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Has anyone who has ever written about this topic ever shopped in a grocery store for more than one person? I think I am going to randomly post our family meals up here for all to see, then tell me what you think about the meme, “the poor can only afford calorie dense, fatty, unhealthy, fast food because it is cheap.”  Well, let’s go to the video tape as Warner Wolf used to say.

The other night, our family of four had a dinner of braised pork chops (maple glazed, but for health reasons you can simply roast them plain or in a little non-fat vegetable broth), mashed white sweet potatoes and pan-seared brussel sprouts. This is “fancy” as far as my cooking abilities go, and I can never get it quite right. But as my memory serves me, here is what I spent at Wegmans (which is more expensive than many local groceries and certainly more expensive than if you had to go to the local Walmart):

  • One package of bone-in pork chops, about $4.79 per pound – for a total of about $5.50
  • 28 brussels sprouts, freshly placed in the shelf as I was picking them out , about $3.29 per pound – for a total of $4.00 (that’s more than I spent, but I want to be conservative)
  • 4 white sweet potatoes, about $1.19 per pound (I cannot find the web link for them, but they were the same price in the bin next to these yams) – for a total of $3.00

I’d note before continuing that this meal left us with enough pork and mashed sweet potatoes to feed one or two people for another evening, let’s completely ignore those costs. Putting these together, you can see that the major ingredients for our dinner cost $12.50. And that was more food than our family of four can eat in one sitting (one of our kids does not each much, another eats like an adult most of the time). Now, we made the sweet potatoes with a bit more butter, apple cider and cinnamon and cream than you might want to if you made them really healthy – like baking them, and we also used some good olive oil, parmesan cheese and pine nuts on the brussels sprouts, but they are easy to cook tastily and healthily with a slight coat of olive oil in the pan or even a little vegetable stock, salt and pepper (a little) and steam them for 10 minutes or so. We drink water with our dinner, but let’s assume that we all drank a half-gallon of freshly squeeze apple cider (pick your own healthy drink if you wish). That cider costs about $3.00 per half gallon, which gets us up to $15.50. Suppose we brought whole grain bread, the good kind, fresh from Wegmans’ bakery? A really fancy loaf is $4.00. That gets us to $19.50.

If you wish, you can try to price out the small amounts of salt, pepper, olive oil, cheese, maple syrup, stock, butter, and a few other ingredients that made their way into our food. But we used something like $2.00 of this stuff in total. To cook healthier versions of our meal you can do without most of this. So this gets us to $21.50.

TWENTY-ONE FIFTY. I mean, this was a pretty “fancy” dinner for us, and we shopped at the hoity-toitiest store in all of Rochester to do it. In other words, we fed our family of four, with whole grain bread and apple cider to book, for less than $5.50 per person. And remember, we had that as leftovers two nights later (along with half of another cheaper meal). Now, you might say that it took time to cook this. We spent money on electricity for our stoves. We had to invest in cookware and utensils. We can go that route if you want, but you’ll bored with the next blog post I put up as a rejoinder.

What does it cost to get 4 extra value meals from McDonalds? A quarter-pounder with cheese meal will run you over $6.00. And you still have to get into your car to go get it. So to feed a family of four the unhealthy, calorie dense food at McDonalds in many regards costs more than the healthy and somewhat luxuriant meal we prepared from Wegmans.

Now, when you have a few minutes, ask yourself a different question. If your sole goal was to feed yourself very healthy foods and to do so on a shoestring, what would it cost to feed a family of four (btw, it would be cheaper to feed larger families, of which the poor themselves have at greater incidence than the non-poor).

PS: I can predict two responses to this. First is that the poor don’t have the time to cook, or aren’t as knowledgeable about these issues as the non poor. To which I say tut!

  • Check out the results of this great paper by my former colleague Mark Aguiar. The poor enjoy far more leisure than the non-poor.
  • What does this say about our public education system? After all, 90% of students go to government schools, the job of which it is to educate people about really important stuff, and we cannot even get this part right?

Second, I am sure someone will talk about how poor neighborhoods do not have groceries which sell healthy foods – so called healthy food “deserts.” Remind me of this argument the next time some inner city decides it does not want to have a Walmart open within its borders. And I happened to grow up in one of those places. And even the smallest little corner groceries had a reasonable array of fruits, vegetables and healthy meats, in addition to the usual bad stuff. Finally, suppose the claim is true – isn’t that one of the understood costs of living in certain areas. As an illustration, would it be viewed as catastrophically bad if all the folks living in the North Woods of Michigan don’t have easy access to fresh veggies every day?

