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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FrankDrakman's picture

No food stamps or SNAP cards in the Great White North.

And while we have free health care, it doesn't include a lot of drugs, and that insulin is kinda' important.

linrom's picture

Very nice post, thank you.

My Days Are Getting Fewer's picture

For $5.49, I bought a frozen dinner consisting of 1 lb 6 oz of pre-cooked shrimp primavera and frozen sauce in a separate pack. Fed 2 adults.  Preparation time = 10 minutes.  The individual food items are first separately cooked and frozen and packed in the container.  Delicious.

For that money, I can not buy 1 pint of Guinness at a bar.

While I am not in love with processed food, people vote with their pocketbooks.  And, how long would it have taken to buy the separate ingredients and prepare them, just for two people.

If you are not laboring in a trench with a shovel, who needs more than 11 ounces of food at dinner.

Processed food is cheaper than cooking.  And, in one generation, most people will not know how to cook their own food.  Dependency on the food factory will be complete.

cfosnock's picture

Where's the beef?

wisefool's picture

I was going to ask, where is the $1 small container of a (any) spice, that would last for months?

I live in a poor area. The regional supermarket naturally buys for all of their stores. The national brand spices/marinades get marked down 50%+ every few weeks, cause nobody knows how to use them, so they dont buy them. Even high end stuff like mint, saffron, vanilla, etc. (high end for me, not an iron chef)

Beef neckbone curry soup on the menu. Jasmine rice.

cfosnock's picture

frozen fish for under $2 a pound. I can't get farm raised catfish at that price

Umh's picture

Maybe whole fish if you live near the ocean. If you are buying fillets that are shipped in you won't get anywhere near $2.

jplotinus's picture

Article is a step in the right direction. However, one factor, that of pervasive obesity, signals that all of America, not just poorer and/or less educated cohorts, are caught in the vice grip of poor quality, high profit margin processed food.

For some food types, it is well nigh impossible to avoid either gmo components and/or hfcs.

ZHers do not seem to have as much disdain for profit above safety motifs as they do for, say, those who receive disability compensation. Apparently it's not the fault of agri-business if they poison us.

blunderdog's picture

The time and the skills are a real issue, Charles, despite your insistence that they cannot be.

If you are raised by a certain type of parent, you'll learn to cook, just like if you're raised by a certain type of parent, you'll learn to keep a car running, or how to build a campire. If you are NOT raised by a parent who teaches the skill of cooking (and/or time-management) you can very easily reach adulthood without having a *clue* what to do with the products you purchased for your article here.

So yes, you mention that "anyone should be able to learn to cook," and that's true.  Anyone should *also* be able to learn to knit or sew, but for SOME reason, MOST PEOPLE NEVER DO.  Why would that be?

Answer: because MOST PEOPLE are not really interested in pursuing education above and beyond whatever "bare minimum" level they need to get by.  Most people go home and turn on the teevee and eat pizza and chips because it's more enjoyable than picking up a history book, or a musical instrument, or tuning in the cooking channel in an ongoing effort to "better themselves."  Learning to cook is *work* for some folks, and the results for days or weeks or months are not very tasty and often not encouraging.

It's easy to pat yourself on the back for whatever your own accomplishments are (and maybe satisfying, if you're that type of person), but it's WISER to try to understand why people's choices may differ from yours.

Louie the Dog's picture

Cooking is why God made wives.  


Bitchin Bear's picture

You might want to rethink that statement - this younger generation of women is totally self involved and has no time for cooking and cleaning.  They might miss Jersey Shore or something.  IMO the days of finding a good little woman to take care of her man are long gone.  I saw something about teaching a dog to drive a car - maybe you can teach him to cook - and they're really great about not talking back.  This says it all:


harami's picture

Destroying the family unit is the prime objective of our modern society.  If two consenting adults just happen to have a kid because their birth control failed and by some bizarre twist of logic they choose not to have an abortion (and bring a poor helpless soul into this cruel, cruel world, oh the humanity!) both of them are probably too self-invovled to give a flying fuck about raising their own flesh and blood.  Who picks up the responsiblity?  TV, Internet, Pr0n, the amazingly effective education system etc etc

Doesn't help that men are emasculated at every possible opportunity.  Can't see a single television show or commercial where the guy isn't a complete fucking retard.  Couple that with feminism and empowering women to not need men (and honestly, it seems men thrive on living up to that emasculated image these days) it's no wonder the kids aren't alright.

The most important work you'll ever do in your entire life are within the walls of your own home, and it's that very thing the world is working to destroy.

blunderdog's picture

No one from "society" has ever come into my home and told me to be less responsible or to ignore my family.

