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.

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Guest's picture

You're right, going organic is not cheap. I've been choosing the majority of my food from organics for a few months. It isn't an easy task. First from a cost stand point and secondly from a selection stand point. Not every store has a large organic food section and even in a large city where I live large scale organic shopping ie whole foods or wild oats is a bit of an extra drive. My realization is that you have to REALLY WANT to do this to be committed to making the transition. The cost of my food shopping and the time I take to make it happen have doubled, and for many that is not affordable. I have begun to research ways to purchase things in bulk online and have joined an organic food club. I hope others will find affordable ways to begin as well.

Guest's picture

Urban agriculture is one answer to going organic. While an apartment dweller in NYC might not be able to sustain themselves in the winter, they could do well in the summer with lettuce and tomatoes as a start. NoImpactMan (google him) went local and sustainable (nothing in plastic) and actually saved money even though he spent more per item. Granted, just by the strictness of his rules, he had no choice.

Guest's picture

I've built a site called a free yard sharing community. People all over the country have joined looking for yard sharing partners. Some of us have space, some have skills, some have time...lots of us want to share - in order to grow more food CHEAPLY and close to home.

Organic doesn't need to break the bank. We're doing it!

Guest's picture

I've been living on and off in the US for the last 7 years and I am still trying to figure out how to eat healthier here. Back in Mexico we got a whole week worth of fruits and vegetables for about 15 dollars in the local markets and that was a lot of produce. I'd be happy to read some of the solutions you come up with.

I enjoy your blog a lot. It is very informative. Thanks for all the effort you put into it.

Guest's picture

Why the negative attitude?

I just dont get why you find it difficult to eat healthy in the US. There is Wholefoods, Sweet Tomatoes. If you want inexpensive supermarkets, there are numerious supermarkets catered to Asians, Indians, Latin Americans.

If you dont know how to cook, there are tons of cheap recipe books, there is the Food network on TV and there is the internet.

Also stop comparing Mexico and US. Sure, the price of produce in Mexico is cheaper but you also probably earn more in the US.

Stop this negative attitude and look at the good things that US has to offer.

Sarah Baughman's picture

Ben, I appreciate your positive comment about my blog. I think I'll have to continue writing about this topic-- many people seem to be wondering about solutions!

Guest's picture

We are lucky to have a wonderful selection of farmers' markets here in southern California. The produce, while not all organic, is fresh, healthy, and inexpensive. Trader Joe's is where I purchase my whole organic milk for under $4 per gallon and other dairy and dry goods. If I plan the weekly menu and leave out treats we can feed a family for around $120 a week. I think that's pretty good for five people...

Guest's picture

We're having a big problem with this in Spain too even for food staples that are supposed to be cheap. Milk is at 1.05€ per liter now and eggs at about 1.85€ a dozen. In US dollars, that's like $6 a gallon for milk and $2.75 for eggs. It's insane. We're up to like .85 cents per tomato. And we figured the cauliflower and cabbage is costing us more than .55 cents per serving as well.

Sure, we could live on rice and lentils, but I can't handle many carbohydrates without blowing up like a balloon. It does make things tricky for sure.

I am really sad about the situation because I think the governments should be doing more to regulate the prices so that people can buy produce cheaply. Here in Spain, everyone knows that the large majority of the profit from the produce goes to the distributors. If it was going to the farmer, I'd be fine with it, but why do I have to pay everything to the middle man?

Guest's picture

I lived in Thailand, in China and now live in the US. This article is very one-sided. I especially find your statement below ridiculous and very generalized.

"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."

There are certainly better and cheaper places to shop for produce. I dont know where you live in the US, but I can get cheap fruits and vegetables from Indian, Latin and Asian supermarkets. These places also have a variety of meat and seafood at reasonable prices. And also whats so wrong about imported produce. For certain stuff, it just so happens it is cheaper to import. In Asia, they also import plenty of produce from other countries.

Infact, since US is very multi-cultural, I can buy Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Korean, Indian and European ingredients and spices.

Before you write another "Eating healthy is expensive" article, use google and search for supermarkets other than "Wal-Mart".

Guest's picture

This is true, that healthy eating costs more than going along with whatever is available. The time and money involved increases but weighing it against potential (and probable) health problems makes it completely worthwhile.

Guest's picture

whoa.. nobody's being negative here, just realistic. For the majority of neighborhoods, Wholefoods isn't in reach, nor Trader Joes, and the farmers markets on the weekends are 30 minutes away.If I go there, thats almost 2 hours of my time I spent just getting fruits and veggies, I still have to go to a store to get everything else. I do shop at ethnic markets, but the produce there, as good as most supermarkets, is definitely not as tasty as the stuff I get at the farmers market. And the prices vary, the greens are cheaper at the Korean place, I get my oils at the Arabic place, etc. It takes time and money to eat well. Food network is on cable, internet requires a computer. And the less money you have, the more effort. Who has time to go to the library to research recipes your kids might or might not eat? Many of us were raised on canned and processed foods, and thats home cooking to us. That easy casserole habit is a hard one to break.

