add to your meal. That's value for money.

Eating budgets are quite the norm these days. More and more shoppers head to the store with their lists in hand, this is a smart move. Eating healthy products has many benefits because in the first instance, they are cheaper, quicker to prepare and way better for your health. By shopping this way you also keep your meals simpler which may suit you down-to-the-ground, esspecially if you have limited time due to a busy work schedule or need to attend to your family.

I'm also a firm believer in experimenting with food. Coming up with new recipe ideas. This is easy to do especially when there is food in your fridge that you would be more inclined to throw away because the norm says you have nothing to go along with it.

By experimenting and using these foods you can experiment with different flavors.

The best thing about eating healthy is not only that it is cheaper but also it contains less calories therefore if you are on a low calorie 'diet' it's perfect to monitor.

A lot of people find 'going healthy' difficult but soon you find it's a way of life. Folks find 'counting' calories difficult but soon you know the 'food calories list' almost by heart.

It has worked for me and my family and although once upon a time I was over weight I am now healthy and weigh my ideal weight and have so much energy i dont know what to do with it.

this is a great site and great blog. All the best to everyone :)

Harper said...

Thank you for this post!

For years, I've been frustrated with people constantly complaining how expensive food is, how they can't get a handle on their grocery budget, and how expensive it is to eat healthy fare. The KEY to slashing my grocery bill (I have a minor heart attack at checkout if I have to fork over more than $20/wk for a family of three) has been eliminating prepackaged and processed foods. My biggest expense is dairy products, since I really don't feel like making my own yoghurt or cottage cheese.

Anyway, that family on Food Inc really shocked me. I know broccoli and pears don't have many calories, but real food calories really do make you feel full longer. I tried an experiment once, in which I adhered to a truly healthy, balanced diet as strictly as possible, while tracking calories. The truth is that I had trouble forcing myself to gorge my body with more than 1100 calories in a day (I'm 5'8"). I'm not saying that's a healthy outcome, I'm saying that not all calories are equal. Healthy ones really pull their own weight!

The cheapest lunch I can find when I'm on the go is a piece of fruit and some kind of roll from the grocery store bakery section (which are usually in the $0.50 ea range), and that will keep me going until dinner.

De Nueva said...

"We don’t live in nutritional wastelands, we have decent access to transportation, and we have some financial means" If only this were the case for everyone. I agree with a lot of what you said in your post. And I really enjoy your blog. However, I think the problem is a lot of people do live in "nutritional wastelands" Something I experienced myself when moving to a low income neighborhood in Brooklyn. It took a lot of effort on my part to be sure my husband and I had a healthy diet. I couldn't imagine doing this while taking care of children and working multiple jobs to make ends meet. I would highly recommend the PBS documentary Unnatural Causes, it talks a lot about this as well as the "poverty tax", how things are actually even more expensive in poor neighborhoods.

There's also a part of it that's cultural. Which is sad, but true. Eating organic and CAFO free meat is a very "white" thing to do.

There's also just a huge knowledge gap about healthy eating. In the clinics where I work in medically underserved communities, people just have no clue about what is healthy and what's not. A woman came in thinking a bag of potato chips was actually a serving of vegetables for her children. And with what kids get fed in school lunches these days, I don't blame her.

I definitely don't think eating healthy has to be expensive, it just takes some simple cooking knowledge and a desire to do it. But I think there are obstacles present for many people that get overlooked. I also think there are a lot greater policy changes that need to be made to make it truly possible for all.

MAH said...

I think that yes, eating healthy can be expensive. However, by arming yourself with knowledge and coupons, and visiting stores such as Aldi, Save Alot, Marc's - you can save alot of money per month on the grocery bill.

With that said, it also takes time to plan the menu, list ingredients for shopping, and taking the time at the store to read the labels, etc. So not only are you making a committment to get healthier, you also need to make a time commitment. And to be honest, who has time?

