Is Food Too Cheap?

I was looking for three chicken breasts. Not eight. Or four. Just three. I was visiting my parents in Arizona and shopping for dinner. They’re Canadian snow birds, flying south for the winter in search of sun and lower priced food. Due to a variety of reasons – a lower population,higher food taxes,lower government subsidies to the farmers – Canadian food is notoriously expensive – especially meat and cheese.

I was at Basha’s, the local super-sized super-market near Phoenix. It’s a cavernous place that feels like an airplane hangar.  Everything about it is big. The aisles are wide enough to drive a tractor through, the cereals are family-sized for a family of ten, the end-of-aisle displays are monolithic towers, screaming their offers out as you round the corner,  “80% off when you buy two bags of Tostitos and dip!” This is grocery shopping in high definition.  As vast as the store is though, it was also eerily empty.  It felt like someone had thrown a huge party, put out all the food, but no one was showing up. The registers were lit but no one was paying. This only added to its bigness.

I know I’m comparing it to shopping in New York City where you shop with a hand basket over your forearm, and stores don’t have parking lots and where you can buy bread in half-loaves, but still, this tipped the scales at over three football fields.

I rang the bell at the butcher counter. “I’m looking for just enough chicken for three people, but I only see big sizes.”  He came around the counter. “We actually don’t carry small sizes, but we have a special on where you can get two-two pound packs of chicken breasts for the price of one.” (Buying just one was not an option – the second one was bound with cellophane to the first.) “So I can’t buy just one of the packs and I can’t request a smaller amount from you?”  “No, but this is an excellent price and you’re getting a lot of chicken.”  He was right. I was getting a lot of cheap chicken. The problem was, I didn’t want a lot of cheap chicken.

We had split pea soup for dinner.

There is something unsettling when enormous quantities of food are sold at bargain prices – when  food is so abundant that a restaurant can offer a double sized portion of your meal for $1 extra, or a store can sell a pound of Twizzlers for 50 cents or eight chicken breasts for $4.

Basha’s left me wondering … Is food too cheap?  Do we eat too much (in particular low nutrient-density food – the cheapest of all), and waste too much, because we pay so little and therefore don’t value it?  In other words, we over-buy because it’s cheap and over-eat because we’ve bought it. And what we don’t eat, we toss, because we know we can buy it again. In the early 1900’s we spent 25% of our income on food, today we spend less than 10%, and it’s dropping.* Over the past 25 years, the price of a McDonald’s hamburger has gone down 30%.** Is it any surprise our waist lines are expanding, and our illnesses worsening, with every dollar we save?

When did quantity trump quality? Why do we balk at paying $6 for a pound of grass-fed, small-farm, nutrient rich beef, but keep coming back to the $6 all-you-can-eat, pasta buffet. America has always been the land of plenty, but we have plenty of plenty. And that’s the problem.

We have driven costs so far out of the food system, that in so doing we have not only driven down nutritional value, but driven out the notion of food being a precious resource. And when we do encounter its preciousness, in the form of whole, “clean”, fresh food, at a farmers market or if we’re lucky, our local store, we pay exorbitantly for it. So is it any wonder most of us choose the lowest priced products (refined carbs and factory raised animals), eating more than we need, and getting fewer of the nutrients our bodies crave.

It makes the two-for-one special, start to look a lot less special.

Please share your thoughts, even if (especially if) you disagree.

Related Posts
Grass-Fed Beef: Worth The Hype?
How (And Why) To Boil Your Garbage (How to make your own stock from scraps)
Sweet!  How Sugar Attacks You And What To Do About It

*USDA Chart (Food as percentage of income)
**In real dollars. See this chart for non-inflation-adjusted prices.

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  • Three-Cookies

    I agree and understand your key message but its such a complex issue with more questions than answers. The falling prices could be due to efficiency which is perhaps a good thing, or subsidy which is not good. If falling prices encourages excess consumption of products and services which are not the best from the nutritional perspective, should government regulate prices or should customers decide for themselves?

    If cheaper items like chicken was no longer available, would this mean that part of the population will not be able to afford certain items?

    • Michelle

      You bring up a great point with the regulation – part of the problem we have with low priced food is that the subsidies for corn and soy (used as both livestock feed as well as key ingredients in junk food) are very high. So these prices are kept artificially low. There are NOT the same subsidies for say vegetable or fruit farmers.

      In terms of the “being able to afford” issue, it’s an important point to consider, but if we took all the money that we spent on nutritionally barren food and applied that to nutritionally rich food, most of us (incl those who are financially strained) WOULD be able to afford even slightly more expensive food.

      Finally, if the health care costs associated with a population that is getting sick from eating too much of the low nutrient food, were to be incorporated into the price of those foods, they would rapidly come up in price to the healthier foods. We can’t sell cheap, low-nutrient food, expect people not to buy it and then be shocked when weight related diseases are rampant and costing us billions.

      So much to be said on this… And you’re right, more questions, than simple answers that’s for sure!

      • Three-Cookies

        Agree to your comments on my comments. As you rightly say the marginal cost of eating eco food is not significant, its more affordable than people realise.

        Its interesting to compare the weekly specials issued by supermarkets in different countries, esp what appears on page 1.

    • wildwildwest

      You obviously haven’t watched the film “Food, Inc.”.

      After seeing that, I only buy organic chicken and beef.

      Tyson? Never again.

