Friday, October 30, 2009

The costs (more ways than money) of food

One of my Facebook friends just posted this graph on his wall and I couldn't help but write a blog entry about it: 

I think in our most common experiences and from the media's perspective, this is basically true.  
Consider a few examples.

The following is on the Dollar Menu at the McDonald's closest to my apartment:
Small Fries: 230 calories, 11 g fat, 160 mg sodium
McDouble: 390 calories, 19 g fat, 920 mg sodium
McChicken: 360 calories, 16 g fat, 830 mg sodium
Hot Fudge Sundae: 330 calories, 10 g fat, 180 mg sodium

Some special deals at my nearest Kroger supermarket this week:
White Bread: $1/20 oz. loaf
Cream Cheese: $1/8 oz.
Coke products: 79 cents/2-liter bottle
Fruit Snacks: $1.49/box
Frozen Hash Browns: $1.67/30 oz. bag
Keebler Fudge Shoppe Cookies: $1/12 oz. package
Cheez-It Crackers: $1/10 oz. box
Frozen Pizza: $1.99/30 oz. pie
***If shoppers buy 10 of the above--or other not listed--featured items, they will save an additional $5!***

By comparison, at a recent trip to Whole Foods, I spent the following:
Organic Blue Corn Chips: $2.50/10 oz. bag
Pure Organic Maple Syrup: $9/12 oz. jar
Organic Cinnamon: $3.39/2 oz. jar
Butternut Squash: $4/4-lb. squash
Organic Spring Mix Lettuce: $4/5 oz. package 
Unsulphured Blackstrap Molasses (I use it for baking; it's an excellent source of calcium and iron): $4.39/15 oz. jar 

By eating off the dollar menu at McDonalds or shopping the discounts at Kroger, we save some cash.  Choosing healthier options at fast food establishments is more expensive.  Eating at Ann Arbor's vegetarian restaurant Seva can earily cost $30 for a dinner for two; eating at Ann Arbor's Eve, a slow food restaurant that uses only local organic meats and produce can easily cost $40 per person.

But there must be a way to eat in a way that is healthy and cost effective.  Below I will offer a few justifications to spending more money on food and buying organic, and a few tips to keep food costs down.

Perhaps Americans need to get used to spending more money on food.  If it is true that "you are what you eat," wouldn't you want to invest in food, if it is ultimately an investment in yourself?  

Our food choices contribute to our overall health and well being.  According to Michael Pollan, in 1960, Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food and 5.2% of the national income on health care.  The numbers have nearly reversed since then.  Now, we spend 9.9% of our income on food and 16% of our national income on health care.  Other healthier countries spend much more on food costs.  The Italians and the French spend 14.9% and the Spanish spend 17.1%.  

It's not too far off to think that we spent more money on real healthy foods (not the foods labeled with fictitious miracle health claims), we might spend less money on examinations, procedures, and medications for health-related complications such as heart disease, diabetes type II, and obesity.

Benefits of buying organic foods:
  • They contain more nutrients.  Grass-fed animals are better for us to eat than grain-fed animals.  Organic chickens and their eggs are healthier for us than cage-raised chickens.  Similarly, fruits and vegetables grown in organic soil contains many more nutrients--and many more times the amount of antioxidants--than produce grown on industrialized farms.
  • They don't contain pesticides.  Yes, we eat pesticides regardless of whether we wash our non-organic produce.
  • Don't support industrialized farmers' rapid destruction of our environment.  Large farms quickly and easily wear out the soil they inhabit by growing few different types of crops.  Runoff from fertilizer contributes to dead zones in the oceans, which suffocate wild fish and other sea creatures that are healthy parts of our ecosystem.
  • Organic food tastes better.  This is something you can't truly understand unless you try it.
What about the higher costs of eating organic?  Here are some tips that have saved me money at the grocery store without compromising my quality of eating:
  • Look for deals in weekly ads at markets that sell a lot of organic products, such as Whole Foods or coops in your town.  In addition to running weekly sales on products, Whole Foods, for example, publishes a monthly newsletter called Whole Deal that includes valuable coupons, weekly meal plans for singles, couples, and families, and recipes for meals that only cost a few dollars per serving.
  • Buy produce that is local and in season.  It's cheaper and it tastes better.  It also didn't travel as far to get to the grocery store, so it's fresher.  You'll also help support local farms and a friendly environment this way.
  • Buy foods in bulk.  Organic markets and coops often sell flours, pastas, grains, cereals, seeds, spices, and even natural cleaning products by the pound.  Not paying for packaging will save you a more than you may think. 
  • Don't shop at the grocery store.  If you can grow some of your own plants--even spices in containers--you'll find that it's rewarding and tastier than food from your supermarket.  Check out your neighborhood's farmers' market or join a CSA.
Thank you, as always, for reading.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on these ideas.  Please comment!

1 comment:

  1. Love this article- especially the graph at the top which frames the discussion nicely. The concept of cost must be considered together with value such that you can ask "Am I getting more when I pay more?"

    Since I'm a numbers guy, I thought I'd throw in a cost perspective on the discussion (yes, you can tease me about this):

    1. Growing/Raising food itself requires water, land, equipment, etc.). Organic products save on some costs (fertilizers and pesticides) but have higher costs elsewhere- (a) less mechanization requires more manual labor (b) smaller farms requires higher unit prices to generate a profit.

    Summary: paying more for organic adds value in terms of fewer pesticides, more nutritional value and improved taste. OK, this just reiterates what was posted in the blog so I'll move on to the next point.

    2. Processing food. This is where I think there is a significant amount of debate. Processing food (e.g. tomatoes into ketchup) adds cost in exchange for convenience and sometimes taste but definitely does not add nutritional value. In fact, it usually makes foods much less healthy.

    Being selective about which foods you buy processed can make a big difference in cost and quality. For example, chicken on the bone doesn't dry out as much as boneless and it costs less too. So you could just shift your grocery dollars from boneless chicken to organic regular chicken and possibly even save money.

    Summary: if you want to eat healthier, your money will go further with less processed foods (of course, working with more basic ingredients may add to prep time)

    3. Food preparation: this step is a large cost input for food and results in the largest variation in nutritional value. All those big offenders (salt, sugar, fat) can sneak their way in at this point. I find that I have to be very conscious of my choices with prepared foods- it's too easy to make bad decisions.

    The unfortunate thing here is that it's cheaper to dress up marginally nutritious food with salt and fat for the dollar menu than it is to work with higher quality ingredients without additives.

    And while it may be clear that McDonald's is unhealthy, there are many surprisingly bad choices out there: Panera's full Mediterranean Vegie has 610 calories and 1450 mg of sodium.

    Summary: Prepared foods can be very misleading. Finding good healthy value requires a lot of legwork to find out which restaurants are really delivering on their health claims.