I know from experience over the last month that my husband and I have been eating in, cooking our own dinners and lunches- and that I have had to make time to prepare, shop, (find the money) and cook. It is an effort.

I think it comes down to websites like this and are trying to help inform others that there are options out there that are not super expensive. Sometimes, to achieve health - we need to get creative.

Thank you for this post! I just started reading your blog about a week ago and I'm thoroughly enjoying it!

Linds said...

I realize my comments are just reformulations of what others have said, but I wanted to write anyway.

It definitely doesn't have to be expensive to eat well, but there is a social justice aspect to nutrition that isn't mentioned in many of the it-costs-too-much-to-eat-healthy arguments.

Grocery stores don't build in poor urban neighborhoods; fast food and convenience stores do. Anyone who has ever priced fruit at a gas station knows it's simply ridiculous.

Also, as you mentioned, time is a factor. It's not that anyone does an official cost-benefit analysis, but time is money, and people who work two or more jobs (or even one job) tend not to have enough of either. With time added in as a commodity, it really is cheaper in dollars and time (though not health) to eat out or eat prepackaged, high-fat, nutrient-lacking foods.

One thing that would make healthy choices more economically viable is removal of corn and soybean subsidies for huge agribusiness. If people had to pay the true cost HFCS soda (or hamburger bun, or ketchup)or their corn-fed beef, things could change in a jiffy, and it would be based on the free-market principles so dear to legislators from corn states.

You are right that a lot of the coverage tends toward a defeating tone. Many middle class families could certainly spend a little more time cooking, spend the same amount of money or less on healthier options, and get a lot more nourishment out of their food. However, many people lack the nutritional knowledge or culinary skill to feel comfortable in the kitchen, and many just don't care. In this arena, as in so many others, education seems the only hope for lasting change.

Jennifer said...

I thought the whole point of bringing up the diabetes medication & the poor food choices was so the viewer would recognize that eating healthier might solve the medication problem. I didn't think they actually needed to say it outright.

I don't think that healthy eating has to be expensive but I don't think that most people know how to cook from whole ingredients anymore. Like even how to take a whole chicken, cut it into its parts and cook it. Instead most people just buy the boneless chicken breasts, or worse, KFC.

Heather said...

I didn't read all the comments, but the ones I did were great!

I felt sorry for that family...for their situation and for their lack of willingness to examine what they could do to change the situation.

I really think eating healthy can be done with right attitude and commitment. If you are committed to making the step then you will find ways to make it happen. We spend $100/month on groceries for our family of 3 (soon to be 4). We eat well...I stock up in the summer at the farmer's market, we use meat less than most, and I let it be known that I will take garden overflow from others. I make almost everything from scratch and we are working more and more towards local and farmer direct.

It can be just takes the committment!


AngieNCSC said...

I'm brand-new to this blog--brought here by a comment on another blog about the same movie. I read through all the comments, though, and I may have something to add. Jamie Oliver, aka the Naked Chef, has been spearheading a big project in West Virginia that literally teaches people to cook for themselves. He did this type of project already in England, and in fact received a TED Prize (today, I think) for his anti-obesity work. It's worth checking out his site.

cuspdesigns said...

I remember a few years back when my husband and I started making the switch to healthier eating. Right afterward, I found out I was pregnant with our first child, and my mother-in-law told me "Now that you are starting your family, you can't afford to keep eating the way you do". My response, "I cannot afford not to."

Now, with a young family who closely resemble black holes most days when it comes to food consumption, I can't see how I could afford junk food. Real food provides the nutrients their young bodies need while at the same time making them feel fuller longer because of the nutrient powerhouse they pack. Do we still eat at McDonalds? You bet - about once every 3-4 months as a treat. Do they get Hamburger Helper once in a while? Of course - because I am still a busy mom who is trying to teach them balance in all things, and that the "once in a while" isn't going to hurt them unless it turns into "all the time".

