A Riddle for Thought: Is it Cheaper to Buy Unhealthy Food Over Healthy Food?


We all eat, but how many of us eat to live and how many of us live to eat? What are our food buying sources, our habits? Is this a socio-economic problem for only low-income individuals or does this affect everyone? Furthermore, is this a culture-specific issue? Or does it affect us all?

In 2011, Mark Bittman wrote an article for The New York Times, titled, “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?” He laid out a view of an American culture addicted to easy, fast and convenient food sources, ones that yield an instant-gratification high. Bittman offered the following advice, “To make changes … more widespread we need action both cultural and political. The cultural lies in celebrating real food; raising our children in homes that don’t program them for fast produced, eaten-on-the-run, high-calorie, low-nutrition junk; giving them the gift of appreciating the pleasures of nourishing one another and enjoying that nourishment together.”

Now, seven years later, have we slowed down? We are a culture that increasingly does more in less time and expects others to do the same. This becomes learned behavior that is passed down.

My own family likes to go to the farmers market to buy items like fish, the occasional bag of salad and maybe some cheese and a loaf of bread. This all sets us back about $30 to $40. Choosing to frequent the market is more expensive than going to our local supermarkets, but we value our family walk to the market and supporting local. However, that one trip yields roughly two meals for a family of three. It’s not lost on me that we could probably do a better job of planning our food budget. We do frequent Trader Joe’s — a well-priced source for staples like dried fruits, beans, canned goods and those lovely frozen prepared meals. Again, if I stopped and thought about my sodium intake over my taste buds and pleasure sensors, I would stop eating these frozen meals in a bag. However, the convenience of dumping a meal into a bowl, then a microwave, then my face, is hard to resist at $3.99.

These are both excellent lead-ins to discuss food prep. At the farmers market, food is not prepared; it requires effort on the part of me, the consumer. Proper food consumption requires planning and preparation. My husband and I both work. I work more than one job. We both want to live longer and feel better about ourselves, so we try to make time for physical activity. All these things lead to cutting corners and not always buying healthy, but, overall, I think we’re doing okay.

We don’t do drive-thrus. I know it’s food already prepared from a dollar menu. The nice executive chain owners want me to buy their food. These same people have thought about the way I perceive colors, the way I watch television, timing their close-ups of juicy burgers to coincide with my viewing habits and feeding times. They’ve factored in my child, making choices that will trigger her happiness — think about it, who doesn’t want their meal to be “Happy”? Who doesn’t want their meal to come with something that will amuse us long after the salt has dried from our lips?

But I have resisted this marketing. After seeing Anthony Bourdain (may you find peace, you salty dog) at PPAC several years ago, I took up Bourdain’s parenting style when I told my 3-year-old that McDonald’s sold poison. Relax, we have since explained that what we said wasn’t entirely true, but it saved us from forming an addictive habit.

But what if we didn’t have a car? What if I never told her that the clown with the orange hair was pure evil? What if I needed to work three jobs, then get my kid from daycare at strange hours? What if I lived where the only places I could walk and get food in a hurry were local fast food chains? For a lot of people, this is a reality. These places have a name: food deserts.

The USDA site has offered this (bad pun coming your way) food for thought, “[There are] many ways to define which areas are food deserts — neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources. Most measures and definitions take into account at least some of the following indicators of access: Accessibility to sources of healthy food, as measured by distance to a store or by the number of stores in an area; individual-level resources that may affect accessibility, such as family income or vehicle availability; neighborhood-level indicators of resources, such as the average income of the neighborhood and the availability of public transportation.”

However, here in RI, we are doing some things right. Two years ago we hired our first (and first in the nation) director of food strategy, Sue AnderBois (www.relishrhody.com). The Rhode Island Food Strategy “takes a holistic view of the state’s food system and is organized around three core themes: Health & Access, Economic Development, and Environmental Sustainability & Resiliency.” Taking the idea of food access even further are both the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) and the Rhode Island Food Council. SCLT is doing highly commendable work, “to bring healthy food to people with the least access to it, SCLT trains gardeners and farmers to grow food for their families and neighbors and provides inexpensive land and agricultural resources to help them to do it.” Spend some time on the RI Food Council’s website and you will see that there is a lot of work being done to ensure that access to healthy food is a reality. The Rhode Island Food Access map is an awe-inspiring resource for those in power to make change for those who can’t.

Maybe that’s the answer to the riddle. It’s not really a question of is it cheaper to buy unhealthy food over healthy food, it’s more of a responsibility for us, as a society, to make sure we’re doing right by one another at a very basic level. Sitting down and sharing a healthy meal is not something we should put a price on, it’s something we should be able to access regardless of who we are or where we live.

For more information about the invaluable work of both SCLT and The RI Food Council, please visit them on the web: southsideclt.org and rifoodcouncil.org