Guest's picture

Hmmmmm.... Looks quite negative to me.

"Can you imagine the vicious cycle created for the American poor?"

"Americans who want to eat healthy will pay more for their nutrition than those who stick to Twinkies."

"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"

"Being a socially responsible and nutritionally responsible shopper is very difficult. "

Like I said before, why so negative. It not difficult and inexpensive to eat healthy in the US. Even Walmart, has something to offer. If you dont mind buying in bulk, Samsclub and Costco have good selections.

Guest's picture
Another Guest, but with a brain

Um, did some of the commenters really read the article, or any of the linked articles? First, the author mentioned that Walmart is cheap. The produce there is cheap, just like your local Asian market. The kicker is that when you buy cheap imported produce, you're not supported US agriculture. If you are a conscientious consumer, this would be of concern to you.

How hard is it to understand that imported produce means that US produce has to compete against incredibly cheap goods? Because we can't grow produce for those prices, our produce industry suffers. Sure, some mega-farms can compete, but the few family farms that are left can't offer fresh produce for those prices. It's more profitable to grow things like soybeans, corn (used for things other than food now), and wheat - things that are used widely and can be used in junkfood.

It has been shown (go ahead and Google it, since you're so good at Googling) that, calorie for calorie, junk food is cheaper (this has to do with the Farm Bill). And when you are poor, you tend to buy calorie-dense food. It might not be a conscious process, but it does happen. If you have $25 to feed a family, you're probably going to buy packaged stuff with lots of calories, like lunch meats and chips and bread, rather than fresh spinach and carrots.

Anyone who suggests that Whole Foods is a good source for affordable organic veggies needs a good head check.

Guest's picture

Why do you have to go organic to be healthy?

I don't buy organic because I can't stand the prices. I watch my calories, fat etc intakes and buy, whenever possible, store brands that cost less. And keeping healthy staples around the house at all times that are cheap (low-fat yogurts, granola, cooked chicken, etc) makes it easy to not order pizza or take-out.

Guest's picture

My son is allergic to rice, among other things. My husband can't eat beans, and lentils are iffy. Three of us can't eat peanut at all.

I'm trying. I haven't the strength to do a lot of food prep, which is required to eat healthier, and there's nobody else here to do it. But apples were on sale, and red leaf lettuce, so that's what we got. It's not the crucifers, it's not high in vitamin C, I'm not sure about the fibre content - but it's not twinkies.

Guest's picture

And raise the prices of the junk/processed food to reflect the real and environmental prices of these products, which are, after all, heavily subsidized. I can feed my family of 4 on $100 CAN a month if I have to and $150/month easily - all organic (except for the canola oil, but it's Canadian at least) and for the most part local. Of course, we're practically vegans, so that eliminates meat and cheese as far as the most expensive items go. It's taken almost ten years of practice and shifting my habits/attitudes about food, but now we cook/bake almost everything ourselves. Polenta, barley risotto, lots of hearty soups and stews, quinoa and amaranth (two highly nutritious grains), Indian food, pizza, all kinds of baked goods...o.k. I'm getting hungry now. The library has lots of good current cookbooks, as well as internet access, usually.

It just depends on how much you want it.

And also: it starts with the kids. Food and growing it should be required curriculum everywhere....

Aaaaand, I grew up on that typical North American "comfort food" of canned stuff - there's nothing comforting about how it makes you feel.

o.k. I think that's it :-)

Guest's picture

Have you looked into community supported agriculture? That might be a good solution for feeding your family, fresh, organic and reasonably priced.

Sarah Baughman's picture

Kim, I'm glad you mentioned the CSA concept. I moved here in the fall, but when I first moved here, I did contact a couple CSA groups within a half hour's drive of my house. They run from around May through October, so I hope to get involved this spring. Thanks again for the tip.

Guest's picture

The Economist had an interesting article on the rising price of food. It looks like we can expect more of the same.

Guest's picture
Rob in Madrid

The article was in reference to the poor, often in inner cities it's impossible to get fruits and vegetables and when your a single mom working two jobs making a box of mac and cheese is the easiest thing to do. As well Walmart and others don't have stores there.

I was visiting a family with 4 kids and the father popped out for happy meal for the kids, he was in a hurry and didn't have time make anything.

Naomi I live in Madrid and yes prices have taken a huge jump!!! But check out Lidl, they are generally much cheaper than Carrefour or anyone else.

