Last week I had the pleasure of visiting a non-profit food pantry/soup kitchen here in New York and speaking with the founder of the organization. Along with speaking openly about issues from food insecurity to at risk populations, we also talked about the deceptive notion that fast food and junk food are relatively cheap, high caloric, options compared to fresh, whole foods available in grocery stores and farmers markets. We spoke about how populations that struggle daily with getting quality and nutrient-dense food more often than not opt for convenience store pabulum or fast food fare. To them, the food is far cheaper and provides an immediate taste reward of fat, sugar, and salt that lends a bit of enjoyment to a life of constant struggle. But the deceptively cheap price tag comes with a long-term price tag of obesity, diabetes, poor nutrition, and an assortment of other health problems. But it is hard to pass up a cheap, and readymade, meal of chicken nuggets, fries, and a Coke when the healthy alternative seems cost prohibitive, and labor intensive.
Mark Bittman, the former Minimalist, and now an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, wrote a fitting piece over the weekend about how, even though it may seem and look cheaper, junk food is simply not less expensive (in many cases) than feeding yourself and your family a healthy and nutritious meal of your own making. Critics of the proliferation of junk food like to blame McDonalds, Taco Bell, and the like for tempting low income individuals into eating artificially low priced foods instead of buying fresh vegetables and whole grains (the typical comparison has something to do with the price of a Quarter Pounder compared to the price of a head of broccoli). But Bittman claims this claim is way off base. In general, Bittman claims, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. He compares a $14 meal of roasted chicken with vegetables, salad, and a glass of milk (feeding a family of four) with a dinner at McDonalds (price tag nearly double that for $28). Using plain old supermarket ingredients, Bittman was able to assemble more than one simple and nutritious meal that came in far under budget compared to the fast food alternatives. Bittman claims, “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.”
So the issue is not so much money, and the proverbial stretching of the American dollar, but the ability to obtain quality foods, make healthy food choices and to commit to cooking, instead of relying on fast food or premade foods often high in fat, sodium, and sugar. Many people, both in rural as well as urban environments, simply don’t have access to supermarkets and farmers markets where nutritious foods are sold. The Department of Agriculture says that more than two million Americans in low-income rural areas live 10 miles or more from a supermarket, and more than five million households without access to cars live more than a half mile from a supermarket.
But beyond lack of convenience, there exist many issues that perpetuate the problems leading to food insecurity and reliance on junk food. Many households, while not having access, also suffer from a lack of time, ability, and wherewithal to make healthy meals happen at home. Stacking the deck against these populations is the ubiquity of junk food as well as the addictive nature of many of these food choices. Feels a bit overwhelming at times.
So what is the answer? Trans fats and Happy Meals bans? Probably not. What is likely necessary is swift and far reaching political and cultural action – the kind of action that changes the paradigm drastically. “The cultural lies in celebrating real food; raising our children in homes that don’t program them for fast-produced, eaten-on-the-run, high-calorie, low-nutrition junk; giving them the gift of appreciating the pleasures of nourishing one another and enjoying that nourishment together.” And the political aspect would be forcing the makers of junk food limit marketing to at risk populations and insuring that whole, affordable foods are made available to all populations.
If this data is correct, and applicable nearly across the board, then how should we effectively spread this truth about the hidden affordability of nutritious foods over the alternative fast foods? Have you had to make the switch from junk to substance? If so, what convinced you that it was both necessary and affordable?