Guest Post: Is Real Food Too Expensive?

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

Is Real Food Too Expensive?

Please don't claim real food is "too expensive" to eat. What's "too expensive" is unhealthy processed and fast foods.

It is a truism that food is expensive in America. What if we ask, "is real food expensive in America?"
Let's define "real food" as unprocessed or minimally processed: raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, unprocessed meat. Minimally processed would include rolled oats, 100% whole wheat bread, tofu, etc.
Exhibit #1: I recently bought this real food, here in America, for less than $5: 9 oranges, large bag of mustard cabbage, large bag of Shanghai bok choi and a large bag of malabar spinach. It was not in the "half off" bin; I paid the full retail price:
Exhibit #2: all of the above, plus 30 eggs and a hand of bananas: total less than $10:
Each of these vegetables makes 4 to 6 servings, and the 2.5 dozen eggs provides plenty of protein for multiple meals. I could have added some excellent frozen fish for under $2 a pound, and cooked a few ounces per serving--a typical serving in traditional Asian cuisine, where one piece of chicken is thinly sliced and added to vegetables to feed four people.
$10 in fast food might get you two "value meals" of saturated-fat burgers, fries and sugar-water drink. $10 in packaged food will buy an assortment of fake-food: frozen pizzas, snacks, sugar-bomb breakfast bars, etc.
Is real food expensive in America? As a percentage of median household income ($49,777), no. Is processed or fast food expensive? If the "value" is measured in nutrition and well-being, yes, the cost is very high indeed.
Apologists often cite four reasons why people (and more particularly, low-income people) tend to eat so poorly in America. One is the high cost of "real food." This is not quite true, as shown above: if you shop at Asian or Latin markets, you will find prices for fresh produce and other real food is typically much lower than in conventional supermarkets.
The second reason offered is that there are no grocery stores in low-income areas. This is also not quite true, as the aforementioned ethnic markets are typically only found in low-income immigrant-friendly areas.
The third excuse is that low-income people lack a proper stove/oven. The majority of Indian, Chinese and southeast Asian cuisine is prepared in one saucepan or wok that only needs one burner, a cutting board, one knife and a stirring/serving tool. The variety and healthy qualities of these cuisines are well-known. You only need one burner and a single saucepan/wok to make a huge range of healthy meals.
The fourth reason given is that people work long hours and have no time to cook, especially low-income workers with long commutes on public transport.
I routinely prepare a healthy meal with the above vegetables or equivalent (green beans, etc.) and a few ounces of meat in about a half hour. With a pressure cooker (widely available at garage sales, etc.), you can prepare a pot of beans or lentils (dal) in less than an hour.
Compare these modest investments of time with surveys that routinely find Americans of all incomes and ethnicities watch up to four hours of TV or equivalent "entertainment" (web-surfing, videogaming, etc.) a day. Some surveys put the total even higher than four hours.
So the apologists are claiming that people find four hours to watch TV, etc., but they have to stop at fast food outlets for dinner because they have no time to prepare a meal with real food.
None of these excuses hold water. Even more absurdly, some apologists claim that "people don't know how to cook." With dozens of cooking shows being broadcast and thousands of recipes available to anyone with a smartphone or Internet connection, this strains credulity. There are even these useful things called cookbooks that can be borrowed from a public library.
Let's also recall that up to 40% of all food in the U.S. is thrown in the garbage. Do you throw away what is costly? No, you throw away what is cheap.
What it boils down to is convenience, marketing and engineering: processed food and fast-food are engineered to "taste good" (i.e. salty, fatty and sweet), marketing hypes them 24/7 and Americans have been brainwashed to worship convenience above all else.
So please don't claim real food is "too expensive" to eat. What's "too expensive" is unhealthy processed and fast foods.

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Bohm Squad's picture

Opportunity cost is not generalized - it depends on the person and what value they place on their time.  My experience has shown that rural life affords a choice between watching TV after work or weeding a garden.  But each person's situation is different.  Point is, opportunity costs vary for different individuals and lumping them together to make a point is simplistic.

exi1ed0ne's picture

I'm about as rural as it gets, and am currently using the warm weather to finish splitting 16 cords of wood so I totally get it.  However, just saying plant a garden it's cheaper is not true.  There are labor, property taxes, etc. etc. inputs into the equation.  It many cases when you actually do the math it is cheaper to buy from professional farmers since their product is subsidized.  Now if that is your hobby and excuse to be out of doors, great and I applaud you.  The world needs more of that.  But lets swing back to the original declaration that it is cheaper, shall we?  The average person isn't going to garden their way out of a grocery bill.

