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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Sean7k's picture

Rice is cooked 2 parts water to one part rice with salt and oil for twenty minutes. Bring to a boil and then simmer. Vegetables are chopped and cooked in a wok, in oil, at medium high heat for 5-7 minutes. Add a little soy sauce for flavor. Put on top of rice and serve. 

You can add additional spices, like curry, ginger,garlin, tarragon, etc. 

Put the eggs in with the rice and stir fry as well. 

Will feed two people for ten dollars a day. It's not exciting food, but very healthy.

Eally Ucked's picture

First you never cook rice like that! You use as much water as possible, cook it for 15 to 20 min (from the moment water starts boiling, and of course salt), depends on kind of rice, drain, rinse and you ready. Try.

Second, good luck to feed 2 people with it just for a month. Don't give it to the kids though because all those hormons in eggs will cause a lot of growth problems (checked in real life).

Acet's picture

There are two different ways to cook rice, both the one with lots of water and the one with two measures of water for each measure of rice (for example two cups of water for one of rice).

In the later your cover the pan and boil for exactly 10 minutes. At the end take the pan out of the fire and let it stand (still closed) for two minutes before serving - this allows the rice to absorb any leftover water. If you did the right measures and times there will be not water left and the rice will not be burned (there's some marging for error). You might want to rinse the rice before adding it to the boiling water in this way if it's cheap rice and you don't want it to be sticky (this removes the loose powder and excess starch).

This later method also allows for doing the rice with things in it, for example rice with peas (just add the peas in the beginning and use the same measures). A very easy way of making seriously tasty rice it to add one or two cubes of stock to the water and just do plain rice or add some peas.


cheetahbaby's picture

Third way, rice cooker. Makes fabulous rice. No need to throw out water, no need to watch the pot and it leaves that lovely crust on the sides of the pot.

Omen IV's picture

living in NYC and in Montana - Montana while fruits and vegetables on balance higher than NYC  - they are still reasonable in Bozeman multiple places

in NYC : Bell Peppers just in last month $.99 lb - red/ yellow - green $.68-78 / blackberries small box $2.00 / bananas- $.59 lb / iceberg lettuce $.89-99 head/ eggplant $.99 lb /spinach fresh $1.50 box

can eat in NYC fruits and veg - reasonable or cheap !  everything in the article is true - (meat which is also cheap especially chicken $1.99 lb deboned chicken breasts)

i also shopped in Switzerland for a year within the last 5 years and the prices for raw food is astronomical in comparison to usa and people are thin -there is no reason to eat high carb /high fat/high sugar  diet - none - vast majority of americans are lazy diabetic pigs no other reason for obesity


Harbanger's picture

I'm staying in NYC with my sister for the Holidays.  I just bought a 6 pack of Murrays chicken thighs at the C-town on w 116th street for $2.45.  That's about the same it cost me to feed and raise my chickens back home.

vast-dom's picture

you should be hitting up the local Popeye's with the bulletproof glass counters yo!

Harbanger's picture

Why do they need bullet proof glass in NYC if guns are illegal?  I think I saw that homeless guy with no shoes walking on broadway yesterday.  Turns out he has an apartment and the shoeless thing was only a schtick for pity.  After seeing the caliber of people around here, I'm convinced they will die quickly when TSHTF.

vast-dom's picture most laws today....the criminals seem to benefit most from them........go veggy.

Harbanger's picture

People will stop to take pictures rather than help a man about to be run down by a train.  There's a complete disconnect with reality.

Ballin D's picture

You open yourself up to liability if you get involved and try to help.  This wont change until a politician loses someone close.

Citxmech's picture

Most jurisdictions have "Good Samaritan" laws on the books that protect individuals from liability when rendering assistance to a person in danger.

Stock Tips Investment's picture

These prices do not seem very real. However, I do believe that esposible eat healthy foods at prices much lower than what we pay for processed foods. Every day, I try to eat healthier foods.

Perpetual Burn's picture

organically grown foods are a scam. They use more pesticides then "non-organic" foods. 


Sucker will be sucker.



Marco's picture

It's a matter of degrees, compared to eating processed/fast food every day it's still a hell of a lot better (also less chance of e-coli food poisoning). Also frozen and canned vegetables retain most of their nutritional value, which allows you to go a little cheaper still.

Winston Churchill's picture

Can't give the away here in season.Same for mangos,limes and avocardo.

Just had my last avocardo, a 3lb monster..

The question is more when bought, and where.

Kreditanstalt's picture


Little teeny-weeny Hass avocadoes here go for 97 cents apiece.  And their prices seem inflexible, almost never going on discount or on sale and always around the same price.  (Once I did see them on sale at 77 cents).

We need more avocado producers!  Competititon...!

A Lunatic's picture

They are similar to avocados but they are grown in the fertile soil of one's own imagination, ranging in size from three to five pounds.

Tijuana Donkey Show's picture

Your talking about a different type, from the west Indies.

They don't taste the same, but have their own flavor. Hass is better.

Ident 7777 economy's picture

-1 for "Your talking about ..." (contraction violation, s/b " you are" or " you're " not "your")


exi1ed0ne's picture

Bingo.  Community Supported Agriculture shares here in the fucking middle of crop country ain't cheap.  If you want grass fed beef or bison you're looking at triple or more the price of hormone and antibiotic laden meat like substance you find in the store.  I'm not discounting the conditioning of mass media, nor the engineered tastes in modern process foods, but eating real stuff is MUCH more expensive then the cost of factory food.

Citxmech's picture

Yeah - but what percentage of our incomes should be dedicated to obtaining high-quality food?

This article also doesn't touch on the increadible waste of paying what amounts to crunchy water flown or trucked in from 3,000mi away.