I think you're deluding yourself about some stuff there.

blunderdog's picture

If you married just so someone would cook for you, you paid WAY too much.

Winston of Oceania's picture

My wife subscribed to the scratch open method of cooking. Myself being the son of a Chef I do the lions share of the cooking because I like to eat well.

Duke Dog's picture

Excellent! Could not have said it better myself - do you know how much a 5lb bag of pinto beans cost? Add an onion and a smoked ham hock or some salted jowl - no better eating and for pennies per meal.

blunderdog's picture

    do you know how much a 5lb bag of pinto beans cost?

About $8 for a 4lb bag in my 'hood.

viator's picture

Shanghai bok choi and mustard cabbage, two of the most popular foods known to man. Let's put this guy in charge of the U.S.Department of Food Choice. He will make us eat our peas or we won't be able to leave the table.

francis_sawyer's picture

Fucking arugula is in the mustard family & it's tasty as all hell... I get so many arugula pods each year after the plants bolt that I could go on planting them for years [fuck Monsanto]...

Put a little olive oil, salt, & parmesean cheese on that & you'll never be wanting for flavor in your diet...

edifice's picture

Real food is not too expensive. Invest in your local CSA. The SO and I pay around $400 for 6 months worth of locally-grown, organic vegetables, delivered every week.

linrom's picture

I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article.

Ident 7777 economy's picture

I'm getting a bigger kick out of the comments ...

mind_imminst's picture

I grow a lot of my own food, pack my own healthy lunch, and cook most of my own meals. It is relatively cheap and very healthy, but IT DOES TAKE TIME. I have often contemplated going the other way and buying pre-made semi-healthy food/salads from markets and deli's just for the time-saving convenience.

Stuck on Zero's picture

The poor eat fast food because they have to rush home for American Idol.  Now, if Obama would give all the poor DVRs then they could record their favorite shows and take the time to make nutritious meals.


JMT's picture

Too expensive is a bullshit excuse. If most people can afford to spend $140 a month on a 'smartphone plan' and another $200 on cable + internet, they can afford to eat healthy.  One word - Laziness.

One good think about living in the NYC area is that there are plenty of good restaurants.. Are they expensive? yes, maybe but tell me have you ever seen any overweight people who live in Manhattan?? everyone seems to be anorexically skinny even the men.

Of course, people who live in the poorer parts of the 'other 4 boros' eat crap from McDonalds, IHOP and other s**t but many are on the gov't teat of Medicaid.

When you leave the area, there are just crappy chain restaurants. People who live in the suburbs spend their average Saturday shopping at Costco, going to the mall, chaufeurring their kids from one 'activity' to another and then 'eating out' at PF Chang (which is one of the worst place I have ever eaten)

El's picture post went in the wrong place. Don't mind me.

Stuck on Zero's picture

Nope.  That's the right place.


Audacity17's picture

It's like my dad says.  You can pay more now for better food.  Or pay more later for medical care.

The Alarmist's picture

I see 5 lbs of apples for sale for $2.99 and I make apple sauce and put it up for later.  I see 5 lbs of onions for $1.99 and I make onion chutney and put it up for later.  I grow stuff in summer and I eat some and put the rest of it up for later. 

The Walmart Hordes have no idea how their grandparents and great-grandparents made it through a week in summer much less through a long winter winter. 

samsara's picture

The Walmart Hordes have no idea how their grandparents and great-grandparents

I think AnAnonymous made an important observation,   It's not just the 'Walmart' hordes,  Visit some 'Newly Rich'  (ie last generation or two).    They ALSO know nothing on how their Grandparents etc did things.

I think AA also showed that the very rich also consume and waste just as much.  However they have many hired 'domestics' to wash the dishes, or clean up(and walk) the dog poop.

Personal Pride has been conditioned out of most of us.  Poor AND Rich. 

e-recep's picture

well, it is the century of the "SELF". individualism at its peak.

three chord sloth's picture

The real reason "the poor" eat like crap? Three words... lay zee ness. Period. I work in section eight housing. I am in "the poor's" apartments pretty much every day. Lemme tell you what I see:

*a sink full of dirty pots/pans/dishes...

*there are at least a week's worth of them...

*that week wasn't this week, but from last month (crusty!)

*a stinkin' garbage can overflowing with takeout containers, McD's bags, and Stouffer's frozen crap trays

And then, about every other month, all those pots and pans end up in the trash, and a new, cheap set of Walmart junk pans are bought. I see this over and over again in roughly 75% of the section eight apartments. The funny thing is, in the market rate apartments right next door full of "the working poor" the pots are clean and the sink is empty.

