Sep 28, 2011

Junk Food is Not Really Cheaper, But Habits Cost You

A piece in the NYT Sunday Review, Is Junk Food Really Cheaper, provoked some interesting discussion among my culinary friends, many of whom are almost evangelistically committed to food awareness and to reduction of obesity and other food-related illnesses in America.

It’s often taken for granted that junk food is in fact cheaper than healthy home-cooked food.  Those who are content with eating it — or with others feeding on the wide array of readily available but admittedly unhealthy foodstuffs — can point towards the comparative costs and shrug their shoulders and reach for another bite.  Those who are against that situation get ready villains for verbal effigy-conflagrations, usually pretty emotionally satisfying: either the government for providing the tangled net of subsidies, or the big food corporations for lobbying for and benefiting from them — or both.

As it turns out, that longstanding premise turned like a wax nose by various sides to multiple purposes isn’t actually true.
… it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four …  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.)
Health is a good that we often sacrifice, ignore, cut corners on, not least because we’re often faced with situations requiring some tough choices between genuine goods to be made, some things to be set lower in the list of priorities.  It’s understandable — though not advisable — for considerations of money, or even more so, of time, to steer us towards long-term, habit-building choices detrimental to our health.

The article goes on to note that the sorts of changes that would steer individuals and families towards better health don’t require switching from fast food fare or highly processed grocery or convenience store purchases to something like an expensive all-organic diet.
…the alternative to fast food is not necessarily organic food, any more than the alternative to soda is Bordeaux.  The alternative to soda is water, and the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative.
“Anything that you do that’s not fast food is terrific; cooking once a week is far better than not cooking at all,” says Marion Nestle …
But there’s the key:  its requires changing purchasing decisions, and it requires a bigger change for many people: actually cooking.

For some, “cooking” means following the instructions on the package of Mac and Cheese, opening up a can of something prior to putting it in a pot, perhaps baking a cake whose ingredients are largely from a box.  Making the sort of changes needed in order to eat well — to eat tasty, healthy, inexpensive cuisine — to do so routinely, requires that one actually cook and do so frequently. That’s where the real crux of the issue lies.  Granting it to be more or less plausible that
The ubiquity, convenience and habit-forming appeal of hyperprocessed foods have largely drowned out the alternatives
And that:
the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive.
The real issue — the real problem and the real solution, and the real gap in between — has to do with choosing to allocate one’s time, one’s energy, ones thought, to cooking.
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 …  “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.”
So, what do the choices that get made over and over again, establishing for oneself patterns, establishing for any children in one’s household models - what do they have to do with?  Working, off the clock, but for some important end.  Pleasure.  Eating.  And time, time to make room typically for either more work (one eats bad food more when working long hours, under deadlines) or more pleasure of different, non-gustatory sorts (which could be television — but also reading books to the kids).

The solution the writer Mark Bittman offers is that:
Real cultural changes are needed to turn this around. Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley. The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.
This strikes me oddly for two reasons. The first is the sheer cultural obliviousness the writer displays, the sneer at fly-over territory expressed in food behavior terms.  It’s not just the trendy elites that have been choosing — or sometimes just passing down — healthy practices with respect to food.  Travel through middle America and you’ll find countless people and families living them out as a matter of course, and without much self-congratulation.  One might — if one knows they exist — employ such people and families as good models, models that other non-elite people can relate to, identify with, see possibilities for themselves within.

The second oddity is the notion that we need to change our whole “culture,” that we have to make things “popular,” that we have to “get people to see.”  While its true that awareness of information is not something one can take for granted, and while it is true that it’s easier to get people to do the more prudent thing when it becomes popular … do we really want to wait around for such imagined social-cultural tinkering?  And, isn’t there kind of a copout there?

It is habits, behavior, typical ways of evaluating, and directions of desires that need to be reshaped if a person or a family who are currently eschewing the opportunities to cook and eat cheaply, healthily, tastily are going to alter their culinary and consumnatory patterns.   Their practical reasoning needs to improve.  Perhaps we need at present to think about these sorts of situations in terms of the virtues and the vices of individuals and families, rather than in terms of seismic cultural shifts in awareness — though there’s nothing wrong with desiring and working for that as well.

The virtue traditionally associated with bodily pleasures and the consumption of food and drink is that of temperance, and opposed to it is self-indulgence or, in terms of food specifically, gluttony.  This bears some thinking through with respect to this particular problem, but we might also think whether other virtues might not also need to be understood, developed, and practiced in order to support the good interlocked practices of healthy food-buying, cooking, planning, and the other associated practices.  We might also look to how people actually do develop virtues and wean themselves way from vices in thinking about the processes involved in changing food awareness, behavior, and commitments.

That project, however, will wait for another day, another entry

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