      • Michelle

        I’ve seen it …. powerful. Not only do I source organic whenever I can, I buy meat and eggs from small local farms. (Basha’s had NO organic chicken! Which was as much an issue for me as the too-big sizes…)

        • wildwildwest

          Sorry, I was talking to Three-cookies, about the remark “The falling prices could be due to efficiency which is perhaps a good thing…”

          Can’t believe you couldn’t find organic at a big store like Bashas (I used to live in Phoenix) but here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, all of the big supermarket chains carry organic shelf products, even Wal-mart. Meat, not so much. I buy my organic chicken and beef from Costco. But, really, I’m counting on the label to be true. Is it really organic?

          On that same note, can food from China (and perhaps Mexico) really be organic?

          • fifty

            Hey, that was a point of contention in the news a few months ago. I guess Whole Foods Market contracted with farms in China to grow organic food. And some commentators brought up that exact point – can food from China really be organic?

            There is a very good book out there “The End of Food” by Paul Roberts. He goes into depth on the whole economics of modern food production.

            Things such as the relentless drive for lower prices driven by the large grocery chains. How this has caused producers to do everything to produce ever cheaper wholesale prices. Pollution and environmental degradation is rampant in all food production – it costs too much, they will lose contracts. Poor working conditions and animal cruelty are also rampant for the same reason. So is outsourcing specialty farms to poor countries around the world for food export to North America, Europe, and wealthy Asian countries like Japan.

            Anyway, it’s a great perspective on modern food production. The price and volume spiral has gotten so out of control that even people in it don’t see how it can continue.

    • Trischa

      Perhaps the government’s role should be limited to insuring safe food, which may increase the price. This would, potentially, influence consumer choice.

      • Charlie

        If government’s primary regulatory role in the food industry should be to ensure safe food, then our government (US) is doing a woefully poor job – the percentage of the US population that will suffer from food-borne illness is tens of times that of any European country, and twice the rate of our nearest competitor. Unfortunately, that too can be tied to cheap food, since factory farming is the single greatest cause of contaminated food.

        I would contend, however, that the low prices of nutritionally empty food are not, by themselves, the issue. Instead, I think there is a complex group of socio-economic issues that play a role, including the relative prices of nutritionally empty vs. nutritionally rich foods, the still gender-defined roles family members play in food preparation and cleanup (combined with the rising incidence of working mothers), the sharp decline in domestic skills like meal-planning being taught to children (Home Economics has essentially disappeared from the American academic landscape, and children of busy parents often aren’t learning those skills at home), and a shift in values that places emphasis on volume over quality (this is true of everything in American life – food, housing, vehicles, fuel, work – you name it).

        In short, most American families don’t feel like they can afford, don’t have time for, and don’t know how to prepare healthier food options. Each of these issues could be addressed relatively easily on their own, but combined, they create a situation that is difficult to address (how do you get someone who doesn’t have time to cook to take a cooking class, and how would that person afford it?).

        Finally, I think Americans tend to view cooking as a chore (you have to go home first, it takes time to cook, then you have to clean-up, and all those ingredients are so intimidating). When food preparation is seen with dread or annoyance, entire families begin to look for ways to avoid it, which feeds right into our fast food culture. But again, how do you address that issue?

        • Michelle

          So well said. I agree it is a complex and multi-pronged problem, and yes a big part of it IS the lack of knowledge around cooking and the lack of joy around sitting down a table together and eating whole foods … But I also believe if there’s a will there’s a way – if people KNEW the connection b/ poor food choices and poor health, REALLY knew what their choices were doing to them, they maybe they’d make some changes.

    • Camille

      If we are subsidizing it (and we are) then perhaps it hard to tell what the true cost is since much of what it does cost is hidden. It would be interesting to find the amount we (as in our gov’t) paid out in corn and soy subsidies, divide that by each person and find the true cost of “cheap” food.

      (Excellent point, BTW!)

  • Jenna

    Hi! Love your blog. It’s an interesting question that you’ve raised. Being from Canada, I don’t find that food being cheap is an incentive to buy more of it or overeat, because, as you mentioned, food here is quite expensive. I have to question, though, whether food being relatively cheap (historically, even here) is the dominant factor in cultivating bad eating habits or encouraging overeating; it seems to me that there are cultural factors at play here as well. Though a low dollar value associated with large quantities of food seems to line up with the notion of valuing our food less.

    I wonder if being alienated from our food sources also has something to do with it?

    The question in relation to cheap (factory farmed) meat is even more pressing, as I have recently learned upon reading the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, as the practices employed in producing such cheap meat are abominable to say the least. So good choice on forgoing the bargain basement chicken, it’s frankly terrifying to be informed about where some of these shinily packaged, astonishingly priced foodstuffs are coming from.

  • michelle

    Be careful eating that kind of chicken. Life is too short and too cruel to eat animals that are kept inhumanely and you can bet cheap chicken is just that. I eat and feed my dogs meat but we use good meat purchased from our butcher who only deals with “right livelihood” type sources. Of course its expensive and thats why I do not eat it a lot and also (besides the fact that I love Chihuahuas) have tiny dogs as I could never afford to feed them right if they were bigger. Well the human food for dogs is another topic so I will stop there. Instead I want to say I love love LOVE your blog and direct many of my friends and clients (I teach Pilates) to it. Thanks!

  • Selby

    As a vegan who also makes a concerted effort to eat organic foods whenever possible, I completely agree. With the advent of (extremely) processed foods that have become more-and-more non-nutritious filler and more-and-more chemical additives and preservatives, something gets lost in the mix. Yes, people may be paying less for their food – but there seems to be a bit of a mental disconnect. I don’t know if many people stay daily cognizant of the notion that the less you pay for a food stuff, the more likely it is to have a lesser nutritional value. The question then becomes, “how much of a bargain are you actually getting?”

