Fast Food, Slow Food, and Your Dollars at Work


The slow food movement has taken off over the last two years. You've probably noticed that more and more people are growing their own vegetables, sourcing grass-fed beef, avoiding fruit shipped from South America, and becoming members of the local CSA. Some people are even finding themselves headed back to the kitchen, cookbook in hand, to learn how to make their own meals for the first time.

At the same time, many are looking for ways to trim their food budget. As a nation, we're eating out less, clipping more coupons, and buying the bargain cuts of meat instead of the fillet. We're literally tightening our belts as we eat less and slim down. Whether out of desire or necessity, many of us spend less on food than we used to. (See also: How to Grocery Shop for Five on $100 a Week)

While these aren't mutually exclusive pursuits, trying to save money and eat high quality, natural, organic food can be rough. Though the popularity of this kind of food has risen, there's still less demand for it than for those nationally recognized name brands of junk and fast food, so the slow food costs more.

Additionally, because the processes for raising, harvesting, and shipping slow food are not as well-established as those for other kinds of food, simply getting it to the store costs more and those costs are passed on to the consumer. And those processes are inherently more time and labor intensive for slow food, which means the costs won't go drastically lower anytime in the near future.

In contrast to this, junk food is not only cheaper than slow food, but it's getting even cheaper as the days go by. This chart from New York Times blogger David Leonhardt, shows just how much the prices for things like soda, butter, and beer have gone down since 1978. For people trying to save money, the choice may be simple: eat more junk.

And yet, this set of circumstances leaves many consumers frustrated. They want to eat well but they can't afford to, or they struggle with paying so much more for food items that could easily be replaced with cheaper, less healthful, alternatives.

So what can be done? Is there a way to get food that is truly good for less money, or to justify paying more for what we eat when there's cheaper food available? Here are some musings on just that topic.

Eating well is an investment.

And not the kind where you see an immediate return. You may not feel better tomorrow because you ate free-range eggs for breakfast instead of a toaster pastry. And you may not know that you avoided catching the office cold because of the antioxidants in your system from those organic blueberries. But if you stay healthier than most, thinner than many, and as happy as you want to be over the long haul, at least some of that is probably a return for your investment in good food.

When it comes to eating, where you spend your money is like voting.

Do you want all-natural, sustainably-raised, wholesome food to be widely available at competitive prices, or do you want fast food and junk food to continue as the foods of choice for the people in this country? Though it won't save you anything today, spending more money for better food may influence the way things roll down the road.

You just might recoup that extra money you spend on high-quality food in healthcare savings.

We've all heard about studies showing the effects of junk food on health. People who eat a lot of it are fatter and sicker than ever before. Though it may be hard to see in your own life (because you don't know when you avoid being sick), eating well sure seems like it will save you money in the long run.

Sometimes you just have to pay more for a better product.

We see this elsewhere. Better quality hi-def TVs cost more than their low-quality counterparts. Long-lasting, no-drip candles cost more than the disappearing, drippy kind. Hard back books are more expensive than paperbacks. You get my drift. We've come to expect this elsewhere...why don't we expect it regarding our food?

What choices do you make when it comes to your food and your money? What do you think about spending more money for food that's better for you?

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Guest's picture

I'm newly come to the slow food movement after reading Omnivore's Dilemma, however, I was raised this way so the ideas are not foreign. They'd just become inconvenient once I lived outside my parents' home.

But right now, I've put in 4 raised garden beds for a hamburger/salsa garden, I've removed rhododendrons in favor of planting fruit trees, I now volunteer at the local food co op in order to get their 20% discount so I can afford to shop there on an unemployed budget.

I prioritize my budget, by allowing more money for raw milk, free range eggs, local grass fed beef and organic produce. Dry goods, I'm not so picky about yet. Also, I've invited my mom up this autumn to re-teach me how to can and preserve food. Canning, jams and food dehydration!

Guest's picture

Good for you! Its great to see younger people getting back to the basics with their food. I love to preserve my own food. (My mom never did!) Come late summer/early fall ask everyone you know if they have any leads on free fruits or veggies. Many people are releived to give their excess away, and that makes canning so much more affordable. Also, ask around for canning jars, especially older people you know, and shop yard sales and thrift shops for jars. Good luck to you with your employment search, and wish me luck with my tomatoes this summer. I can can it, but growing it eludes me:)

Guest's picture

all natural /= better for you. Just sayin'. I eat organic food myself, generally because of the greater varieties with heirlooms and the like. But it's NOT any healthier for you than eating the regular version.