SilverDOG's picture



Go for it... commercial cost vs. self grown and raised food. Step into the OG world, and @ home sustainment in rural USA is less expensive. Especially so if one considers cost of food acquisition. Fuel anyone? If one puts forth an educated effort with foresight and commitment, with OG, financial gains are in hand... and yard. Math done and recorded. 

6 cords here, split, stacked, and covered. So damn dry it sounds like a metal drum when you drop then into the pile.

Who cares about the average person? Soon there will be few and one must use the phrase "mean person".


exi1ed0ne's picture

If you have a regular wood burner, you will want about 20% moisture or it will burn too hot and fast.

hedgeless_horseman's picture



The average person isn't going to garden their way out of a grocery bill.

True, nevertheless, I was shown just last night that our family-of-five's grocery store bill for November was exactly $0.00.  Mrs. Horseman doesn't like to go to the store very often, and not because she is lazy, nor because we are poor. She just has better things to do with her life than shop.


chubbar's picture

If she ever divorces your ass would you send her my way?

hedgeless_horseman's picture



Can you hammer a 6" nail through a 2" board with your penis? 

She does have her standards.

Acet's picture

I don't know about the US, but my parents in Portugal, both of which from farmer families (but living in the suburbs of Lisbon now), can cover most of their vegetable needs (not grains, fruit, fish or meat) from two tiny plots of land (the kind that city halls sometimes make available for people to farm for fun - so about 100m2 each) planted with a bit of everything (carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages, chillies, you name it). No chemical fertilizer used (my dad uses horse manure he gets for free on his), no pesticides used. Both of them cook their own food so they use vegetables for every meal (no processed food).

They're both pensioners, so their time is for free (they actually do it for fun - and bore me to tears with updates on the status of their farming-plots). The weather does help a lot (think California but less dry) so things grow fast and for many things you can get two or even three harvests a year.

The way I see it, two small plots save about 100 EUR per-month each, this in a country were produce is very cheap (and salaries low).


Bohm Squad's picture

Thanks for the polite dialog.  Everyone has a limited amount of time with which to work.  I understand your argument and mostly agree with it.  Some costs, such as property taxes would be considered a "sunk cost" since they occur regardless of whether one has a garden or not.  In addition, subsidization comes from taxes and inflation, so they are actually [hidden] costs...but that's a whole 'nuther theoretical ball of wax and not really relevant to the guy shelling out the cash at the store.  But yes, if one's time is required to pursue more important (read: relatively costly) pursuits, then it's cheaper to purchase the items from the marketplace...that's economics.  It seems we actually agree - I only replied to your original post to remind readers that not everyone shares the same situations...a point you've also made.

Thanks again for a thoughful reply...I tend not to post too much here because it seems 80% of the people would rather be "right" than have a free exchange of ideas.  And to me, this is a learning website.

DaveyJones's picture

beg to differ at least assuming you have a yard of any size and learn a few things. You can grow an amazing amount of organic greens for far less than commercial prices. You're also getting around a collapsing dollar and increasing energy prices. Who knows what avoiding (non-labelled) GMOs is worth.

SilverDOG's picture




Pray tell the amount pre hour you charge yourself.

Forget any self value in the equation ! 

Do not consider any collateral gains, oh NOOOO !

Why would those be counted ? chump.

A Lunatic's picture

Try bullshitting someone who isn't in rural Montana.

SheepDog-One's picture

'Rural Montana is even cheaper since you can grow 'stuff' yourself'

Well....only problem is not much grows here the growing season is maybe a couple months if that. Just not a good place to grow much of anything but pine trees.

FeralSerf's picture

You must be referring to Western Montana.  Most of Montana has few trees but lots of wheat fields.

Citxmech's picture

Here in the Seattle area, cage-free organic eggs are about $4/dozen.  Unfortunately, even those have yolks paler than our own backyard birds (which produce a beautiful bright orange yolk).

I assume the eggs Mr. Smith purchased came from "Auschwitz Farms" or a similar concentration camp operation - which, I submit, should put them entirely in the "processed" catagory (birds stuffed with GMO corn and God-knows-what-else).