    My grocery shopping trips always take a little extra time, but I always read the label of everything I buy. Ideally, what I’m aiming for is a list of ingredients of a dozen or less and if I can’t readily pronounce and identify everything used as an ingredient then I don’t buy it. (This of course goes beyond the obvious staples of fruits, vegetables, legumes, herbs, etc. wherein no “ingredient list” is necessary.) Yes it takes more time and more money, but I know everything that goes into my body and that everything that I consume is as healthy as possible.

    • Patricia

      My 2 Cents: As one who also used to say, “I always read the label of everything I buy.”, I’ve recently changed my eating and buying habits to those whole foods that come from the aisles without boxes or or packaging, and definitely no labels as much as possible–that’s my litmus test. Granted, I do end up buying some frozen vegetables, crackers, and Jello, etc. that’s manufactured. However, my goal is to ensure that I’m getting “live” food or as close to that without my raising it. And, I’m finding that there is less cooking, preparing and fussing over it to get it on the table. For my part, I ask myself the question, “Do I want to pay for the food or the health care that’s required for the processed, boxed and labeled food with ingredients I cannot even pronounce?” Here’s to sane consumption.

  • Belinda @zomppa

    Great piece and thanks for raising more awareness about cost of food. It certainly is a tricky question. Somehow we were led to believe that while things like gas prices should keep increasing, food should always cost 5 for $1.00. However, many times, this “food” is really not food. Meanwhile, frank food somehow has been accused of being elitist food that only the wealthy can afford. We need to keep challenging this current system.

    • Michelle

      Agree. There is nothing elitist about wanting (and deserving) to eat nutrient rich food, and it’s tragic that the “wholesome eating” movement has somehow been seen as a trend only available to those well off. The less that is done to food, the more it costs – how did that happen??

      We CAN sell food that is healthier but it may cost a bit more (fewer preservatives, higher quality ingredients), and that’s not a bad thing – we WILL be able to afford it, once we acknowledge that it means taking the potato chips out of the shopping cart …

  • Jana

    I’ve changed my whole mindset this past year. I’m all about quality now. I would rather buy one pound of grass fed beef than 2 pounds of regular meat. I would rather eat Kerrygold Butter than factory tasteless butter. I was so used to going for the cheapest tasteless stuff that I forgot that food could be rich and amazing. And when it’s rich and nutrient dense, you need far less of it to feel satisfied. Lovely post my dear.

    • Jana

      And really, don’t you agree that eating whole foods and lot’s of vegis is much cheaper than buying the packaged/processed stuff.

    • Michelle

      I completely agree that eating rich, whole, wholesome food is SO much more satisfying and leads to far less actual eating! I strongly believe that’s it’s the combination of both the better quality of the food itself as well as greater awareness of the fact that you DID spend money on it, and therefore it is to be savored and valued. I, like you, only eat “expensive” local grass-fed beef, but I eat small portions of it. I only eat local pasture raised eggs, but I they are so rich that I can only eat one! (vs my usual two of the more bland low-priced eggs).

    • Andrea

      Amen Sista! A local man tests the brix in the food he purchases and has experimented with his family. He uses a refractometer and has found that the more nutrient rich the food, the less they consume! Very interesting…

      • Michelle

        I admit I had to look up the meaning of “brix” – a measure of the level of sugar content, but now that I know what it means, I agree!! I find it very true for eggs as well, when I eat factory produced eggs (from a factory raised chicken) I need two eggs to get the same feeling of fullness that I get from ONE egg from a pasture raised, orange-yolked chicken’s egg!

        • Andrea

          EXACTLY! One thing I thought interesting is that he said it’s not aways the organic produce that has a higher brix content. He said it’s related to the nutrient content of the soil in which the produce is grown. Typically yes, the organic is better, but the soil has to be replenished via fertilization regardless of it being organic or not. He also said the higher the brix content the better the flavor of the produce – so if it tastes good, eat it!

  • Gary

    It’s all the modern day version of – Let them eat cake!

  • Régina

    I live in Canada but am originally from Germany and find Canadian food incredibly cheap, as do my parents when they visit. Especially meat is cheap – and of incredibly low quality.

    I wont say anymore about factory farming as pertaining to the abuse of animals, or about the low nutritional quality of our food stuffs since that has already more than adequately been touched upon.

    One consequence of factory farming that is often overlooked is that the work has become so disgusting and low paid that we don’t find workers willing (or even financially able) to do it and have to rely on migrant workers who live and work in appealing conditions for lousy pay. And I am convinced that it is in “our” interest that the living conditions in Latin America don’t get better so that we’ll always have these cheap workers.

    The second point I often observe is that most people have forgotten how to really cook (and here I am speaking of my village where lots of people are in their “golden years”, it is even worse for younger persons) and so have become reliant on at least partially prepared food. That is a lot more expensive than cooked from scratch and ironically this cheap food makes a big dent in their budgets. As well I think it is a lot easier to throw out left-overs since we didn’t invest much labour in it’s preparation. More garbage for the whole society and more cost for the individual.

    And a wholly personal idea: I can’t help but wonder whether this glut of cheap food didn’t make us more passive in our whole life. When I talk to older persons here about their childhood there are always stories about the mother who had a garden and cooked and canned and knit socks and sewed clothing and quilts – without a washer/dryer and often on a wood stove . Today even non-working women at home have no time for half of these things, and I believe it is because we have not learned how to keep busy and how to manage our work the way one learns to do while cooking and washing up.

    That being said I know that we all do what we can, and I don’t want to imply that women today are lazy or oughtn’t work outside the house (ask me how much I cooked while working full-time, or better not!).
    There’d be a lot more to say of course. I just hope I made myself reasonably clear.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking blog, and thanks to all the commentators who make this even more interesting.

