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Junk Food: Fast, Cheap and…Not Quite as Cheap as You May Think

Junk Food: Fast, Cheap and…Not Quite as Cheap as You May Think

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?

Read more: Conscious Consumer, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Following Food, Food, General Health, , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

85 comments

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5:11AM PST on Nov 21, 2011

Cooking is easy and many meals can be cooked at one time in the same day and placed in the fridge to be heated another day. Get the family involved and make it a fun time as well as a learning experience in survival.



If anyone eats at McDonalds or other fast food joints then you are supporting the 1%.

5:07AM PST on Nov 21, 2011

If anyone eats at McDonalds or other fast food joints then you are supporting the 1%.

12:17PM PST on Nov 6, 2011

thanks

1:18PM PDT on Oct 14, 2011

Its not about fast food as junk food. The person quoted in this article, who said that it costs more for McDonalds than a home cooked meal is an Heritage Fund schill paid to demonize the poor. It is about 10 cent Ramen noodles, 50 cent mac and cheese, and 64 cent liter soda. For 3 dollars you can buy 4-6 bologna sandwiches, a liter of pop and a candy bar, Or 1 package of grape tomatoes. It's about caloric sufficiency as well as source.

I know I've tried to eat for a week on four dollars, I ended up having to steal food (no pantries.) Don't abide the voice of evil you can hear it here in this article, it also aped in these posts. Don't be 'led from the middle' by Murdoch and his trolls

10:44AM PDT on Oct 10, 2011

I think that there is also a time problem here.After the recession a lot of people who still had jobs,had to work longer hours to keep their heads above water.Sometimes people just do not have the time or energy even if it is the unhealthy choice.

10:59PM PDT on Oct 6, 2011

Cooking at home is always less expensive than going out for dinner, even if it IS fast food. The main difference is the preparation. If time is money, the time needed to prepare home cooked food is where it balances out the price.

3:26PM PDT on Oct 2, 2011

I think it's cheaper to cook a good meal at home. Fast food is outrageously overpriced. I rarely eat it. I prefer my own cooking.

12:10AM PDT on Oct 2, 2011

after giving birth to my fourth child something changed my ways of dealing with what goes on around me. i stopped accepting things as they appear to be in a blinds eye point of view and started really to look deeper and actually take the time to self educate with real honest and diverse knowledge from a variety of places. the deception and manipulation in the food system that goes on is overwhelming.our food is no longer "real" nutritious food. I no longer buy con-ventional produce, meats,dairy, eggs and other products. its sad that many people are stuck on the habit of spending very little money on feeding themselves and their family by buying cheap unfortunate foods and instead are spending huge amounts of money on materialistic things. i've realized that what we eat determines the outcome of our health and the existence of our soul.to be lively and vibrant and just feeling great comes from fresh organic and nutritious foods. The way that most foods are treated in the conventional way is heartbreaking and a harsh reality; animals treated like garbage and fruits and veggies laced with poisonous chemicals and the genetic engineering, all misleading and a big manipulation.No wonder many people feel dull and lifeless and sickly.i stopped shopping at the big retail grocery stores and now support local organic farms,farmers markets and the co-ops.i was not taught the importance of food and why we should be blessed to have food.now i know and so will my children.

11:20PM PDT on Sep 29, 2011

hmmm....ok

5:33PM PDT on Sep 29, 2011

I agree with the few here that mention sometimes NOT having to cook...I LOVE a plate of raw mixed veggies with a veggienaise...takes MERE MINUTES to prepare...and tastes great...some fresh cut up home-made fruit salad for breakfast...2 minutes..healthy and filling...and does NOT make me feel weighed down....I also don't understand the "High startup costs" for cooking utensils...as I found everything I needed at the thrift store for CHEAP!!!..I even found a rice cooker for $5.00, and a pasta extruder with 12 different shaped dies..(spaghetti,macaroni,bowtie..etc.) ALSO for $5.00...I also have gotten into the habit of cooking WAY TOO MUCH for one meal..(Lasagna, pastas, et al ) and jamb the leftovers into my freezer, that way, I usually end up cooking once or twice a week. I also have a WOK..(again...thrift store..$2.00) that i use for quick stir fries...a few fresh veggies sliced up...a bit of extra virgin olive oil...get the wok hot...toss for less than 2 minutes....throw in a few bean sprouts near the end..(I grow my own at home in jars).DONE...not hard at all really!!!..

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