I have not seen "Food Inc" but it's on my Netflix and I can't wait to see it.

Anonymous said...

I was just thinking that with the snow this week in our area I was limited to buying food from the CVS a few blocks from us - not the ultimate food wasteland but certainly a lot less appealing than the usual options we have. I found that you can get several basic healthy groceries there such as skim milk and eggs which can be very useful if you have no other option. Of course they don't sell produce but their spices tend to be a great deal - $.99 for a sizable shaker of black pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, paprika and others.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people don't know HOW to cook. I'm on a board where, when the recession hit and people were looking for ways to cut their grocery budgets, questions like "what is a soup bone" and "how do I make soup" came up. Homemade sourdough bread can be really inexpensive, but it involves following a recipe that - while it isn't complex - is intimidating to someone who doesn't know to wait until the water is boiling to dump in the noodles.

I'm lucky to live in a place where there are a lot of inner city coops who see it as their mission to be a supplier of healthy food in an affordable fashion - but often the people those markets really want to serve don't CHOOSE to shop there, even when it is convenient. Cooking is intimidating, and what does one do with a turnip?

oilandgarlic said...

I believe there is a huge divide between haves and have-nots, and this affects food choices as well. Readers of Cheap, Healthy, Good may know better but how many people read food blogs or food magazines?

I think this cycle of lower-income and/or less educated people eating fast food will NOT be broken until nutritional information plus cooking classes are provided in lower-income areas. I cannot emphasize cooking classes enough!
So many people I know, middle-class and college-educated included, grew up in non-cooking households. Learning solely from recipes and cooking shows on TV is intimidating.

If you cook enough, it becomes less time-consuming and even fun. But it takes a lot of practice.

Another thing I've noticed (and again, this is not only lower/uneducated class), in many households only 1 person takes responsibility for cooking. That is hugely time-consuming and very unfair over a lifetime. I would recommend splitting this chore because if the responsible person is sick or busier, the default is bad fast food or expensive convenience food.

DMBY said...

"What does one do with a turnip?" reminds me of some adventures I had when I was still living in the SF area (I'm now in HI) and had subscribed to a weekly CSA farm produce box. Some of these may seem mild to CHG vets, but swiss chard, kale, parsnips, fava beans - though I had heard of them, I had never bought any of them before, because I didn't know what to do with them. And they were awesome!
But the one that really threw me for a loop - romanesco - it looked like an alien vegetable! :)

Anonymous said...

I see a lot of posts here agreeing with the OP, but only one in my same situation - i'm a working mom with no time for really healthy dinners. we actually eat pretty healthy, no junk food, no sodas, round meals with frozen if not fresh vegies. still, lots of pasta.
I come home at 5 and need to get dinner on by 6:30. Seems like that shouldn't be a problem, but I've got an infant and 4 year old, each with their own needs, and we are all tired and cranky. It's hard to chop vegies when you are holding a baby, and that same time is exactly my lowest point of energy during the day.
We don't have a TV, but for the poster who said to give up my 15 minutes of TV time for weeding and watering home grown vegies? Are you kidding? At the end of my day I feel more like a vegie myself than I feel like growing one. Do you realize how much less energy watching TV takes?
Our evenings are spent reading and talking, getting things ready for the next day, and often working. On occasion I've tried to make dinner the night before, but I can't keep to it.
Anyway what I really wanted to say here was that I see a lot of people complaining, but not a lot of tips. (common in a lot of comments on blog posts...)
how do you manage with your own fatigue, a crying baby, a preschooler who wants attention (and doesn't particularly feel like helping you make dinner, we've gone that route. she wants a story or a game), and getting dinner on? for us, its something that does not need stirring on the stove, chopping, or using lots of pots and pans and dishes that will just need to be cleaned later. preferably something that can be done one handed if need be. for me - thats pasta and sauce.
oh and what do you do with a preschooler who doesn't want anything but fish sticks and cucumbers?

GrowingRaw said...