Factory farmed foods are the "fast food" of the non-processed food world, having more empty calories, fewer vitamins, etc. than produce grown using real soil built-up with natural fertilizers, etc. 

Kreditanstalt's picture

Yes...I was a bit surprised at his cheap eggs and wondered the same thing.

Here on Vancouver Island I have a choice of (good) free range eggs from neighbours for about US$3.50/dozen or supermarket eggs at anywhere from $2.50-5.50 a dozen...I always take the former!

Tsunami Wave's picture

Cue Hedgeless Horseman's nice and drooly pictures of his organic food...:

Flakmeister's picture

What part of the Island?

I lived in Victoria for about 5 years...

Ever hit the Scarlet Ibis up near Port Hardy?

oddjob's picture

Some traffic jams on Blanshard last 5 years.

Flakmeister's picture

I always got a kick out the mad dashes to and from Swartz Bay...

Kreditanstalt's picture

The Alberni Valley...great! Cheap housing, cheaper food, low-ish taxes...

Flakmeister's picture

Nice.... Have spend many a wonderful times around Tofino...

How much does salmon go for now?

Shell Game's picture

Yep, he surely cheated with 'Auschwitz' eggs (lol!).  I'm in the N. Seattle area and shop at my local Indian grocery (JD's Market). Very good produce and selection, I get all my canning and drying veggies and fruits there. 

pursueliberty's picture

Where are you buying non gmo feed?  Non of my feed sources supply a labeled chicken feed that states non gmo corn, you'd almost have to plant non gmo corn to feed your own chickens.  You could label gmo corn organic i'm sure.  Chickens require medicated feed at certain intervals for various problems.

My inlaws are chicken farmers, you know the kind who raise chickens to eat in big houses 64k at a time.  There isn't a single thing wrong with farm raised chicken other than the feed if you are are anti gmo.  It is all about keeping the birds at a certain temp, certain light, lots of water and food, and not a lot of room to move.  Pretty simple process.

I have egg chickens and I feed them.  I'm building a free range pen in the spring that will have room for 500 chickens.

Sean7k's picture

Just for starters. There are plenty more. 

All the spray pesticides are wonderful and the crammed conditions and feces and dead chickens. Nothing wrong with that at all. Require medicated feed? Wonder what chickens did before medicated feeds? Couldn't have died out.

pursueliberty's picture

You clean the dead out twice a day, and when is poop a problem, other than keeping the amonia level in check?  Chickens will eat thier own poop, drink water they pooped in, etc.  They are pretty nasty creatures, just a step or two away from a pig.  You ever had pigs?

Medicated feed is a must in large farming, but I'm sure it gets your ole ladys green panties in a wad.


I'm too rural for anyone to carry the product you showed, and it would probably be out of my budget anyway.  I cannot say a single person would give the extra money for that around here, but I am friends with a feed store owner so I'll hit him up. 

ceedub's picture

I pay $30 for 50# of non gmo feed from a local supplier in KY.

How big is your 500 chicken free range plot?  Judging by your cheerleading for big Ag im guessing about 500sqft?

Tijuana Donkey Show's picture

Where in KY? I need some of that, could you post a number or link?

pursueliberty's picture

Thats some high dollar feed, but if it makes you happy stay with it.

It will be much bigger than 500sq, I'm not hurting for space.  I'm not cheerleading big ag, but 95% of people won't or cannot breed/raise/eat thier own chickens.  That is why you have chicken farmers.  There is nothing wrong with farmed chicked.  I'd own a chicken farm if one came up for sale closer to my existing business, which might happen one day.

Citxmech's picture

Obviously, once you go commercial - your market will determine what kind of process is appropriate for your area - That's one of the things I like about Western WA - folks here will pay for higher quality produce at farmer's markets -so free-ranging birds on a small homestead scale is very possible - which cuts down on the feed costs dramatically btw.

Right now we're working on setting up a small farm with pasture-raised chickens for meat/eggs.  Planning on adapting a rotational-grazing system with heritage cows, goats, and pigs once we get things sorted (fisrt order of business is getting the orchard fenced and planted!).

goldfish1's picture

Am buying my first organic pork this winter.

We gleened all the extra butternut squash, broccoli, kale, apples and potatoes from our org gardens the day after Thanksgiving. Maybe 400 pounds in all. The local growers helped to gather it for their pigs. It was really a pleasure to do that work.