    • Michelle

      Thanks Regina for your thoughts. Agree very much with you. I do think, though, that in the past 10 years there has been a swing toward women (and men) taking a far greater interest in cooking and learning about food, but there is still a long way to go and yes, a big part of people NOT going further on the cooking front is simply that it IS so easy to reach for the prepared foods!

      There is so much that we lose when we don’t put care into what we buy and eat – the nutritional component for sure, but also the gift of cooking for others, and the gift of putting something into ourselves that we know is deeply nourishing on ALL levels …

    • Camille

      I’m in my mid 30’s with 2 little ones at home. I’m also home full time. My mother pretty much cooked out of a box. I had no idea until I was about 23 that au gratin potatoes were not a creation of Betty Crocker.

      I have totally re-created the way I cook. I make everything from scratch. I purchase ingredients, not dinner. I haven’t bought bread in years. I will occasionally buy things I could make (ice cream, jarred tomatoes, etc) because sometimes I do need the convenience. I spend hours cooking each week and I totally understand why women in the 60’s wanted to shed their aprons and get out of the house. But I’m not sure anyone had any idea what the true cost of canned creamed soups, biscuits in a tube, and TV dinners would be. I see my way of life as investment in my family’s future so I don’t mind the hard work. But I can see why the turn was made to convenience food.

      • fifty

        Loved your comments, Camille. It’s good to hear someone acknowledge both the difficulties as well as the joys of providing homemade nutritious food for their families. I (and my husband) are both retired and try to cook a fair amount from scratch (we have 2 teen-aged kids). We grow chickens for food and chickens for eggs. We have a garden.

        But it would be incredibly time consuming, and, frankly, burdensome to think of cooking all from scratch, like my Mom’s generation did in the 60’s. I’ve known women who grew up in the 30’s and 40’s and were housewives. Many did, indeed, find it awfully hard, very burdensome, and not necessarily fulfilling to spend many hours 7 days a week working on feeding their families.

        I think part of the answer is to not make such complicated food. Have whole fruit for snacks, make simple stews that last for 2-3 dinners, basic hot cereal, toast, or eggs for breakfast. And P,B, & J is a great easy lunch, nutritious too, if one uses whole grain bread low sugar jam and natural (no sugar or junk added) peanut butter.

        Also, I think a big part of the answer is for men to become as responsible for food and eating as women. Most of us, even single people, have lived significant parts of our lives with the woman of the house responsible (or mostly responsible)for feeding the household.

        • Camille

          Excellent point about men pitching in! We are just getting to the point where we’re looking at how my husband can help out more with the cooking. I do try to schedule two meals on the grill a week — he does the grilling! Once our children are older, they will also be responsible for one meal each during the week. I think this is especially important for my son to learn.

        • Michelle

          I totally agree about your point of not making overly complicated foods. If you buy quality ingredients, you can do very little to them and make an extraordinary meal. People often ask me how often I cook — does sauteing fennel in butter with a little salt count as cooking? And tossing a fillet of salmon, with a simple 3 ingredient marinade, under the broiler for 2 minutes..does that count as cooking? B/c that was the delicious dinner I “cooked” last night …

          • fifty

            Say, Michelle. Why don’t you have a section in your new recipe area for just simple meals? Let’s say, no more than 5 ingredients (including spices!)or 3 ingredients and 3 spices, or something like that. And no more than 2 preparation steps (for example, shred and chop, or slice and pan fry)?

          • Michelle

            Thanks for the suggestion – I think you’ll find that most recipes I create are pretty simple, but I appreciate you letting me know you want to see MORE of those really simple ones. The key for simple cooking is good quality ingredients, but even more importantly is simply LEARNING that kale with a little coconut oil tastes divine.

  • Steve

    Great article Michelle. Food can be treated cheaply and when not seen for the resource that it is, over consumption, waste, and the ‘more food for less money’ mentality can be the result. On one hand, I feel bad that our society has to swim through the ocean full of marketing, (especially that is unconscionably targeted at kids) just to do something as innocent as eating. Then again, if you try to get to know a little more about where your food comes from, and the hard working people who are out there doing it the right way, all the marketing in the world is ineffective. Now the sweet potato and black bean enchiladas are going down. Thank you Michelle

    • Michelle

      The marketing component is indeed a big part of it …. if farmers (especially the small ones!) had the budgets that the big packaged goods co’s had, imagine how different our eating habits – and health might be….

  • Sonya

    The French seem to have it right…have 2-3 spectacular bites of the best chocolate cake…but don’t eat then whole cake! The first 2-3 bites are where all the enjoyment is anyway!

    The problem in a relatively young “consumerist” society is you’re definied by what you buy – if you can buy more, eat more, consume more then you must somehow be “worth” more! I live in China and see that everyday! Changing the mentality of a nation is tough….France is 1200 years old. The US may have a ways to go…but talking about it like you do in your blog is a great way to start!

    • Michelle

      Thanks ! Agree very much that this attitude of more is more! is a major problem, and I’m not sure how that will be easily changed. Speaking of France, word on the street is that the waist lines of the French are starting to expand as well (though they still have a long way to go to catch up with Americans). When I was there in May, there was a “Subway” restaurant going up right next to a beautiful, refined cheese shop…

    • Michelle

      Thanks ! Agree very much that this attitude o

  • Colleen O’Reilly

    Recently I went out to eat with a friend at a local, one-of-a-kind restaurant that we had assumed also carried local, fresh ingredients. We ordered a few vegetarian appetizers to split, again–wrongly–assuming that between the two of us it would amount to a small dinner. The portions were HUGE, and the quality just so-so. A dead giveaway that the ingredients were cheap–not local and/or organic at all. These facts combined turned us off from finishing our meal, and now I research every new restaurant that pops into town before venturing out.