Guest's picture

I think a lot of people forget that when we refer to "the poor," we're referring to "the WORKING poor." With purchasing power lower than in the past, many have to work longer at minimum-wage jobs (often juggling more than one full-time one) in order to feed even a family of four. My single mom worked three jobs (one full-time, two part-time, including one delivering newspapers, which required getting up at 3 in the morning) in order to support her 3 kids. When do people think that someone like her would find the time to soak lentils and cook them for the required 45 minutes? The majority of the working poor not only have jobs but children to feed, clothe and send to school as well. My mother barely had the energy to slice lettuce, much less make an entire salad. And as someone pointed out, most of the poor do not live anywhere near a Whole Foods. They generally live in neighborhoods near Walmarts and Sam's Clubs. Even at those establishments, even the conventional produce will cost more than, say, a box of mac 'n' cheese.

An Atlantic Monthly article recently came to the same conclusion: the poor have very limited access to healthy foods, education about healthy lifestyles, and healthy neighborhoods. It's one of the reasons why obesity rates are highest among low-income groups; Kirstie Alley and John Goodman notwithstanding, most wealthy people have more resources (time and money) that they can devote to pursuing a healthy lifestyle.


Guest's picture

If you live far enough north there is no local produce for about 4 months of the year. We can sometimes get greenhouse tomatoes from one state over into the late fall. So your only option becomes whatever the stores truck in from everywhere else. Both of us have to restrict carbs for medical reasons and that really throws a curve into trying to find cheap groceries. Veggies and meat are not cheap. We have found that adding some lentils, yellow peas, wild rice, brown rice and sweet potatoes a few times a week really helps stretch groceries without going overboard on carbos.

The huge price spikes in groceries changed my garden plans for next summer. We are tripling what we can grow and will be canning or freezing a portion of it.

I took the Wisebread advice from a few weeks ago and bought sprout seeds. We have our first batch of sprouts ready to eat. This was a great discovery since it doesn't require lots of sunlight to grow. My attempts at growing baby lettuce and spinach in big pots near the windows last winter just didn't work, we don't get enough sunlight.

I just wish we could find a cheaper source of eggs.

Guest's picture

Hi Rob in Madrid. Thanks for the tip! I live about 40 minutes from Madrid in a small village though and we don't drive, so Lidle and Carrefour aren't really an option here. There is an Alcampo in Colmenar Viejo, but it's pretty expensive too.

Guest's picture

I take offense at the commenters who are so quick to point out that they can find cheap, fresh produce easily at their local ethnic markets and tell us to just do the same. We live in the south-central US where most of the local supermarkets exist inside WalMarts - in most of the United States, especially rural and suburban areas, there are no ethnic markets to get cheap produce. We have farm stands for a few months out of the year, but you can't live on tomatoes and strawberries.

Here is an excellent article in Newsweek about the difficulties finding healthy food in so-called Food Deserts:

Guest's picture

I agree with the author that the poor have a hard time eating healthy. The first time I lived on my own, most of my money went for rent. The rest covered bus fare and a small amount of groceries. I lived on pb&j sandwiches, canned soup bought in bulk, and I tried to supplement my diet with milk and orange juice when I could afford it. I do not think I ate an apple during that year of my life, let alone fresh vegetables unless I ate them elsewhere.

I have reached a point now where my husband and I can live on one income while I go to school full time. We are saving for a house, so no mortgage payments, no children, no car payments. At this time, we choose to put more of our money toward eating healthy instead of saving just a bit more each month. We are lucky that we can do so. When things get tight, we generally cut back in other areas in order to continue eating well (organic, fresh produce, locally-grown meat).

The hard part for those with limited income is that there is no where to cut back. The US definitely needs to rethink it's priorities.

Guest's picture

...if you factor in health care costs. Junk food may be cheaper immediately, but eating only junk is going to end up costing you later in health care costs. The working poor don't usually have decent (or usually any) health insurance. Which means that we all end up paying for the junk that people eat (not to mention all the subsidies that our tax dollars pay for.)

Americans spend far less of their incomes on food then the rest of the world does. I think perhaps our priorities are skewed. Personally, I'd rather spend a little more money on healthy food and not buy into the system. It's just too bad that this isn't an options for everyone.

Guest's picture

I also take offense at the commenters who are so quick to look at the negative side and do nothing about it...

You mentioned Walmart,... have you seen what Walmart carries???? You can get some pretty good selection of fruits (orange, banana, strawberries, etc..) and vegetables (onion, garlic, lettuce, tomato, green onions, paprika, etc..). It is not the cheapest place to buy produce, but cheaper than other supermarkets like Kroger or Publix. It also has good selection of bread. If you dont mind frozen, they have some seafood. Infact they even have some ethnic stuff from China, Thailand and Mexico.