The big fat momma orchard pig grabbed one of those butternut squash and was practically throwing it up in the air and catching it. Wiggling her large ass with delight. Good to know where your food comes from.

Good to grow your own.


Citxmech's picture

See  We get ours at Bothell Feed and one of the local Mud Bays might carry some of their products too.

We use their layer feed and scratch - supplementing with kitchen scraps and any free-rangey goodies they can scare-up in the yard and around the garden.

Currently, our flock is sized for personal use only and we're not using supplemental lighting to force our chooks to lay in the winter, preferring to give them a rest and aim for a higher production over the long term.  The eggs last so long, we have been successful stockpiling enough to get us through the winter with no problems.  I don't think we've ever had a single egg go bad!

Tijuana Donkey Show's picture

I hit them with the light after they molt, and they recover a bit. They are fine to keep laying if you up the feed quality.


Steaming_Wookie_Doo's picture

I think the point was that you could get good, assimilable protein in those eggs, vs eating some crappy fried nuggets-o-mystery-meat.

There are other options vs regular large grocery stores, which I think are a total ripoff. Restaurant supply stores are a great place to shop. Same for fruit/veggie wholesalers. Not all require wholesale licenses, many are cash and carry and don't care who you are. I can get bacon for 99 cents/lb (regardless of whether you think bacon's healthy), 50 lbs of potatoes for $9, 50 lbs of onions for $10-12, 50 lbs of rice for $20-25. The rice will not go bad, but even the potatoes will stay for months, or you can sell excess at cost, or slightly above, with your neighbors.

Anyway, the point is that some folks will be creative and make it go right, and some will make any damn excuse for eating crap.

Citxmech's picture

You know - the funny part about "unhealthy" food is that stuff like bacon and eggs used to be plenty healthy.  Lots of old-timers worked hard on the farm into their 80s eating that stuff.

Turns out when you feed animals (and plants for that matter) a diet of crap - they end up being unhealthy - just like the folks who then eat them.

Here's a pretty good summary of some issues with factory chickens:

Debt-Is-Not-Money's picture

From your excellent reference:

"When humans eat soy fed chickens these estrogen mimicking hormones can accumulate causing various health problems"

AKA Limp Dick Syndrome!

vast-dom's picture

even in dumpty dirty chinatown here in nyc you would not score such a deal. and i'd rather not know where that produce came from...


in los angeles at the farmer's market just those bags of oranges would set you back $10. the eggs are $4 for HALF DOZEN. those are markets in Santa Monica, Hollywood, etc.


maybe some other clueless rubes can take some pics of their potatoes and turkeys next. 

next up: how cheap produce in Belize may be acquired on a field trip with John McAfee.

taxpayer102's picture



Inexpensive real food from all over the world at the Dekalb Farmers Market near Atlanta.

goldfish1's picture

The nutrition in one of those organic real free range chicken eggs is likely as much as three of those mass produced gmo fed eggs.

Same with potatoes and turkeys.

Quantum Nucleonics's picture

Where they exist (lots on the west coast), Asian markets have some the most competitive prices.  Asian shoppers tend to be very cost conscious.  If more were as frugal, you'd see lower prices at regular grocery stores.  Asian markets tend to have lower cost structures that make lower prices feasible - older, second tier real estate, non-union labor, etc.

mkhs's picture

And a propensity to substitute melamine for milk.  Be careful, you get what you pay for, including facsimile food.

Tijuana Donkey Show's picture

Asian is not just chinese........

mkhs's picture

No, but they seem to have a lot of chinese products.  The local Japanese market is about half and half. It is a question of price and the chinese have the best price.

akak's picture


Asian is not just chinese........

Nor is "Asian" just Oriental.

The word "Asian" is so broad and all-encompassing as to be almost useless --- particularly when it is (misleadingly) misused for the word "Oriental", which some mindless, hyper-politically-correct, clueless idiots apparently believe to be offensive (much to the amusement of many of the Oriental-Americans whom I know).

SilverRhino's picture

Just watch out for the smell.  Holy crap some of those places smell like a week-dead fish rotting in the sun. 

Oddly enough the produce is good, but the meats?  FORGET IT. 

A Lunatic's picture

Grapefruits were on sale @ 2/$1 this week..........

Eally Ucked's picture

Whatever, I just want to know what recipe he will use to prepare meal out of those products in his two exhibits. All together 15$. 30 days/month = 450$. Is it enough for 2 people or just 1, or maybe family of 4?