    Meanwhile at my local farmers market, the only remaining produce in February is squash and a few root vegetables, and then a sampling of free-range meats/local dairy, and baked goods. Learning about what’s in season in my neck of the woods has jolted me into seeing how unnatural it is to be eating tropical citrus friut or tomatoes in the middle of winter in the midwest–let alone, be paying pennies for them.

    Thanks for asking these questions. Especially with the future of our food being in question, we need to stay aware and take back control of what we put in our bodies, as Selby pointed out, as well as buying locally and producing our own whenever possible.

    • Michelle

      There is no question that eating only what’s local is a tough one, but I’ve decided to pick my battles – With fruit, I only eat local, meaning in the winter I only eat apples and pears from the farmers mkt, by the time the first berries come in late April/May, it is like Christmas morning!!!! With vegs though, I make exceptions and buy kale, zucchini and others, b/c there is only so much root veg I can take!

      It’s interesting what you say about portion sizes – I now get turned off ANY resto who serves portions too large! as it’s a CLEAR indication that the ingredients were low quality .. give me less, nourish me more!

      • Ashley M

        Just a comment in regards to eating local – buying frozen, dried and/or jarred fruits and veggies is a good way to have local produce year round. I still eat berries in winter – I just buy them frozen. Also in the winter I tend to buy more frozen spinach and peas, jarred artichoke hearts and bell peppers, apple sauce, etc. If you have the space at home (I don’t – but my parents do!) you can also grow and preserve your own fresh produce. My Dad keeps giving us his fantastic tomato pickles of which he produced umpteen jars this summer.

        • Michelle

          Indeed! A frozen local berry in the N/East in Feb will still taste FAR better than a fresh blueberry from 3k miles away! Last summer I bought 5 pounds of local August tomatoes, froze them and have had them all winter for sauces and soup.

  • Andrea

    I really enjoyed this post. I am shocked by the data on the ERS page. Man, we are really living it up. It is wild to imagine if I had to spend 1/4 of my disposable income on food.

    I make a concerted effort to spend little on food while also eating healthily. Beans, legumes, lentils, etc., are some of my best friends. Meat is more of a seasoning in our household than a starting player. I am against food subsidies and artificial price controls.

    Thanks again for writing this.

  • K-mom

    I live in Arizona and can tell you Basha’s isn’t even that big of a grocery store here- try shopping at a Fry’s Marketplace, easily triple the size of Basha’s! At least Fry’s is (slowly) expanding their holistic foods section.

    What a great post. I couldn’t agree more- and thanks for all of your thought provoking posts- I am back on the wagon of preparing my families food from scratch as much as possible and buying organic as much as I can afford.

    • Michelle

      Thanks for noting this! It’s funny you mention Fry’s because I saw ads for them in the local paper and talk about serious price discounts! Living in NYC, we simply don’t ever see prices that low for anything, or stores that big! Ever!

    • wildwildwest

      I left Arizona years ago, is Smitty’s still there? I remember, when I first went to Smitty’s I was shocked to see a sign at the door that said “please check your weapons at the front desk”…

      • Michelle

        Ha!! So funny you say that because though I don’t know Smitty’s, I was at a restaurant with my parents and there was a sign on the door that said, “No Firearms Allowed”. Someone needs to tell them that that does NOT set a good tone for the guests!

      • K-mom

        Nope, Smitty’s was bought out by Fry’s. Fry’s is also the same thing as Kroger’s. :)

        • wildwildwest

          So who owns who? Here in Albuquerque, we don’t have Kroger’s but we have Smith’s, which is owned by Kroger’s. Soon all of these stores will be owned by one big company! Yikes! Then watch our choices!

          • Steve

            @wildwildwest This might help. It is a chart that shows the major corporate ownership in the organic food industry,although not the conventional sector. Good luck.

  • Linda | Garden Betty

    The politics of cheap food are too complicated to go into, but I will say that our culture has a big part in the over-buying/over-eating mentality.

    As Americans we live in the “land of plenty” as you say, and we relish our ability to own plenty, too. Our culture thrives on bigger TVs, bigger homes, just MORE stuff in general. It has become a sign of success to have a lot you can show off.

    This mentality factors into food as well. We hear stories of starving children, and feel a sense of accomplishment and security when we’re able to feed our families plentifully without worrying about money and rationing. Having a big meal in front of you, and more where that came from, is reassuring even though it’s cheap and devoid of nutrition. More + cheap = better, at least economically. And people often overlook the true value of food in favor of economics. We want a lot, we want a good deal, and we know we can get an even better deal in our free market.

    There are also many people who live a lifestyle of modern convenience, and just don’t have the time to read labels. In their stomachs, it’s all the same food. They’re hungry, tired, and if they can buy it at the chain supermarket after work, it’s good enough for them.

    I wish more people would care about their food, but I can’t blame them either. You read one thing about food, and another contradicts it. You spend beaucoup bucks buying what you think is good whole food, only to find out it has GMOs, or labeled “natural” but not certified organic, or the cage-free chicken didn’t actually wander out of its cage. Sometimes, it seems like you can’t eat anything at all these days!

