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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alangreedspank's picture

BS. I eat plenty of veggies, fruits and meats (beef, poultry, fish) otherwise known as 'paleo diet' that I mostly prepare myself.

Pre-QE2, 2010 my monthly expenses were 250-300$ for food. Now it's more like 400-450$. Sure, my habits may have changed, but that can't account for ALL of it.

This is from the guy who thinks the BMI is an actual reliable metric.

shovelhead's picture

You will always find the poverty pimps with hundreds of reasons why "the poor" are not responsible for any reckless, wasteful or self defeating behavior of their own choices.

Generally they all boil down to 'society's' (you) failure to 'empower' them. The mental anguish is so severe that they must dissolve their 'disenfranchisement' in a double cheeseburger on a krispy creme donut bun washed down with a 64oz. big gulp.

It's your fault. Live with it.

williambanzai7's picture

I shop at one of the many "wet markets" in Hong Kong and I would be hard pressed to match the prices in the second picture. If you have ever been in one of these wet markets...they are very reasonable. 

A favorite dish here is spicy oranges and bananas with bokchoi omlettes.

Bastiat's picture

You can match those prices at an asian market in San Francisco.

cougar_w's picture

My wife and I tend to shop for quality and minimal environmental impacts. We buy a lot of organic, and local-grown.

But we're not averse to loading up cheaply, espeically on fruits. The cheapest food to be had around my part of the woods is at the "flea market" which is packed with vendors out of Mexico. At the end of the day you can get small bags of oranges (5 or 6) and small mangos (4 or 5) for $1. Quality is not good of course, since they fill the bag. A flat of eggs, maybe $3. But don't know where any of this stuff comes from. Nothing organic of course, unless the grower is too poor to buy pesticides.

But it's pretty shocking how much food you can come away with if you are not too particular. The place is full of women buying for their familes.

However, that resource will vanish if things ever go badly. Say if fuel becomes really expensive or hard to get. The trucks will never leave Mexico, and if they do they won't get past hungry San Diego and Los Angeles.

The cheap vegitables will then be grown in the back yard, and the hens will lay the eggs. Fruits will have to come from any front yard trees anyone hasn't already cut down to put in lawn.

Not a pretty picture. Not at all.

francis_sawyer's picture

Hard to get any produce into the State of California [from any direction] due to the fear of fruit fly infestations...

Rainman's picture

Mrs. Rainman and daughters eat like parakeets...petrified to eat anything but celery stalks and microwaved popcorn on the run. None can cook. Consequently, Mr. Rainman is forced to forage on his own....bird hunting, fishing and preparing and cooking all kills. Family meals are not even close to what I remember seeing on Leave it to Beaver. 

dark pools of soros's picture

soon they'll move onto vodak and chocolate with a side of pills.. time to make them eat a sandwich

francis_sawyer's picture

did you know that if you cut the bottom inch off of just about any celery stalk bunch that you buy in the store & put it in water [or plant it in the ground] you'll grow a new stalk... It usually works... I got about a dozen stalks growing that way [in the present] moment & they do better than the celery I start from seed... The Bok Choi do just about the same thing (as well as garlic, potatoes, & other things)...

shanearthur's picture

Everyone should grow their own food. It's addicting as hell (and saves a ton of money) The book Mini Farming is the best book I've read. I'm still eating potatoes I planted back in April.

Also, I was shocked to learn recently how much food is all around us; stuff we would never think of as food. Check out all 130+ videos on YouTube under the eattheweeds channel

It's all about self sufficiency. Learn something, have fun with the family, and get in shape doing so.

Michelle's picture

Convenience = Lazy or Lack of time?

If it's a lack of time then maybe people need to ask why they don't have time to prepare nutritious foods and readjust their lifestyles. 

If it's laziness I feel sorry for their children and that's just poor parenting.


cougar_w's picture

Kids have to be taught to cook. My mother and her mother (from Texas) both cook up a storm. I do at home (my wife less so, she's from NY) and both our children can cook. They've helped in the kitchen since they were babies, with knives and everything. My daughter can cook a full steak dinner in 20 minutes. My son (12 yo) makes pies and soups. They can probably walk into any household, check what's in the frig and on the shelves, and have you a warm, hearty sit-down mean in under an hour. You might not know what to call it, but it will be food and it will taste great.

That right there is the best I could have hoped for as a parent. They can feed themselves, and a group of friends, from nearly nothing.

fuu's picture

Your annecdotes are so full of shit Charles.

I just went through all the ads in FeatureVision for my entire region and cannot find prices like you claim.

Week of: 12/2/12

Minneapolis/St Paul:

Cub Foods:

California Clementines $1.50/lb ON SALE minimum 3 lbs.

California Navel Oranges: $0.87/lb ON SALE minimum 4 lbs.

Texas Rio Star Grapefruit: $0.70/lb ON SALE minimum 5 lbs.

