Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Mark Bittman Takes on Cheap Food Myth

110927_Bittman In his Sunday column for The New York Times, writer and food advocate Mark Bittman challenged the notion that unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food. This common claim is, by and large, a lie, Bittman says:

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9.

Compared with a McDonald’s meal for four people, which costs about $28, these relatively healthy, low-budget meals are bargains.

Others say that junk food is a better bargain when measured by calories per dollar, but Bittman argues that because “half of the people in this country (and a higher percentage of poor people) consume too many calories rather than too few, measuring food’s value by the calorie makes as much sense as measuring a drink’s value by its alcohol content.” A better measure might be the amount of nutrients and protein people receive per dollar, which would make Bittman’s low-budget meal of roasted chicken with vegetables, salad, and milk the better option by far.

Of course, the more legitimate explanations for why families on a budget revert to processed foods is due to a lack of time, access, and education. Food deserts remain a consistent problem for low-income people. In many urban neighborhoods, the closest place to buy food is a 7-11 or liquor store. Still, with a little bit of effort and intentional planning, families can make real, healthy food a priority in their budgets and in their lifestyles.

To make changes like this more widespread we need action both cultural and political. 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.

Political action would mean agitating to limit the marketing of junk; forcing its makers to pay the true costs of production; recognizing that advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation of addictive substances; and making certain that real food is affordable and available to everyone. The political challenge is the more difficult one, but it cannot be ignored.

Amen, Mark. Amen.

What do you think? Are you living on a low budget of both time and money? Do you find processed food a more convenient option for you or your family? Or have you found ways to make healthy meals on a budget? Share your stories in the comments section below.

Image: New York Times columnist Mark Bittman was the kaynote speaker at the 1,000 Days to Scale Up Nutrition for Mothers and Children Conference in Washington, DC last June. (Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl)


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We have found what Mark said to be true. Dried beans and rice are two of our staples. Also making breads, pancakes, etc. from scratch is cheaper than box mieses. Processed foods including frozen foods add dollars to our grocery bills. Thanks for this.

This is fantastic! I have been arguing against the idea that fast food is cheaper for awhile now. I feel that many people stick to this idea because it feels wrong to blame poor and needy people. But, this sort of thinking only facilitates a growing national obesity problem, poor nutrition, and hides one of the biggest problems our country is facing: poor education. Thank you for sharing this!

Rice, dried beans, lentils, fresh/frozen produce, water. Cheap. To afford the fruits and veggies, we skip expensive meats, chips, soda pop, cake, donuts, gum/candy, processed convenience foods, etc. A plate of beans and rice is way cheaper than hamburger helper!! I agree that eating healthfully takes more time and thought. When I see the statistics of how much time Americans spend watching tv, texting, internetting, etc, I figure that more time could be dedicated to food/eating for a large number of people. As a working middle class family of 5 (our income is lower than middle class, but our life style is not) we most certainly can not afford to eat at McDonalds! I can also think of many other things non-food related that people could give up instead of sacrificing their health. Priorities are out of balance in our modern culture. Instead of legislation to force people to do the right thing, we could just allow natural consequences to occur. This can be the best teacher/educator. When we constantly protect people from the natural consequences of their choices, we take away their independence.

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