Once you embrace eating locally available and seasonal produce, the ability to grow one's own becomes a viable and economic option.

DaveyJones's picture

it is fascinating that the proportion of money spent on health care and that spent on food have nearly switched. organic food with tremendous variety is the best health investment you will ever make. Vitamins are no substitute for the complexity of digesting true food.

Harbanger's picture

He's not shopping at Wholefoods.  Add some onions and rice to his shopping list and you can feed a family for a week for under $15.  In these times stay at home dads have to learn to be more frugal.

Eally Ucked's picture

Even better than original post! Are you living in China? If so add some hot peppers to it and you'll be fine for for month for 15$ for family of 6.

Harbanger's picture

Look at the bright side, as China becomes wealthier, in time they will become lard asses like us and as we become poor we will be healthier like them.

Eally Ucked's picture

That's true to certain point, we need to get rid of our lard asses, not doubt, but at the same time we don't want to have bowed legs, bad teeth and hundreds of other problems arising from malnutrition. I just don't want to go over board with our diets, one way or another, and I know we can survive reducing our expenditures on food drastically, but it has many medical cosequences as well.

SheepHerder's picture

Oranges $1 each???  A head of lettuce $3??? Where do you live? 

California grown navel oranges are $.79 a pound a five minute walk from where I'm at right now.  I'm not sure how much lettuce is, but broccoli is a $1.49 a pound.  And I regularly buy 60 eggs for less than $9.

This article is spot on.  My food bill has dramatically reduced due to buying more raw fruits and veggies and cutting back on the amount of meat I eat.  Not to mention the obvious health benefits?

NotApplicable's picture

It's much cheaper cooking from scratch if you find the right places to buy most items in bulk. These days, there isn't anything we wouldn't rather have from scratch, as there are very few processed foods that I still consider food. Even modern wheat is poison, only being invented a little over 50 years ago.

So, in addition to moving away from processed foods, we're going gluten-free. Last night we had pizza from scratch, including an almond flour crust.

We recently found this website, which unlike many GF recipie sites, is focused on healthy alternatives for all ingredients.

I've never felt better (well, as long as I ignore the impending global collapse).

Bohm Squad's picture

There's also the hidden epidemic of hypothyroidism linked to the use of gluten laden products.  It's a huge problem that doesn't seem to attract a lot of attention.  My family has been moving away from gluten, too.  I smiled when I saw "almond flour" because it's in our pantry, too!

NotApplicable's picture

Thanks to Lew Rockwell introducing me to Mark Sisson, I've now no doubt about my ability to live to 100.

I can eat till I'm stuffed, and the fat falls off, while my muscles are finally healing from a lifetime of poor diet and sitting at this damn PC for twenty years.

Bohm Squad's picture

Thanks for the link!  I'll follow-up on it.  I'm pretty well sold on the idea that gluten is bad and any source that helps us eliminate it from our family's diet will be useful.

Tijuana Donkey Show's picture

Yes, but avoid the gluten free junk food. Check out the book Wheat Belly for some horrifing details!

SilverDOG's picture



You MUST BE in the zero shipping cost zone, and not buying OG.

blunderdog's picture

No shipping price for boldface, at least.

Jayda1850's picture

I'm in the produce business and I can tell you that about 40% of produce prices go just to pay the freight. Wholesale price of lettuce right now is $17 for a 24ct case, out of that $7 goes just to pay the freight from cali to east coast.

NotApplicable's picture

Which is why local sourced is better if you make the effort to find it. I get honey from my closest neighbor. Eggs are less than a mile away, and for produce, there's a store a block from my office with nearly all the produce local and/or organic.

Of course, there's also my garden. I'm still getting lettuce, spinach and radishes from it.

hedgeless_horseman's picture



Why everyone does not grow their own lettuce is completely beyond my comprehension.

francis_sawyer's picture

That was a +1 from francis_sawyer

blunderdog's picture

How would suggest I grow lettuce in Brooklyn?


If I ever get *my* hydro gear going, I ain't gonna be growing lettuce, yo....

Citxmech's picture

Actually, winter greens aren't too hard to grow (actually easier than in the heat of summer because of bolting) - you just need to make sure the temps don't go below freezing with a coldframe.  See Elliot Coleman for details.

blunderdog's picture

I have a hard time getting the seedlings into the sidewalk, tho.

francis_sawyer's picture

Goddammit... I don't give a FF if you're in Brooklyn...

Get some of that THICK SHIT plastic insulation wrap (or even some damn transparent plastic containers from your local HD or Wal-Mart) & you can grow ANY green like lettuce, spinach, or mustard green at sub freezing temps even on a Brooklyn rooftop...


alangreedspank's picture

So food price increases are mostly due to continued artifically high gas prices due to artificially supressed USD value ? Makes sense. The early-2008 to autumn-2008 run up in oil to 150$ was less harmful as it lasted only a couple of months. Now, we've been having 80-90$ oil for close to 4 years...


Marco's picture

Suppressed USD value? Is the US projected to run large trade surplusses any time soon?

Dingleberry's picture

I guess we have to define what "food" is. What passes for "food" today would not have been eaten by dogs back in the day. Ask anyone that comes here from another first world country and they will tell you without reservation that our food SUCKS.  It's DISGUSTING.  Which is why I almost never eat at a chain, and then only if it costs what it's worth (you are not getting a "bargain" eating out cheaply, despite what you think).  

Cooking at home is often more expensive than eating out, which should tell you something.  It's not economies of scale, it is because you are buying chemicals and cardboard to eat when you go to a restaurant (or worse).

Americans WANT Walt-Mart type service and goods in everything they do. That's why our stuff (cars, airlines, food, etc. etc. etc. ) is so shitty. The market demands it. The market obliges.