Healthy Eating--It'll Cost You!
Eating economically in China and Bolivia, where my husband and I lived for the past three years, meant shopping for local produce at local markets and eating plenty of vegetables and fruits. Eating economically in the United States, where we now live, apparently means shopping for imported produce at Wal-Mart (or, better yet, avoiding produce altogether) and eating plenty of canned and processed foods. What’s wrong with this picture?
Americans who want to eat healthy will pay more for their nutrition than those who stick to Twinkies. New York Times columnist Tara Parker-Pope asserted in her December 5th health blog titled “A High Price For Healthy Food” that, according to a recent University of Washington study, “Calorie for calorie, junk foods not only cost less than fruits and vegetables, but junk food prices also are less likely to rise as a result of inflation.” Parker-Pope’s blog brought to mind an earlier New York Times article discussing the Farm Bill and the negative influence of corn subsidies on American nutrition. When I returned home after living overseas, I was at a loss to explain why whole foods grown in the earth were so much pricier than processed junk, but this article offered a possible explanation that the U.S. economy has been set up to support mass production of the corn byproducts at the core of most junk foods.
Can you imagine the vicious cycle created for the American poor? One of the endemic plagues of poverty, poor nutrition, has been further compounded by the fact that the less money you have, the less able you’ll be to buy any truly nutritious foods. Indeed, Parker-Pope’s citation of Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the center for public health nutrition at the University of Washington, reveals the very real daily conundrum those on a tight budget face: “If you have $3 to feed yourself, your choices gravitate toward foods which give you the most calories per dollar,’’ said Dr. Drewnowski. “Not only are the empty calories cheaper, but the healthy foods are becoming more and more expensive. Vegetables and fruits are rapidly becoming luxury goods.”
Plenty of responders to Parker-Pope’s blog objected to this study on various levels, arguing that it was simple to heat healthily on a low budget; the most popular example involved cheap meals consisting of rice and lentils. I agree that it’s indeed possible to cook responsibly in this way, and I’ve done so myself, but in my view, the study underscores a core problem for those trying to “live large on a small budget”: you can get a lot farther with $5 at McDonald’s than at Whole Foods; moreover, taking socioeconomic factors such as time, education, and geographic location into account makes “rice and lentils” much more difficult for some to manage than others.
Being a socially responsible and nutritionally responsible shopper is very difficult. I was heartened to see the Times publish a helpful list of “Five Easy Ways To Go Organic,” recognizing that the average American family can’t afford solely organic produce. Based on that article, for I vowed for a while to buy only organic milk. It was #1 on the NYT list, I enjoy supporting family farms like my grandfather’s, and I prefer the taste anyway. But after a couple weeks of spending $12 on milk for my family, I realized even that was hard to manage.
This post is more about the conundrum than the solution, because I don’t have a perfect one yet; so, Wisebreaders, what to do? If you’re looking for some great economical recipes, I recommend the More-With-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre; I grew up eating this food at church potlucks, and still enjoy it today. In addition, I personally treat myself to a socially responsible, organic purchase or two each week, though I usually can’t afford even the Top 5. I plan home-cooked meals for the week and buy ingredients accordingly; I freeze leftovers and rarely buy processed foods. I do all this recognizing that with more money, I could be a more socially responsible eater, and that with less money, education, and time, I’d probably be eating a lot worse.