    • Michelle

      It’s true that mixed messages and confusion is a big part of people’s frustration with shopping and eating – first soy is good, then it’s bad, meat is good and then it’s bad, organic is a sham, wait no it’s not … Many people are so confused by the messages that they say, if product x isn’t going to kill me, then I’ll eat it . Problem is, too much of product X, IS killing us (if product xi is a high carb, high sugar, processed food). So I am extremely sympathetic to the confused shopper and eater – people want to find convenient, packaged food that is ALSO good for them – sadly and far too often the convenience and the health part, do not go together …

  • Alyssa

    Yes, great post. There’s so much to say about this – a complex issue indeed.

    I think the points you bring up involve more than just food. These days our culture seems to value cheap abundance in so much of what we consume. See the current landscape of our communities as evidence of this – streets with no sidewalks lined with big box stores stocked mile high with aisles of great deals on all things made of plastic you’ll need to replace in about a year.

    At this point (unfortunately) it’s not so surprising to me that a place like Basha’s is selling 2 two-pound packs of chicken for the price of one; but I am perplexed by why we continue to choose such low-quality items, even if they are cheap. Is it really a deal if the chicken you purchase tastes like cardboard and comes from an animal that was tortured during its living days? I can only imagine that many people have not actually experienced what real, whole, ‘good’-sourced food tastes like. Because once you do, you realize that so much of what is sold (especially in those center aisles) of the supermarket can hardly be classified as food.

    Where we live there are a number of locally owned establishments that sell really good, high-quality food for a premium – and people wait in lines that wind around the block to be able to purchase it. No doubt, you can spend a good portion of your income on food when you’re making a point to choose organic, grass-fed, local, slow-food (I’d estimate that we approach that 25% mark each month). But let’s not forget that some of the most wholesome, healthy and humane foods are also the cheapest – and with some skill can be some of the most delicious: good old rice and beans, anyone?

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  • Kate

    I never really thought about our industrial food system when in a short amount of time I had the privileges of reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, watching Food, Inc. and buying some really bad BOGO pork at my local supermarket – all within a short amount of time. I had always anticipated BOGO pork chops – until the last ones I brought home reeked of ammonia and soap. They went straight into the trash. Now, when I do shop at the supermarket, its always “Why is this on sale? If its about to go bad do I really want it?” Sometimes all it takes is a horrible smell and a visceral reaction.

    • Michelle

      Indeed if food looks “off” run! Often sales are used simply to lure shoppers in, to get them to buy other non-sale items, but I agree that I would far rather pay more knowing the food was raised with quality methods, methods that would make that food an unlikely candidate to ever go on sale! The only time I ever see a “sale” at my farmers market is an hour before closing time when the farmers don’t want to haul any boxes of perishable blueberries back with them – that’s when I buy 5 pints, knowing half will be eaten before I even get home…

  • Dionne

    Michelle, another great topic and some really interesting insights raised by everyone.

    Someone raised a point earlier about how (not) knowing the sources of our food, could influence our choices. How often do I hear ‘I can’t eat it if I can recognise it’s a chicken/lamb/fish’ etc.? Personally I like to know exactly what I’m eating, and enjoy it even more if I know that the lamb had some quality grazing time or a fish actually swam in open sea and comes from a sustainable source. We all need to be more conscious and respectful of what we put in our bodies.

    All said after enjoying another batch of homemade yoghurt – recipe and motivation courtesy of this site. 😉

    • Michelle

      I definitely can relate to the squeamish factor of being reminded by say, a pigs foot on your plate, or a fish eye staring up at you, that you are eating something that was once alive, but i agree – it’s IMPORTANT to be aware that the food was once alive (even the plants we eat were once flourishing in a field until we snatched them, up!)

      This awareness makes us not only much more respectful of the food itself but far more conscious of the quality of the life that food had before it arrived in our mouth … (Which has everything to do with its ability to nourish us.)

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  • dawn

    I have been to those super stores that specialize in bulk shopping and I agree the sizes are enormous. But also you have to kinda figure in the fact that a lot of these super stores are providing for emergency restaurant and business uses… Sure these businesses have suppliers that truck in their orders every week but even the best “inventory taker” misses an item, or doesn’t count on a special being as popular as it turns out. And although today’s family unit has become smaller over the years, people buy enough so they don’t have to go out every single week to go shopping… Stocking up their pantry.
    As far as the quality vs. the quantity issue… Quality is not what people are looking for in the bulk store… They are looking for a deal and a convenience because not only can they get their soda and chips there but they can get their light bulbs and even check out some big screen tvs if they have time to browse…Quality products are worth seeking out in smaller specialty stores. And if you have the time and the means, they are well worth the effort. Its just getting out of the super store if you don’t need to be there… It isn’t always that great of a deal if you take into account the waste factor

    • Michelle

      It’s a great point you make – these huge stores are NOT geared to the high end foods, for that you DO have to seek out the smaller stores. But the reality is that 90% (pick a high number) of the food consumed in this country IS bought at large stores and not small health food stores or farmers markets. So for many people these big stores are the only place they DO shop and therefor are never even introduced to the idea of higher quality foods, or introduced to the idea that maybe you don’t NEED to buy a monster bag of Tostitos that requires an entire grocery bag of it’s own, to carry it home!

      • fifty

        Also, large families, those with 4 or more kids, really shop at places that have bulk foods at low prices.

        And before some people condemn large families, those are the ones that will populate this country. People with no children, or even just one child, are the ones that will not be, so much, part of the future.

        All large families that I’ve known shop at the cheapest large chain stores. They don’t care about local farms, organic, or whatever. They care about volume and price.

        What is the answer? Don’t know. But ignoring the largest source of children for the future, doesn’t work.