I'm the '15 mins to grow veggies' culprit - like Anonymous, I'm a working Mum with two small kids. They're slightly older; my daughter is 3 and my son is nearly 2. I agree that it's difficult to tackle extra tasks when you're tired, the kids are tired and you have limited time. This is probably not the best time to try, especially when you want to wind down and re-connect after your day apart. Leave gardening until the weekends, if you're interested and you have time then.

You did comment that no-one was giving any tips - what about preparing a crockpot meal once the kids are in bed, storing it in the fridge then putting it on the next morning so you come home to a cooked dinner?

It's also harder to get motivated growing your own food if you feel like it's just another job you have to do - almost as bad as housework! I found when my kids were babies (less than 6 months old) I didn't do much gardening at all, just a bit of sprouting and container gardening close to the house. As my kids get older they're able to 'help' me more. Growing veggies has become one of their play activities as well as a household 'task'. The kickback from this is they're learning directly about the food cycle and they're also more likely to eat fresh veggies when they've sown, watered and picked them themselves.

In the meantime, while you're restricted by the age of your youngest child, you could do some sprouting with your preschooler. Mung bean sprouts are sweet and crunchy, you might get lucky and find your preschooler even likes eating them. Sprouts are high in protein and vitamins. Plus sprouting is cheap when you buy beans and seeds in bulk and make your own sprouters out of old jars.

GrowingRaw said...

I've been thinking a lot about this forum thread and the conundrum some posters have mentioned regarding people who a) don't even realise they're not eating well and b) don't have access to the informational, educational or budgetary resources to make changes easily anyway.

What are the best ways to identify and offer help to people who may be interested in improving their eating habits and health? Given other difficult stuff that goes on in people's lives, how reasonable is it to expect their diet to be a priority? What's a reasonable amount of support to offer without being patronising or creating dependencies?

My first thoughts are to start with information that is accessible - available, understandable and easily implemented. Continuing to get healthy eating ideas into schools, preschools and daycare centres is also vital. Small, locally based, tightly target community projects seem the most effective, but require coordinated support and funding at higher levels.

Even the current glut of reality cooking and gardening shows must be having positive effects in terms of raising people's awareness and interest in healthy eating. There are plenty of engaging shows that offer people simple recipes using common ingredients. "Eating healthy on a budget: Feeding 4 on $10 a day" would have to be a ratings hit! Any TV producers out there?

wosnes said...

Healthy food can be expensive. If you're trying to eat 100% organic, locally grown produce and pastured, organic meat, dairy and eggs -- yes, it's expensive. In my area locally grown food is almost always more expensive than what I can buy at the grocery -- even Whole Foods and the other high-end stores. It's tastier, and probably healthier, but definitely more expensive. Right now locally (greenhouse grown) lettuce is $3.00/head at the winter market. It's barely enough for a salad for one. Free range eggs are about $4.00/dozen. At the grocery -- less than $2.00.

However, I don't think eating healthfully has to be expensive and I think most people can do it if they know how. In the 1970s I read Ernest Callenbach's Living Poor with Style. One of the things he talks about is managing money, which included shopping for food. He suggested that when you get paid, you buy enough non-perishable staples (rice, oats, other grains, potatoes, beans, pasta and so on) to last until the next time you get paid. Then you will always have something to eat. As you can afford it, fill in with the more perishable produce, meat, dairy and eggs. But make sure you have those staples first! I've done this during my own lean times and it works.

What I find interesting about that approach is that it's much like all those healthy populations we've been encouraged to emulate, which, by the way, are generally the cuisines of poverty. Their diets tended to be based on the staples and they filled in with other things as they were available and affordable. Over recent years, though, we've been encouraged to base our diets on the most expensive foods. That expensive broccoli gets less expensive per serving if you combine it with rice or pasta or beans in some kind of one dish meal.