The folks with nothing to do and all day to do it end up doing nothing; while the exhausted, hard workers next door find the time and energy to get things done.

fuu's picture

The poor are just feeling a little lackadaisical. They are unbelievable jolly machines.

blunderdog's picture

This is an important comment--it is certainly true that you'll find a lot of "trash" amongst the underclass.

Although to be fair, there's plenty of that going around amongst the rich too--you just don't see it because the rich can hire someone to do all that shit.

That's the nice part about being rich--you never really have to do ANYTHING for yourself.

Urban Redneck's picture

From today's trip to the store- 1 pack of 10 35L (9.2gal) garbage bags CHF 18

works out to USD $2.09 per gallon of garbage bag, or $68.97 for one typical US black 33-gallon garbage bag.

If you make wasteful into a luxury fewer people would be wasteful (even those w/ a fuckton of money to burn)

Or the US ghettos could get some "culture" and go Neopolitain...

The Alarmist's picture

Then it is cheaper to pay Migros the CHF 0.25 for their plastic bags and use those for garbage bags, or stock up on the 35L bags at €2 for 25 next time you are in Germany.

Urban Redneck's picture

Sitting in the pub last night- I got the decimal wrong doing the metric & currency conversion- so the correct price for a US 33gal bag would be $6.89.

I could move into a city apartment building with communal trash where they don't have the bag system, but I prefer living in the "country" where the local garbage nazis will only collect the correct bags

blunderdog's picture

     If you make wasteful into a luxury fewer people would be wasteful

Uh, well...I THINK I see what you're driving at, but let me tell you: if you make garbage bags expensive, folks will dump their trash in other folks' dumpsters, or public containers, or stuff like that.

I know nothing of the day-to-day in Switzerland, so I won't make any strange assumptions about your life.

I will say that in the US, we are FANATICAL about overpackaging our products.  Something like a set of earbud headphones could be packed in a small plastic bag stapled at the top, but it is far more likely it'll be an oversized cardboard box with a blow-molded plastic shell or vacuum-formed blister pack inside, plus a 20-30 page fold-out booklet of instructions and warnings and legal boilerplate, plus a "carrying case" or "stylish pouch," plus the adapter for the headphones in case you ever want to plug them into an old '60s reel-to-reel tape deck.

I understand the reasoning behind SOME of that waste, but certainly not MOST of it.

I have personally decided to buck the trend on "fashionable" trash bags--I have a 50 gal "drum" trashcan and put what we call "contractor bags" in it.  I have to buy the bags at the hardware store.  Guests thinks its a bit crude, but it does save me about $10/month, which actually makes a difference in my life.

Urban Redneck's picture

There is definitely abuse of the public containers in Switzerland, but it mostly seems to be small food scraps that people don't want stinking up their kitchens, since they wait to take their bags out until they are actually full.  The use of other peoples' bins is comparably rare because the garbage nazis would fine offenders into the poor house and then out of the community.

In the US- I see two distinct problems- one being the massive over-packaging and the other being portion sizes.  There are a huge number of one or two person households in the US but when shopping in a Kroger/Safeway etc. (not even Costco/Sam's Club) they sell many things in sizes that will spoil before a one or two person household would usually or reasonably consume them (even with the GMO and preservative-from-hell additives) so a much larger percentage of what an individual "consumes" goes straight to the landfill.

At my house in the US- the fact that we have haul/truck the trash out the public road to be collected creates incentive to recycle "in house" so everything is sorted and most of the organic material is actually buried in a field, but most people in the US don't have that option.

Furthermore, the US is already drowning in regulations, and past experience would indicate that trying to regulate packaging and portion sizes will do nothing but drive up costs.  Whereas by raising the price for the "service" of disposal (which avoids regulation and infringement upon personal freedoms)- consumers' demand might motivate producers to offer less wasteful product sizes/packaging. 

I don't think anyone has perfected a waste management paradigm on a national level but the US appears to be a convenience-centric lazy wasteful waste producing outlier at one end of the spectrum and the UK (with its byzantine bin balderdash) is an anal-retentive color-coded over-regulated waste producing outlier at the other end of the spectrum.



AnAnonymous's picture

The real reason "the poor" eat like crap? Three words... lay zee ness.
Absolutely. All poors are lazy. When meeting a non lazy poor, just do the 'american' thing to build 'american' generalizations: dismiss it.
If you are persistent, you will only get poor and lazy people.

'Americanism' the way it works.

The number one cause why poor eat like crap: 'american' economics.

In 'american' economics, every agent must try to overconsume something in order to speed up the depletion of resources and deprives a potential other consumer from the act of consuming.