  • Amy

    I agree with the overall tone of the post, but I don’t see anything wrong with buying in bulk. As long as one has a working freezer, it often makes more sense to buy in bulk. Granted, I too have quit buying supermarket meats… we’ve gone vegetarian, except for when we eat out, and have begun to locally source as much of our food as we can (hat tip to Joel Salatin). But you may get your wish soon, with inflating food prices. All signs point to actual inflation now rising by double digits year over year.

    • Michelle

      I buy in bulk all the time! But here’s the difference, I am all for buying in bulk when the quality of that “bulk” food is high. To simply buy large quantities of low quality food, is where I have a hard time …

      If food prices go up, my great concern is it’s going to be categories like meat, veg, fruits etc that go up fastest … there is such strong pressure to keep the price of crops such as corn and soy low (the crops that fuel our junk food industry and fuel the feed of factory farmed animals), that I fear that these are the ingredients (and their resulting foods) that will remain the lowest priced.

      • David from Toronto

        I think it’s what you buy in bulk, and if you are really going to use it. Personally, if I buy to much, I am likely to let it spoil.

        But going to a good bulk store can eliminate excess packaging and cut your costs. It sounds like you’re on top of things.

  • meezermom

    So much good information, and while it seems there couldn’t be much to add you’ve hit on one of my ‘soap box’ issues and can’t help myself!

    People can afford better food – I do. I think it comes down in part to educating people to understand this. I make my living as an artist and you would probably be surprised at how little I live on. Yet I would rather buy less food that is of good quality than huge amounts of cheap bad tasting food. As was mentioned its way more satisfying and we seem to need less to keep us happy and to make us healthy as well.

    When it comes down the confusion of what natural food is really good for us or bad for us – soy for example – my rule of thumb is too much of anything is bad – all things in moderation and a variety (of chemical free) natural foods are what we need to live healthy lives.

    I love that someone said meat is an accent item at their house – it is at ours as well. A small amount of meat added to rice, veggies, beans etc – makes a good meal – is more interesting both in taste and presentation and better for you.

    Packaged foods make me crazy. People tell me they buy them because they’re in a hurry. I don’t get this – it doesn’t take any less time to make a packaged food than it does to put it together yourself – adding your own fresh spices, your own rice or noodles, your own seasonings to meat. Okay so you have to chop vegetables, but then you’re actually getting real vegetables with nutrients.

    I agree with the person who said people, overall, don’t know how to cook anymore. And quite often they have a mind set against it. For instance I recently had a conversation with someone who was using the dried packaged seasoning for tacos – I explained to them this was basically just Chili powder, Cayenne pepper, Cumin, powered tomato, garlic salt and onion salt– most of which they already had in their kitchen (as well as some strange sounding preservatives and I’m guessing some corn derivative). They told me adding the natural ingredients to the meat didn’t taste the same. So I made them some of my version of taco meat (I simmer the meat in fresh salsa with cilantro for the tomato, always use fresh garlic and onion, good fresh Chili powder and Cumin – I don’t use much salt, but a pinch of good quality salt could be added) – they were surprised how good the tacos were. Oh and I only use grass fed beef – very important factor.

    But how does one get past the mind-set unless they can get the hands-on experience?

    I used to do cooking demonstrations each year at our local high school during the vegan cooking segment. (I used to be vegan, now I mix it up with good quality meat). The school had a stocked cupboard – yet I had to bring everything myself, including spices, because so much of what was in the cupboard was packaged, processed foods and ancient spices. At least they were doing a vegan segment, but are they really teaching young adults to cook?

    I also read Omnivore’s Dilemma and saw Food Inc. Even before I read/saw these I’d stopped buying processed chicken and beef because they had a chemical taste – nasty. I buy only free range chicken and eggs; and grass-fed beef now. Quite often when I have people over for dinner they think I’ve done something special with the preparation to get such a good flavor from the food – even when I make hamburger patties with nothing added.

    I love it when they ask me for the recipe! LOL!

    I also read Barbra Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle where she attempts to buy only locally grown in season foods. Even BK couldn’t quite do it all the time, but as you said Michelle one must pick their battles. (I freeze fresh berries in the summer so I can add them to my diet in the winter along with the apples.)I think it’s important to buy locally as much as possible for many reasons – our health, lessening the environmental impact by not allowing the food to be shipped great distances, and supporting local farmers.

    I took a trip to England/Scotland several years ago. My family and friends warned I wouldn’t be able to get any fresh fruits and vegetables while I was there. (I live in a rather backward used to be farming community). I found that every town I visited even the small ones had a ‘green grocer’- a local vegetable market operating all year around. Why don’t we have this in the US! I live in Michigan and right now all of our tomatoes are shipped in from Canada. Something is wrong with this picture! Doesn’t Canada have winters at least as harsh as Michigan for growing things – maybe worse in some areas?

    I keep reading that there is going to be a food shortage in the US, partly because of the demand for food, and partly because growing crops for bio-fuel has become more profitable for big farmers. It seems to me all of this, as well as the importance of buying good quality food is even more reason to establish and support local farmers, as well as cut down on our glutinous habits. Again a big part of this comes down to educating people.

    I’m really glad you brought this up Michelle. I agree blogs like this are taking a step in the right direction. We must do our best to lead by example and spread the word.

    BTW Michelle: I too make my dog’s food. My recipe was given to me by my Vet. I started doing it because of the pet food scare and then found it was actually cheaper than buying cans of processed food even with good quality meat. What did dogs eat before people created canned food? I have a Rhodesian Ridge Back – not a small dog. I use good quality hamburger, brown rice, carrots and peas (mashed veggies–don’t tell her she would never eat it if she knew there were veggies in it). I make enough for one week ahead and heat it up each night. It makes her feel so special! Now if only I could get my meezers (two Siamese cats) to eat it – they think if it doesn’t come in a can it’s beneath them! (My animals are all rescue babies. Anyone wondering how a Rhodesian (Lion hunter) can adapt to living peacefully with cats?)

