Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Food Money Matters: Why Healthy Eating Doesn’t Have to be Expensive

There’s a scene in the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. in which a busy family of four visits a grocery store. The father has Type II diabetes, the mother is overweight, and their younger child appears to be developing similar issues. In the supermarket, they’re faced with a few choices: four bottles of Coke for $5, broccoli for $1.29 per pound, and pears priced around two per $1.

Though we never see them buying anything, it’s made clear that the produce isn’t a viable option. Broccoli doesn’t provide the caloric punch of either the soda or the dollar menu at their local McDonald’s. Whether they simply prefer the Coke goes unmentioned.

Watching the scene, I have a lot of mixed emotions. On one hand, I’m sympathetic, because the deck is clearly stacked against the family. They:
  • Don’t make much money.
  • Don’t have time to cook.
  • Don’t know a lot about nutrition. (The mother claims she was unaware most fast food is unhealthy.)
Not to mention, Big Agriculture and its ad agencies sink billions of dollars into ensuring they choose the soda. Honestly, the odds of anyone opting for broccoli over that kind of social reinforcement are fairly slim.

Still, I also find the scene frustrating. The producers never establish:
  • Whether the family particularly cares about their diet.
  • That their $5 could be spent on other healthy foods, like seven cans of beans, a five-pound bag of rice, or 23 calorie-packed bananas.
  • That gradually incorporating said foods could eliminate the $260 they spend on monthly diabetes meds.
  • That spending a few extra minutes in the kitchen could be faster than the trip to McDonalds.
Through the representative family, Food, Inc. seems to imply that cheap, unhealthy food is our fate – that we’re relatively powerless against larger cultural forces, that our situations are pretty immutable.

For the most part, I think that’s wrong.

I won’t claim it comes down to personal responsibility; that’s too facile a solution. In a country riddled with food deserts, where soda is cheaper than water in some areas, it’s insulting to ignore how time and socio-economic factors play into our diets. Healthy eating can suck it when you’re just trying to keep your kids alive.

But for many – maybe even most - of us, eating inexpensively and well is possible. We don’t live in nutritional wastelands, we have decent access to transportation, and we have some financial means.

About the money: “healthy food is expensive” is reinforced ad nauseum by the media (see: that movie we were just talking about). And yes, if you’re eating highly processed, prepackaged “health food” like protein bars and Activia, your grocery bill will be astronomical—much higher than if you choose Hamburger Helper and Snickers. If you’re eating out-of-season blueberries or organic Whole Foods oranges, you will not be banking any extra change. If you’re serving lean fish and trimmed meats with every meal … you get the picture.

However, if you’re eating Gingersnap Oatmeal and Pumpkin Turkey Chili and Banana, Honey, and Peanut Butter Ice Cream, you can actually save money, improve your health, and feed your picky kids. Even better, you can open yourself to all kind of new and exciting flavors and foods.

Eating well and cheaply takes time, effort, and most of all, the desire to change. It means:
  • Prioritizing food and eating. It shouldn’t be your #1 priority, but it might have to take bigger precedence than it does now.
  • Planning. Making grocery lists and creating basic weekly menus prevents impulse buys and saves time when you're shopping and cooking.
  • Looking for sales and stocking up. Maintain a good pantry and shop with the circular, and you're halfway there.
  • Buying produce more often and in-season. Seasonal fruits and vegetables taste better, cost less, and have less of an impact on the environment.
  • Reducing your meat intake (though not drastically). Just two vegetarian meals per week can have a significant impact on your food bill and heart health.
  • Spending more than a few minutes preparing any given meal. Cooking gives you power over what you eat, and how much it costs. Once you learn to dig your own skills, you’ll want to do it always.
Again, I know there are valid and understandable obstacles to every single one of these points (the biggest one: probably time). But for many people, if you're serious about making a change, the possibility is there, despite the odds.

Readers, what do you think? Is healthy food expensive? What does it take to eat frugally and well? Can everybody do it? These questions all deal with CHG's core mission, and I'd love to read your opinions.

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