Yesterday’s New York Times carried an article on the relative cost of fast food and fresh, home-prepared food. The article challenges the notion that junk food is cheaper than fresh, using fast food as its comparison.
This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)
In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)
This is cheating a little bit, given that the actual poor don’t really go out that often, even to McDonald’s. A better comparison would have been prepared and unprepared grocery food. The numbers would have been closer as well, though I’m not sure which food would have come out ahead on average.
When Jennifer Ouellette linked to the article, someone (with time to comment but not to read, apparently) asked whether the article addressed time poverty. Another person noted that she can make healthy food for her kids in 20 minutes. She also keeps fresh fruit around for snacking and pushes the most perishable fruit on the kids first so it doesn’t go bad.
I’ll get to the problem with applying that perspective to poverty shortly, but I’d also like to point out that the Times made a similar mistake in the article.
It’s cooking that’s the real challenge. (The real challenge is not “I’m too busy to cook.” In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there.)
The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch. “People really are stressed out with all that they have to do, and they don’t want to cook,” says Julie Guthman, associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism.” “Their reaction is, ‘Let me enjoy what I want to eat, and stop telling me what to do.’ And it’s one of the few things that less well-off people have: they don’t have to cook.”
Yes, fast food is defined as a treat, but as I noted above, focusing on that as a major replacement for cooking from scratch is missing the mark. Fast food just is much more a lower middle class phenomenon than it is a phenomenon of poverty. If you want to understand food and poverty in the U.S., you need to pay more attention to what is cooked at home, and by whom.
Let’s start with that hour and a half of television. Sure, if you’re a reporter with a college degree, you probably watch your television sitting down with your feet up. That’s fine, but assuming the same applies in poor households is poor journalism. I know it’s hard to understand poverty if you haven’t lived in it, but getting it right in a country where the wealth divide has been growing for decades is incredibly important. If you want to understand adult television use and poverty, ask someone who’s spent time in poverty, like me.
Sitting down to watch television when you’re a poor adult with maybe multiple jobs but definitely all the hours you can manage to work, with a long commute often at the hands of public transportation, with all the other time-intensive, money-saving tasks to be done, is every bit as much a luxury as cooking from scratch. Televisions run in the background of life most of the time, while laundry is being done and/or children are being put to bed or watched over as they do homework and/or mail is being opened and winced over and/or food is being heated up. Television use is not a measure of luxury time.
In fact, poor parents frequently aren’t the people doing the cooking at all. That would require that they manage to make it home with time to spare before dinner is due on the table. Dinner is cooked by people taking care of the children from multiple families or, where some children are older, by the children themselves. Food preparation can’t outstrip the attention the adults are able to spare or the skills of the children involved. Snacks are what the children will grab on their own.
If you want to create food policy for the poor, you have to understand these facts and accommodate them. Luckily, although the Times reporter doesn’t fully grasp cooking in poverty, some of the programs on which he reports do, and they’re taking the right steps.
The People’s Grocery in Oakland secures affordable groceries for low-income people. Zoning laws in Los Angeles restrict the number of fast-food restaurants in high-obesity neighborhoods. There’s the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a successful Pennsylvania program to build fresh food outlets in underserved areas, now being expanded nationally. FoodCorps and Cooking Matters teach young people how to farm and cook.
The reporter thinks that a cultural shift away from fast food will have to be driven by parents, but as long as we fix access to fresh foods, it’s those last couple of programs that will make the bigger difference among poor families. Unfortunately, plenty of people are going to read this article and simply decide, once again, that the problem is poor, lazy parents who just don’t want to cook. And that’s going to make more bad policy.
Poverty isn’t just a game: “Jenny Nicholson is tired of hearing how the poor are poor because they make poor choices. Let’s see what kind of choices you make when it’s your turn to be flattened by the economy.”
Being Poor: “Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.”
A Year of Writing About Poverty: “For a variety of reasons, today’s column will be my last for 3QuarksDaily, and I thought I’d use it to sum up what I’ve learned over the past year.”