7 Responses to “The Cost of Nutritious, Healthy Food”

  1. Rod says:

    But what if you are a poor vegan and need to substitute a tofu-based imitation of a pork chop?

    Food is cheap in this country. If you eat a meal at a restaurant, you are employing a cook (at McDonald’s, an underpaid burger flipper) and you are paying for all the overhead at Ronald McDonald’s restaurant, including the playground. On the other hand, the food stays with you for a while longer, at the bottom of your stomach where the grease lodges.

    Question: I got some brussels sprouts at a local farmstand market yesterday, and they were still attached to a stalk that looked like broccoli. Can you cook the stalk, too? (I like broccoli more than brussels sprouts.) The stalk must have thirty sprouts on it, and it cost three bucks at the farmstand.

  2. Speedmaster says:

    This all sounds like typical one-percenter talk! 😉

  3. RIT_Rich says:

    First of all, I envy you for being near a Wegmans. I miss that place tremendously. Second, I don’t think the people who say that healthy food is expensive…actually have ever shopped for food, or ever seen the prices of the food they buy. They are typically children, not necessarily physically but mentally. And they are typically rich enough not to notice prices.

    There is nothing cheaper at a supermarket than “healthy food”. A can of beans will run you 50 cents. A dozen oranges rill run you 5 bucks. A giant bag of Indian rice…I don’t know…a few bucks. Eggs are too cheap for me to remember their price.

    You’re absolutely right. I had this conversation with a hippie-type doing his MBA with me, who was living off his parent’s income, and complaining that “healthy food costs too much because of corporate greed bla bla bla”. All this while we were in Wegmans…so I dragged him to buy some “healthy food items” for ridiculously low prices. He CHOSE to buy the frozen pizza instead.

  4. Andrew says:

    I would certainly agree with the assessment that cooking yourself is far cheaper and healthier than any pre-packaged food you might buy. The real issue is not healthy versus unhealthy, but rather convenient versus inconvenient. I do think we’ve got a little soft as a society, and we demand the convenience of fast food over the nutrition of cooking yourself. That is really a shame, and I think this as much to do with the obesity epidemic as anything.

    That being said, I would like to see this same analysis with the “convenience” variable controlled for. What is cheaper? Pre-packaged healthy food, or pre-packaged unhealthy food? Or similarly, which is cheaper? Homemade healthy food, or homemade unhealthy food? Would the same results still hold?

    I personally enjoy cooking for myself, but it is certainly something that takes practice.

    Of course, your analysis tends to work better when you assume that everyone has equal access to a place like Wegmans, which is not always the case. Most Wegmans stores (at least in Monroe County) are located in the suburbs, and not as easily accessible to those in the inner city.

  5. wintercow20 says:

    I’ll be bringing a video camera with me shortly to the inner city of Rochester to show exactly the choices faced – although I mentioned this already in the last paragraph of the post.

    I agree on the convenience, but if people want to eat healthy it is far easier today to eat healthier convenient food than in the past – I’ll look for some way to quantify it – but certainly there were no McDonalds salads even 20 years ago, and certainly it is not hard to order a grilled chicken from almost any fast food joint – no reason “convenient” has to be unhealthy.

    Finally, if it is hard to get to a grocery store in certain parts of the country (which again I recognize), then I do not see how it is so much easier to get fast food. If inner city consumers do not have cars, then they must find a way either to fast food or to groceries, and the relative cost of healthy food in that situation is actually MUCH lower than it is for folks who have a car.

    You are absolutely on target when you ask about the true, fully loaded relative costs of all these options. I would argue that the relative cost of any healthy food combination is lower vis-a-vis the overall budget of Americans today, but it is certainly possible that in relation to the fully loaded cost of unhealthy food it has become relatively more expensive – but that is different than saying healthy foods have become harder for poor families to acquire.

    Finally, I would add that leisure inequality works quite the opposite as income inequality does. Those “at the bottom” enjoy a lot more leisure than those at the top. My former colleague Mark Aguiar has a nice paper demonstrating this – so the “cost” of prepping food at home is lower for people with more leisure time than it would be for folks who have less leisure.

  6. Andrew says:

    “Second, I am sure someone will talk about how poor neighborhoods do not have groceries which sell healthy foods”

    Haha, I guess I just had to be that guy, didn’t I? 😉

  7. Chris says:

    If convenience is really an issue, Wegman’s has $6 meals for sale. They are filling and there are several healthy options. All you have to do is throw it in the oven/microwave to heat it.

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