Guest's picture

Eating to be healthy doesn't have to go cost a lot. Yes, if you want free range chickens, hormone milk and organic produce (especially out of season) it will cost more than the "standard" versions. But I'm still not convinced that these are required for good health or, in many cases, that these are better for you.

Rice and beans are still cheap. Fresh, in season produce can be fairly inexpensive. And frozen veggies are can be had when fresh isn't available. Milk is, in many cases, less expensive than soda. And most people drink less milk in a setting than soda. Less than prime cuts of meat, again, not all that expensive. It does take a bit more work to prepare these foods (can't just toss them in the microwave and have a multi-item meal hot and ready to eat in just a few minutes), but, given some practice and planning for leftovers, it's not that difficult nor time consuming.

Also, did I miss a memo and butter is bad for us again? It seems to be lumped in with "junk food" in the linked chart/article. I have so much trouble keeping up with what's good and what's bad for me this week. (So, mostly, I eat my apples and drink my milk and don't worry about it a lot.)

Guest's picture

Great article, I honestly don't mind spending a little more money for slow food, it's worth it and there are benefits outside of how much my groceries cost. Supporting local business is worth voting for with dollars.

Guest's picture

You have the right idea if you keep eating a variety of minimally-processed foods in moderation.

The fuss about "what's good and what's bad for me this week" is very rarely due to any shift in scientific consensus, but far more often the result of a particular scientific paper having its meaning stretched beyond all recognition.

Try reading some of the particular journal articles (particularly "reviews") in their original sources rather than the newspaper. You'll see that they more often complement and refine each other than contradict outright. Medical journal editors are also less likely than newspaper editors to let sensational speculation through. For example, excess saturated fat can be bad in some cases, but one might eat certain foods high in saturated fat anyway because of their nutrient content or because excess trans fats might be worse.

Guest's picture

Great post, Sarah!

It's interesting to hear of this dilemma in the States. In Australia, we definitely don't have the cost factor as an excuse for eating fast food (unless of course, you're going to compare it with eating a restaurant meal). Fast food in Australia just isn't that cheap.

As an example, McDonalds is currently heavily promoting their family "meal deal" for four people at $20 (and given this consists of small fries and small drinks, I'm not sure how many adults / growing teenagers it would fill anyway). When you consider that our two major supermarket chains are currently enthusiastically advertising the recipe cards for home cooked meals to "feed the family for under $10", it's a tough argument to make.

Sure, organic produce might set you back a bit more, but with the prevalance of farmers markets, obtaining fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and deli products isn't difficult or costly.

I can't really remember the last time my husband and I ate fast food... and we spend under $400 a month on all our grocery needs - including lunches and cleaning products.

Perhaps it isn't a difference in our two countries however, so much as the ability to plan meals in advance!

Maggie Wells's picture

This post comes the day after we did our monthly stock up at Trader Joe's in Reno. We augment that with the co-op and co-op membership. Rice and beans always save the day of course but you can get pretty far.  What pushes up those grocery bills are the microbrews and other non -essential co-op items but the veggies and fruits just don't really cost that much if they are in season.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

You'll fee better within the *hour* if you eat free-range eggs rather than toaster pastry, and you won't get hungry for much longer.

Organic vegetables have been shown to have higher nutrient levels than conventional because organic culture requires healthier soil, but the difference is even more pronounced between industrial meat and that from animals raised on grass.

I eat almost all organic, local food, including meat, for $5-7.50/day.

Guest's picture

I love that heading. It is so true. It goes with the expression that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We are healthy eaters, not buying as locally and organically as we'd like, but we try to stay away from prepackaged foods as they're just filled with things that will kill you. As far as tips on budgeting, it feels hard to buy fresh and local sometimes because it does cost more to eat healthy and takes up a bit more of out time to prepare. It is definitely worth it though because man do I feel like crap when I eat fast food.

Great post.

Guest's picture

To the extent that one is compromised, it will affect the others.

As this relates to this article, I think that spending more on good quality, natural food can certainly be worth it. Sure, it will help you health. That health impact might make a difference in allowing you to better enjoy relationships. And what impact will that have on your can only help, all things being equal. Not to mention the lower health care costs!

It all comes down to making the right decisions each day, with seemingly small consequences. These do add up, and there is a bill to pay eventually! Living a fast food diet is like living in debt.

