The cost of junk food vs. whole food.

As I’ve been researching and writing about the benefits of choosing local, whole foods (see these previous posts for my insights), I’ve bought into the argument that nutritionally poor food is cheaper than nutritionally better food; i.e., that eating fast food is cheaper than eating what you cook yourself.

The argument is commonly made. And different voices point to different reasons for this cheap-bad-food problem. Some writers and industry-watchers blame U.S. farm policy for creating cheap, high-calorie foods (primarily through subsidizing corn and, by extension, high-fructose corn syrup). See this article for that line of reasoning: Corn subsidies make unhealthy food choices the rational ones. Other voices say that it’s not so much farm subsidies, but rather the mega food producers that are dumping cheap ingredients on the market in the form of calorie-intensive, highly processed food. See this article: Is US Farm Policy Feeding the Obesity Epidemic?

The truth is out there, amidst all the rhetoric. Mark Bittman’s recent column for The New York Times raised the question, Is Junk Food Really Cheaper? As Bittman writes, it ain’t necessarily so. He cites an example: a McDonald’s meal for a family of four (two adult meals, two Happy Meals with drinks and sides) runs $28; while a home-cooked meal for four (a whole roasted chicken, potatoes, a simple salad, bread and milk) costs about $14.

Bittman’s piece debunks two common canards in the food debate: First, fast-food isn’t the only affordable option for low-income families. And second, healthy food is not just for rich people and farmers’ market hipsters. And it gets at the core of the problem: Confronted with a multiplicity of food choices, we can either eat healthy foods or we can eat junk. And given the option, most people choose the junk.

The ubiquity, convenience and habit-forming appeal of hyperprocessed foods have largely drowned out the alternatives: There are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has decreased by as much as 30 percent; and nearly inconceivable resources go into encouraging consumption in restaurants: fast-food companies spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009.

See what we’re up against? What a massive cultural change is required to fix the obesity epidemic? Why it’s important that kids learn to enjoy growing, preparing and eating simple, healthy food? It’s taken us a generation to get fat; it’s going to take another generation to make healthy eating the norm. Bittman equates the good-food movement with the anti-smoking movement: Think of how much advocacy, public-service messaging, peer pressure, education and policymaking it’s taken to move smoking from something that’s cool to something that’s nasty.

A generation from now, won’t it be great if junk food is the aberration, not the norm?

related articles

Our food varieties are dwindling; why should you care?
The art of eating locally.
Our fast-food culture: We need to slow down.

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