The Economy of Food


ETA:  I raised three boys on about $9000 per year, without the help of food stamps.  And they did not eat very much frozen or fast food.  We ate a lot of Chinese type foods, and a lot of vegetarian meals, and cooked from scratch was pretty much normal.  So I know whereof I speak.

H/T Sharon Astyk for the link and her commentary on her blog; what she has to say as well as the comments on her blog are well worth considering.  I just have a few insights of my own to add.

A new article in Harvard Magazine discusses the rise of restaurant culture in America, and makes some statements regarding eating out and food in general that I just don’t agree with.  They state, for one, that eating at McDonald’s is cheaper than eating at home.  Really?  What about the gas it takes to drive there?  At four dollars a gallon?  And McDonald’s cannot accept food stamps because food stamps can only be used for UNcooked food.  For instance, you can buy a burrito at the local gas/mart, pay for it with food stamps – THEN put it into their microwave and cook it, but you cannot cook it first and then pay for it with food stamps.  Now, that may be possible, but again, it’s still fast food, and not a very good use of a finite resource – your food stamps.  At last reading, 1 in 8 adults and 1 in 4 children eat thanks to food stamps.  That is a LOT of the population relying on them.  All of these people are faced with being money poor, and I would suspect that buying a burger at McDonald’s, is putting a further strain on an already strained budget that must also pay rent, utilities, gas, etc.

So, McDonald’s may have cheap food, but you have to factor in the cost of gas to get there, the fact that there is next to zero nutritional content in the food, the time spent driving to and from versus staying at home and cooking, and the loss of that money to purchase other necessary goods/services.  Not to mention the nutritional content versus McDonald’s, or even a frozen burrito compared to home cooked food.

I am astounded that people really think they do not have time to cook.  Now, I can believe that they may be too tired to cook.  When I come home from a shift where I work, I am lucky if I have not had to fight nodding off in the car, and I get home with exactly enough time to get my clothes and food around, and go to bed and get ready to do it all over again in the morning.  But my situation is not really normal, except for others who also work 12 or more hours in a day.  But.  Notice one particular thing in my previous statement.  Get my food around.

Yes, I take my own lunch.  On my days off, or on days my husband is home and he cooks, we deliberately make enough for leftovers.  Last night’s dinner becomes today’s lunch.  A meal at the cafeteria, or at McDonald’s costs at least $6.  Taking my lunch costs perhaps $2, if it was an expensive dish.  Often my meal costs 50 cents or less.  A meal of curried lentils and rice with slivered almonds, and some pickles, costs perhaps that 50 cents.  It takes time to make the pickles, of course, but that time is amortized across an entire year until I do it again – one or two marathon days of canning dill, bread and butter pickles, dilly beans, and relish mean we have those things for the rest of the year. The lentils are maybe 99 cents for a pound, and I use a cup which I am guessing is about a quarter pound for the meal; the rice is also about a dollar a pound and I use 2 cups of that.  The almonds are the expensive part; they are garnish though and a quarter cup is more than enough for the meal.  The spices of course are expensive but like the pickles the price is amortized across every meal I prepare with them.  Then of course, there is the cost of utilities both to prepare and to clean up.  Even so, I think that my meal made at home, which takes about 10 minutes to prep and 30 minutes to cook, still takes both less time and money than that meal from McDonald’s.  Plus, my meal gives us leftovers and feeds us for at least one other meal.

Or say we had poached salmon in a cream sauce with peas over pasta.  The salmon obviously is the expensive portion of the meal; I believe it was $8 or $9 per pound the last time I shopped.  Well, we use perhaps 10 ounces for both of us in this meal, probably more like 7 or 8 ounces.  So that’s much more expensive than the lentils, but we are still less than the McDonald’s meal so far, say $4.  I only purchase pasta when it’s on sale, so it’s usually about $1 for a package at most.  We use perhaps a third to a half package for this recipe.  The peas I buy early in the season, in bulk, and keep frozen, so they’re maybe $1 per pound.  We use a cup of peas in this recipe.  It uses 1/4 cup butter as well as 1 cup cream which we substitute with milk and a little cornstarch for thickening.  A little garlic which we grow ourselves, some salt and pepper, and 1/4 cup onion which we may or may not have grown in the garden.  This meal will feed us for at least two full meals.  So the cost, $9 say, actually is still cheaper than the McDonald’s meal because that cost gets divided in half – $4.50 to feed us both.  Twice.  The time it takes to make this meal is approximately 40 minutes. Possibly more time than McDonald’s, but certainly still cheaper.  I would guess that my meal, eaten in the quiet of my home, or on my deck, is less stressful as well.

Or say we just make beans and rice.  Typical subsistence food, made in the crock pot.  Pennies to make, next to no time in active preparation, and feeds us until we’re so sick of it we give the last bit to the chickens.

There is no possible way that eating at McDonald’s is cheaper than eating at home, even if you factor in utilities!

The denseness of the nutrition of my home prepared foods, as well as the lack of preservatives and other assorted nasties, means that even with butter as one of the chief ingredients (organic naturally) that my meal is significantly healthier, and more filling with smaller portion sizes, than anything McDonald’s can offer.  Spiritually, McDonald’s can offer nothing to me or my family either.  My kitchen is the center of my house, both literally and figuratively.  How can McDonald’s compete with that?

No, making an idiotic statement like the one quoted in the article above is simply a lie, whether perpetrated deliberately or out of ignorance.  The sad part is that McDonald’s profits by this ignorance, and the general ignorance of our young people in how to cook.  THAT is perhaps the most troubling part of this article.  People spend hours watching food and cooking shows, but do not learn how to do it themselves.

Perhaps the best thing I could do for my community while I’m home for a while is to offer cooking classes.  They wouldn’t have to be anything so unusual as what we eat, just simple foods – pot roast, potatoes, veggies.  Meatloaf.  Mashed potatoes.  Fried chicken.  These are simple meals, but take skill to make well. And most importantly, since I would bet that 90% of the population is on, or qualifies for food stamps, these are nutritionally dense meals which can be made with things food stamps will purchase, unlike my burrito example from the frozen food section.

Food for thought.

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2 responses

  1. Such an important point. We’ve gone, as a species, from extraordinary self-reliance and ability to make do, to a species helpless to feed or entertain ourselves. There’s a profound disconnect from the skills our great grandparents possessed. The concept that it’s too exhausting, complicated, or a WASTE OF TIME to make meals is mind boggling. Yet we’re happy to devote most of our lives commuting and working rote jobs to afford the overpriced, low nutrient food that we think is all we’ve got time for. Crazy.

  2. I totally agree with you, and I am still wondering how that happened. I was poor for most of the rest of the country’s feast years, and I was that one weird kid who thought the hippies really had the right idea and wanted only to get back to the farm when I grew up. I still am that weird one, but people now think what we do is kind of cool. It’s strange to be ‘fashionable’ when what we’re doing is what poor people did normally to survive.

    Now, if I could only convince my husband that if we get rid of cable he could have more money for his HAM radio hobby 🙂

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