Vine on Beefstreak Tomatoes: $1.98/lb ON SALE

Rainbow Foods:

Yellow Onions $0.83/lb ON SALE minimum 3 lbs.

Roundy's Carrots: $0.99/lb ON SALE minimum 3 lbs.

California Celery: $1.49/lb ON SALE minimum 3lbs.

Red Seedless Grapes: $2.89/lb ON SALE

Green Beans: $1.49/lb ON SALE

Fresh Salad Mix: $3.33/lb ON SALE

Eggs were not on sale that week, normal retail is $1.99/dz.

alangreedspank's picture

3-3.5 CDN $ a dozen where I live. Canucks pay more for food, except for real sugar since we're not under that absurd sugar embargo. That means we get to have real molasses.....hmmm.

GMadScientist's picture

Your counter-argument is citrus December?!

C' a fucking neuron for a moment, please. Or at least pick one product that wasn't shipped there from CA.

fuu's picture

Charles is using citrus and fresh veggies in December and failed to mention the region, so fuck off.

francis_sawyer's picture

Yeah but it's all priced in 'joobux' [just saying that to piss you off ~ lol], so really, it's all FREE...

fuu's picture

"Austerity for you, pay that jew confetti back" -Trav7777

francis_sawyer's picture


I'm always just 'FUNNIN' on the jew bullshit... I enjoy watching peeps squirm (while not knowing exactly WHY they're squirming)... francis_sawyer needs his entertainment because 'Snookie' isn't cuttin it... [That Trav 7777 ditty had a nice beat... I miss his prejudice ass here on ZH]...

FrankDrakman's picture

Just in time for Christmas in Toronto, 5 lb case of clementines from Morocco or mandarins from China, $3.77

alangreedspank's picture

Even if you compare apples with apples, 2010 pre-QE2 processed foods VS 2012 processed foods (which I don't eat anyways), the increase is to be taken into account.

Under construction...'s picture

I used to live on LI, work in NYC, and moved to the semirural aouth and find this article dead on. On Long Island you bought local, seasonal things. Example: a 50-pound bag of "cull" potaotes was $8 and I split them with my neighbors. Here in South Carolina, you have options, too: the state runs a network of Farmer's Markets where there is a section for local produce, and another for trucked in things from Fl, etc. Produce there runs 25% of the cost on a supermarket. NYC was another matter entirely, but if you went to Chinatown in Queens, via subway or bus, there were lots of inexpensive options.

Grassfed's picture

The consumer votes with the dollars they spend.  Don’t blame the consumer’s decisions on the businesses that strive to meet their demands.  The businesses would change in a heart beat if the consumer only wanted the best foods.  Best and Worst Foods:



alangreedspank's picture

Paleo +1 but I'm not so strict about it. Beans and yogurt work fine for me. The important thing is to cut off wheat products.

Grassfed's picture

Most beans only have about 80% of the nutrients required for optimal health.  Yogurt probably comes from a grain-fed cow.  Food Analysis

alangreedspank's picture

Who says only eat beans ? And 80% is pretty darn good if you ask me.

Grassfed's picture

Most beans only have about 80% of the nutrients required for optimal health.  Yogurt probably comes from a grain-fed cow.  Food Analysis

samsara's picture

"Don’t blame the consumer’s decisions on the businesses that strive to meet their demands."

I was told the same thing the other day by a friend of mine, when we were watching an 8 year old buy some Smack.  

I was going to tell the kid  that that stuff would kill him, but my friend rightly told me to mind my own business.  The Smack dealer had a right to sell his product to that 8 year old,  it's not his fault that their customers are so stupid to buy his products....

On a similar note I laughed when my grandmother told me the other night that some scam artist con'ed her out of $10,000.  I told her,  Gram,  It's not the salesman's fault that he is very convincing, and that you were stupid.    He deserves that $10,000 by finding a niche market( feeble minded old people with phones)  to 'Sell' his 'Product' to.

Laissez-faire  motherfuckers.

Get smart or get fucked


Flakmeister's picture


Have you priced a frenched rack of lamb lately? $35!!

GMadScientist's picture

Convenience! Scrape em yourself, lazybones. ;)

hedgeless_horseman's picture



Scrape em yourself

My dogs and I agree.

dannyboy's picture

Agreed, anyone that talks about meat being too expensive deserves to pay the prices they do. Here in NZ, i go quarters with my neighbours for entire beasts. Costs about 20% of what the retails sell it for, $800 all up, costs me $200 for about 2 months worth of meat, that includes all the prime cuts and off cuts for my dogs and stews, not just the rubbish ones. In the supermarkets would cost around $3500, and maybe abit less if you shopped on thursdays and got all the specials, but not even comes close to home kill beasts, plus you control what they eat.. no chemical shit that some farmers use.

Buy a deep freezer and start using brains, your neighbours, and your local community.

Flakmeister's picture

Not all of us live in the great unfettered wilderness or on savage lands brought to yoke by sturdy farmers.... 

e.g. The board has issues with livestock in the quadrangle...