When this is remembered, it is simply a matter of revenue brackets.

In 'american' societies, the poor have enough revenue to try and overconsume crappy food. Noticeably, it is not only food. It is also junk bits etc

Why not consume better food? Because it does not allow for the overconsumption act. It might only open way to moderate consumption, which is contrary to 'american' economics.

Higher revenue brackets have the similar behaviour: if high enough, they will overconsume good food. But as such, they might also choose to overconsume other goods as their higher revenues give them more opportunities.

Every 'american' will try to overconsume. The kind of goods an 'american' can try to overconsume depends on the revenues' brackets.

If ever a poor jumps in revenues, food is likely to be a thing of the past, the newly enriched 'american' trying to overconsume video games, concert tickets, travels, cars, houses, gold, shares etc... New items of consumption that are more expensive but now affordable and that will drain the quantity of money previously allocated to overconsumption of crappy food.

harami's picture

My grand mother, God rest her soul, lost her husband in Vietnam, raised 8 kids by herself, held down a job, and kept their house in near prestine order, even up until the day she died her apartment was spotless even at the age of 81 with a failing heart.  The limited government assistance she received came in monthly checks from the government in the form of "Sorry we sent your husband off to die, here's some monies".

Having volunteered for multiple programs that often had me in government housing I'm still in utter disbelief the lack of self-respect people have for themselves or their apartment/house, even if they don't own it. 

I can understand letting the chores 'pile up' and doing them all in one fell swoop making sure the house is spotless before letting the cycle start over again, but there was absolutely no effort made at house keeping.

Dog crap was molding on the flood, clothes laid unwashed in giant heaps and I can only guess they either constantly bought new, cheap clothing from Wal-Mart or would do a sniff test from the clothes in the piles and decide to wear it if the stench was bearable.  Couple that with the multiple bottles of partial empty liquor and cigarettes while their refrigator is more or less empty, save for maybe some beer, it's fairly obvious where their priorities lie.

Then there are the mexican families who manage to keep their houses clean, work two or three jobs, and still find time to spend with their families.  The resentment of 'Dey took our jobs!' is mostly 'Eff them for having a work ethic, dey're makin' me look bad!'.

It's pretty clear our culture cultivates laziness and dependency.  Too bad the government can't subsidize or provide a work ethic.

spooz's picture

I guess you don't know any middle class people suffering from depression, because what you describe are signs of it, and I have seen it.

Since people living in poverty are twice as likely to be suffering from depression (hopelessness can do that), I'm not surprised to hear what you have seen.

In any case, your generalizations are little more than propaganda.


blunderdog's picture

Anyone who's going to beat up on the poor for being lazy would probably tell a depressed person to "just quit sniveling and snap out of it," too.  ;)

Cypher_73's picture

"Real food" is expensive because unlike corn/soy/wheat it's not subsidised by Government. It's why junk food is cheap, it's mostly a combination of those three foods so of course Wendy's or McDonald's is able to sell an assortment of "food" for $1. 

Bear's picture

Take a look at this site:

I think it kind of shows that we are over-stuffed in the US and that the food stamps that the Goberment hands out are robbing us blind every month. I think you get like $150 per month per person, but the ynsa web sit shows that you can eat just fine for 1/2 that amount. I think the Ag department should  take notes from the site.

pine_marten's picture

Food has gone up alot.  When you make an involved recipe with many ingredients it costs alot.  Like making your own pizza for instance.  You could eat cheaper than cooking in the little taco shops around San Diego.

Rockatanski's picture

it's not even "sugar-water".....more like high fructose death syrip.  real sugar i can handle. GMO corn made into HFCS i can not.


(new guy here, first post. long time lurker, love you guys, mostly.)

billwilson's picture

Bang on. Real food is cheaper ... and better. Problem is most people can't cook AT ALL.

Chinese veggies now available at our local supermarket (not just the Asian marts). Great deals, Easy to cook ... and fast. Just add some garlic and a bit of oil. Add a rice cooker and rice at $8 for a 10Kg bag. You can eat cheap.


Yen Cross's picture

At least there is still some food to consume... We're all bitching, [ rightfully so], about food prices and dead beat A-Holes that buy absolute crap for free, and sit on the couch all day gaming the system. I personally enjoy cooking, yet still find the time to work my ass off!

  I'm not even going to begin with the [cost/toll], to the health care sytem that these deadbeat " Human Gummy Bears", are responsible for... When food runs out, a pack of rabid dogs wouldn't feed on their well preserved carcasses! Don't ask me for help you fat bastards/ all 99%* of you.

  *Disclaimer; some overweight people have legitimate weight issues...