Guest's picture

We've been slow food addicts for some time in both the US and France. I agree that it's worth paying more for better food--and fast food has hidden costs to people and the societies in which they live!

But some slow foods are actually a great deal and hassle free--like CSA's. We used to pay $25 a week for a box of veggies from a local farm--it took us just a few minutes to pick it up on our way home from work. No, we didn't get to select the vegetables and fruits, but after a little practice, I got to be very good at figuring out what to do with what we got each week. It was a cheap and easy source of organic and in-season foods. I highly recommend CSA's if you have them in your area.

Guest's picture

The biggest expense in slow food meals is usually meat. Having cut way down on my own meat consumption, I have replaced it with far less costly, healthy proteins:

Guest's picture

We grow a huge garden and have fruit trees, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries. We also make maple syrup and have our own beef and barter with others for pork. We grow / raise about 65% of the food we eat and I would like to increase that number to at least 90%. We are doing that by getting chickens and more fruit plants this summer. I process (can, freeze, dehydrate, etc) our surplus for the winter months. This is something we have done for many years (before it was the "in" thing to do) and DH's family has done this for generations. This is nothing new. If society wasn't so busy making the all important dollar and snubbing stay at home parents (wow, they actually are smart) they would realize that doing "manual" work themselves is better then paying someone else to do it. The current economic situation is make people realize what is important - having more time to spend and take care of their family.

Guest's picture

We really need to quit fooling ourselves. The reason people are eating more junk food is not because it is cheaper. It's not. They're eating those foods because they taste better and they're more convenient ( no cooking required )!

Are soda and beer cheaper than water?

The ultimate cheap foods like beans and rice are cheap.

A local supermarket has chicken thighs without the back attached for $0.88/lb. On special they are even cheaper.

Frozen broccoli at Walmart can be had for a $1/lb.

Please tell me what these cheap junk foods are!

Just about any junk food that has high calories for the cost would be cheaper if made at home. Potato chips: how much would it cost to buy potatoes and fry them in a bunch of oil?

People can make greasy, sugary foods at home very cheaply.

Maybe if the people eating all that junk cared more they would eat better...

Guest's picture

Its almost a rule for us now--the more fresh veggies you can put in your diet and the more meat and so forth you can take out, the cheaper monthly food bill will be.

Guest's picture

One way to eat better on a budget is plan out your garden based on foods you like where you can also grow a LOT of produce in a small space.

For example, we use a lot of tomatoes and we also like to eat lots of corn. Tomatoes are prolific and we can grow a lot of them in a little space. Corn, however, is not so cost/space effective in a backyard. If you devote time and space, you might be able to produce all the tomatoes you want. But you wouldn't be able to do the same with corn.

So what we are trying to do is devote our limited backyard resources to produce we could grow to meet all our needs for the year like tomatoes. The money we save (versus buying) will enable us to go to the local farms for our corn and other needs.

We also buy in season and buy enough to store for the year. We are still eating some of last year's corn in our freezer...and will run out just in time for the new season!

Guest's picture

sorry - I meant to say "If you devote time and space, you might be able to produce all the tomatoes you NEED. But you wouldn't be able to do the same with corn."

Guest's picture

Slow food doesn't cost more. I actually save a ton of money since I started back to making a menu and getting back in the kitchen more days per week. When I was really busy I started relying on the fast because I was tired but I have had time to re-prioritize and we are saving a bundle.

Slow food does not have to mean organic which is expensive and the benefits haven't been proven. There are others ways to eat well and not rely on fast junk food. In fact we don't rarely eat fast food (3-4 times a year) and only when we have to (it is hard on the stomach when you aren't used to it). I don't buy candy at the store. Really even our sugar intake depends on me making cookies or such and I don't do it that often.

I don't care if you prefer organic, hormone free, etc. food but please do not assume that all slow food has to be this to be good. If you choose to eat this way then you choose to pay more but your alternative is not just junk food.

Making a menu and cooking might be hard at first but once you get the hang of it, you are more likely to save money if you know what to look for in food. I also have a huge garden and preserve my own foods to save money. It can be done!

Guest's picture
Mrs. $

I agree. Eating well is an investment. I think it's important to meal plan as well so you don't just run and buy fast food.

Guest's picture

I don't buy organic, but almost all of my food items are one ingredient. Beans=beans. Carrots=carrots. It's basically whole, non-processed foods. Quite simple and not expensive either.

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