A few years ago I read The Jungle Effect] by Dr. Daphne Miller. It's about the diets of various groups of people around the world who have low incidences of breast and prostste cancer. diabetes, heart disease, depression, colon problems and other chronic diseases. One of the things that struck me was how simple the diets of the people were. Some of these people had very little variety in their diets (at least as compared to a)what we're used to, and b) what we're encouraged to do), others had more variety, but the food was generally very simple.

It reminded me of KISS: Keep It Simple, Sweetie. Dr. John McDougall, in his book about diet and heart health, said "Your grandparents and mine probably kept meals simple: porridge for breakfast, soups for lunch and a stew for dinner. You too should plan your meals around a single dish, possibly supplementing it with a salad or vegetable side dish. Think of pasta with a topping, or rice covered with a sauce, or just plain soup and wholesome bread."

In The Jungle Effect Dr. Miller wrote about the Tarahumara Indians from the Copper Canyon in Mexico. They were featured because they have very low rates of diabetes. Their diet is based on corn, beans, and squash, eggs, and fresh produce in season and smaller amounts of fish and chicken and occasionally some pork.

I've thought about television being used to teach simple, healthy, inexpensive cooking, too, but in a slightly different way than GrowingRaw suggested. I'm not sure that the people who need it would watch the cooking programs. But there's commercials. In 30-60 seconds people could be informed about cheap, healthy and good food. It could be followed up with promotions and samples in grocery stores. Personally, I think it would be best to keep it simple and basic, nothing too fancy.

brannyboilsover said...

Great points.
I feed my family of two 20 meals a week for about $50/week in groceries. We eat no processed foods and tons of nutritious dishes. Plan, prioritize, and you've got it.

veronica (lifewithnature) said...

Completely agree with you. It reminds me of one of my posts about 10 tips to save money on a healthy diet.

Ande Truman said...

Hate to butt in here but I started a website to debunk the myth about having to be rich to be healthy! We're definitely on the same page here- check out I think you'll like it.

Chris said...

My name is Chris. I'm a college student now and reading this reminds me of when my parents first immigrated here for school. We had a family of 5 eventually, plus my grandparents, living in a 2 bedroom apt and it was, well, pretty poor haha. It really shaped who I am today.

My parents were incredibly poor. Two grad students with no jobs and just tuition scholarships, they worked by night and studied by day. I was taken care of by my grandparents.

So for breakfast we ate leftover rice that was boiled in some more water, or like a porridge. Classic Chinese breakfast, ask any Asian haha. Doesn't sound like much, but I was never hungry.

Lunch was always rice and vegetables or Ramen. You get meat like 2-3 times a week, but usually that meant eggs. Don't hate Ramen - I started eating that for breakfast in middle school (still poor haha). The trick is to not use the seasoning they give you. We always get spices and stuff from the local Asian store, throw in an egg and some cabbage, and Ramen is a pretty cheap meal.

Dinner was better, but still usually rice with vegetables . Tofu was the main "meat". Maybe chicken/pork twice a week, but usually cut up so thinly to disguise that there really wasn't any there haha. I died laughing when I first saw a steak in 6th grade.

I totally agree with this article. Eating healthy doesn't have to be expensive, it doesn't have to taste terrible too. My parents growing up in revolutionary China had it much worse. They ate rats, planted their own food, etc. They were poor.

In my opinion, the process of enjoying healthy food is to make yourself believe it tastes delicious, regardless of what it's made of. People hate tofu, hate rice, hate cabbage, etc. But if you grow up and that's all you eat, it tastes pretty damn good. You have to get over yourself and realize the benefits.

Thank you so much for making this post. Definitely showing it to my mom, she will love it.

Anonymous said...

fix my electric so it can support a stove, then fix the stove I have and the oven, because they don't work,THEN tell me I can cook all these wonderous things.I guess all of you have working kitchen appliances and the money to re-wire your houses in addition to surviving on 27,000 dollars a year. Like we all make a bunch of money