You can also suppliment canned and processed foods with fresh ingredients. We do this all the time.

Sarah Baughman's picture

I appreciate all the comments on this article. I certainly didn't intend to be overly negative, but I do live in a small town, and unfortunately, we don't have Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Sweet Tomatoes, or any ethnic markets within a couple hours' drive. Our choices for grocery shopping are: Glen's and Oleson's (small grocery stores selling a typical selection of  boxed goods and produce, not necessarily local), Wal-Mart, and the food co-op (which I love, but is very expensive). I also live in the north, so our farmer's markets can only run from May through October, roughly.

I actually love living here; I wouldn't have moved back if that weren't the case. I live in a beautiful place, with great access to outdoor activities during all four seasons. The quality of life is high, and we have a strong community. However, grocery shopping is an issue. I'm a member of the local food co-op, but prices there are VERY high, and prohibitive for most working-class residents. I find I can only afford to buy occasional specialty items there. I just assume I'm not the only one living outside a major urban area who finds that local food choices are hard to come by in the fall and winter months. It's true that those living in more densely populated and/or diverse areas have more food options than I do.

Again, thanks for the comments.

Guest's picture

All valid comments, well thought out comments.

Here's mine. I live in NYC. Food is mega expensive. Cooking from scratch helps a lot; self sufficiency is paramount. My husband and I cook mostly from scratch.Fruits and vegs from farmers markets are mega expensive; we look for the cheapest grocery store in our area (look for where elderly and fixed income people shop). (I have been unemployed a long time.)
So, We cook what's on sale; stockup when we can on canned tomatoes, tuna, pasta, beans. go to the bodega for vegs sometime. Drink Bustelo espresso coffee - so good! Who needs starbugzzz?? Check out websites like the dollar stretcher, Bake our own cookies. Chickens: 3 meals, chicken and rice and vegs; chicken salad sandwiches and chicken soup from the carcass and onions/carrots/celery broth. peanut butter for protein. Put peanut butter on oatmeal for breakfast, makes it stick to the ribs.

Enuf rambling. Hunger hurts, it physically hurts. thank G-d today I am not hungry and I hope you are not hungry too.

Guest's picture

I volunteered at a food bank for quite some time. Many poor people can't manage something like rice and beans because many poor people don't have luxury items like ovens and stoves. Cheap pre-made food becomes one of their few options.

Guest's picture

If this world keeps going the way it is..the majority of us will be eating out of garbage cans..the economic models are only set up to allow wealthy people to enjoy life, eat healthy and "live"..the rest of the best you can and don't bother us "the wealthy" ..that's the mentality...think about it..

Guest's picture

The problem with this supposition is that one assumes that in order to eat healthily that one must go somewhere like whole foods. You assume that markets in China and Bolivia have all organic produce? That's pretty faulty right there. People in the developing world are of the impression that processed things and chemical fertilizer are better. So, where does that leave us if we want to be on equal footing? Going to the cheapest grocery store and buying the cheapest (most likely in season) produce. Just because they eat things that are different from us (say, quinoa versus wheat) doesn't mean that their diets are better, just different. If you stick to in season produce at a supermarket like a poor person would have to do at a local market in China or Bolivia, you'll eat cheaply.

The problem is really the attitude that there's not enough time in the day, and unfortunately you're not going to get rid of that. The world is only going to keep going towards that attitude unless a dark age happens. All you're doing by having a blog like this is preaching to people who already feel the same as you do. You're not changing any hearts or minds by repeating the same inane chatter repeated on hundreds if not thousands of blogs and other webpages about how much better traditional diets are. The only thing you can hope to do is really to work with the system. Get McDonalds to serve better food. Vote with your dollars. Unfortunately, sitting around and talking to like minded people about how terrible the world is doesn't actually get anything done.

Guest's picture

I'm not buying it! Total crap! Organic isn't the only healthy. one does not need Whole Foods to eat healthy. It isn't Whole foods vs. McDonald's. Why not shop at ALDI for frozen vegetables (very healthy, not canned) and meals? You can feed your family healthy good meals from Walmart, ALDI, etc. if you are no giving into cravings. It's total crap. Bag of frozen veg are $1, feeds 5 people as a side compared to $1-$2 for fries PER PERSON. Why not get bulk frozen chicken, again healthy and nutritious. Is it "organic" or "fresh," no, but that means NOTHING when you are talking calories and nutrients. It's a psych out but the media and culture. You can have a GREAT healthy meal for under $10 for a family of 5 that is not only satisfying but healthy.

Guest's picture

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