Do do you flip to see who gets the racks??? Afterall, 4 lots and only 2 racks....

SmoothCoolSmoke's picture

Sigh.... so true..... and I love lamb.

harami's picture

I stopped reading at "Frenched rack" and couldn't remember the last time I had.

Grassfed's picture

If all the food in the USA was organic, yet it was the same food that people eat now, the rate of chronic disease would be identical to what it is now.  Organic is totally meaningless in terms of food safety and/or nutrition.  It’s the chemical compositions of food that drives human health.  Man, like all animal life, must have the green leaf at the bottom of his food chain.  That means no grain, no nuts, no tubers, many fruits, etc.

A Lunatic's picture

Sprouts, bitchez...............

GMadScientist's picture

You're gonna get tired of shitty omelettes, dumbass.

dark pools of soros's picture

Can we have a counter article of Sovereign Man and what his Chef prepares for him daily?

francis_sawyer's picture

Let's not... I'm not into the Simon Black foie gras...

dark pools of soros's picture

But Sovereign Man is my hero.   Able to stash wealth in a myriad of foreign financial instruments;  able to spot global arbitrage like lights flickering on a christmas tree;  yes Sovereign Man.. known by all but seen by none.. holder of 1000 acres of farmland in every country yet never been to an airport..  

why travel physically when imagination is so much more supportive of one's portfolio

Sovereign Man


francis_sawyer's picture

Can't answer... He's in a class all by himself... He's a LEGEND IN HIS OWN MIND... Mortal man is reduced to mere putty in his presence...

SmoothCoolSmoke's picture

My wife and I cook almost every night (last night - Sundried tomato chicken over linguine + a salad).  $10-12 gets us dinner for 3 (my daughter) and leftover lunch  the next day for 3.

It ain't hard.


A Lunatic's picture

We have a local dairy that has been able to market their whole milk, cream on top, and they can't keep it on the shelves. Just the other day there was a note on the dairy cooler door apologizing because their cows can't keep up with demand. Their prices are very close to the commonly accepted version of "milk" which is nothing more than a toxic slurry of antibiotics, water, and something white.

FrankDrakman's picture

I'm gainfully employed, but still relatively poor. And, since I don't have a car, I do have a 2.5 hr commute each day by bus (total, not one way). For some reason, it always take longer coming home. To top it all off, I have diabetes. So eating well is more important to me than most, and yes, when I get home, I'm tired and don't feel like spending another half hour over the stove. So I understand both sides of this.

To keep your blood sugar control, many diabetics go on a "no white food" diet - i.e. no potatoes, no rice, no pasta, no white bread, no white flour (I draw the line at mayo). The problem is that, living alone, it's difficult to take advantage of seasonal produce (it goes bad by the time you get around to eating it, unless you want to buy 5 lbs of broccoli and eat nothing but that for the next 3 days). So, I buy canned and frozen veg, I stock up on non-perishables (peanut butter, salad dressing, canned meat) when they go on sale, I haunt the "reduced for quick sale" meat bin, and I plan. I rarely eat out, and figure I spend about $50/wk total on food. My one vice is diet cola, which I don't include in my food budget.

I recently bought a small slow cooker for $10. Two days ago, I tossed in some chicken stock, a couple of hastily browned sausages, three carrots and two onions, and when I returned home, I had a very tasty stew (2 large servings) that I figure cost me less than $3, or about what a Big Mac goes for. And it was ready as soon as I could spoon it in a bowl. I don't have a proper oven; just a toaster oven, microwave, electric skillet and the slow cooker. You learn, for example, you can make your own "egg mcmuffinny' things by buying a $1 microwave egg-cooker at Megamart, toasting your own english muffin, and adding your own ham and cheese. They are ready in 3 minutes, or about half the time you spend waiting at the drive through, low fat, and cost about $0.50 each. My standard lunch is a salad with a tin of tuna on top; $2.50 tops.

I don't know about the original poster's prices; here in the Great White North, tomatoes will soon be north of $1.25/lb and have the look and feel of cardboard. But if you work hard and plan, you can eat a diet fairly free of processed food (I do buy the occasional frozen pizza) for not a lot of money.

dark pools of soros's picture

why do you bother to work?  you are doing it wrong.  You can spend all day cooking the greatest meal via food stamps!

and then write snotty blogs on how people need to eat better


francis_sawyer's picture

Fuck the food stamps... I don't need them and can STILL not work, spend the whole day cooking good food & writing snotty comments on blogs...

Why the fuck should I include the GOVERNMENT in on my fun?...

wisefool's picture

Hey now, the government funded the age of exploration for spice routes 500 years ago. you still owe them. time to write a new tax for people like me and you.

francis_sawyer's picture

Oh ~ so basically what Marco Polo needed to be told was... 'You didn't create that trade route ~ the government did"... Now history finally makes sense to me... Thanks!