    • Lisa G

      I have a Rhodesian Mix who it took 6 months of training, patience , and muzzles to get him to accept my two yorkie-chihuahuas that I adopted from my daughter as puppies but now we’re one big happy family :)

      • meezermom

        LOL! Yes ours took much time and patience as well – we had no idea Rhodesians hate cats (and small animals)when we agreed to adopt her. We found out later, after we had to run interference on a regular basis for a couple months and decided to look for help on websites about the breed (we got her as a puppy so she was still pretty small at that time). When we read on one site after another ‘do not put this dog in a house with cats!’ we worried we might have to find her a new home – a hard thing to do as we were already totally in love with her. Fortunately before it got to that she finally figured out it made Mom and Dad unhappy when she chased the cats around the house. She’s such a good dog now. She’s five and quite often sleeps with one or the other of the cats curled up next to her. They walk over her, bat her tail, stick their nose into her food dish, and she doesn’t seem to even mind. She acts like the cats are her babies – she’s the house moderator and protector – she takes these jobs seriously. She’s a really great dog!

    • Ashley M

      This is funny – I just made tacos last night and was trying to show my husband (who is a good but inexperienced cook) how to season the meat. When I told him that what I used was the same stuff you would read on the back of a taco seasoning packet at the store, he says “oh so I can just buy the packet!” Ugh. So much for my lesson.

      I agree with everything you wrote! A soap box issue for me as well. Also, my husband is Sri Lankan and you might be interested to know that dogs and cats there eat the same food the people do. My in-laws put their table scraps out for the stray animals in the area after every meal, so these animals are on a brown rice and mixed vegetable and meat curry diet. Likewise people who own pets including several of my husband’s friends in Sri Lanka, feed their animals the same foods they eat.

      • meezermom

        Yes that is funny! I made Taco’s last night too with meat left over from a roast, which is probably why it was on my mind.
        I give your husband credit for wanting to cook! It’s strange quite often ‘guys’ are better cooks than women, but many times they’re unwilling to try.
        IMHO my taco seasoning tastes better than that packaged ‘stuff’ and I know it’s healthier. At the onset it seems the packaged seasonings are easier, but once one begins to use and experiment with various spices it becomes almost second nature.
        My husband too is experimenting and becoming quite a good cook. At first he was uneasy about the fact I rarely measure anything (not even rice to water for cooking – but I’ve been at it a while). Generally I just add a little of this or that, let it blend a few minutes and do a taste test. Then I can adjust it accordingly.
        I love trying new spices and new things. I think through trial and error one learns the real art of cooking. I still make flops sometimes, but the adventure is worth the price!

        I know there are some ingredients which are not good for dogs, but keeping that in mind I think they should be allowed real food too!

  • Ashley M

    People balk at how much I spend on food each month – around $550 for groceries PLUS an additional $300 eating out for 2 people. But I can’t think of anything more important to spend money on than my health and what I eat determines my health.

    At age 11 after a health class studying food menus, I said goodbye to all fast food forever, at 24 after reading An Omnivore’s Dilemma, I gave up factory-farmed meat. Now pregnant at 27, I only eat food that I *know* is made from ingredients I can stand behind. I reap the karmic fruits of my decisions in the healthy baby girl I am carrying, my low blood pressure and cholesterol, and healthy physique.

    • Michelle

      Right on. I believe strongly, as well, in the emotional and spiritual impact that eating well has on us – an impact which then effects our entire PHYSICAL being – and the being of all things growing inside us (including babies!)

  • Laura

    I love this post and how it ignites so many opinions / questions / concerns. I’ll just put this out there. My grandparents used to live in Montana. They gardened and grew most of their food. They got meat from a neighbor who would give them half a cow.

    They were healthy. Then they decided they wanted to live in a warmer climate. They now live in Mesa, AZ on a fixed income and shop exclusively at Fry’s, Basha’s or whoever has the lowest prices and the best deals. They eat some fresh fruit when it’s cheap, but mostly they live off of factory meats, white bread and other things that come in boxes, cans or jars. They’ve been living like this for about 20 some years. In that time, my grandmother has has breast cancer re-occur 3 times. She’s still getting radiation treatment. She is permanently on blood thinners and has to wear compression stockings. She’s having cataract surgery today. She can’t walk more than an quarter mile without having to sit down. She’s 50 pounds overweight or more. My grandfather had a tumor the size of a football removed form his left thigh 2 years ago. He, also, is having cataract surgery soon. I believe he is on blood pressure medication and some other things.

    These medical expenses are not theirs, but every American’s. Everyone is paying for my grand parents and countless others to age un-gracefully. I believe it’s mostly (not entirely) due to what they’re eating. They believe they can’t afford anything better. And, what’s interesting, is that even though they grew up and lived on high quality food before, my grandmother now doesn’t know what the difference between Basha’s ‘brown bread’ and a handmade loaf of sprouted/fermented sourdough made in a traditional way. My heart just aches because we no longer live close to one another. There’s no community or family to teach one another about how to live better; there’s no community to take care of each other.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I would gladly pay 4 times / 8 times / 10 times as much for high quality food. I want to know the farmer that raised my cow, or grew my kale. I want to support people and live healthier, without medication. And I would love to age with grace and quietude. Life is so beautiful outside the fluorescent lights of the big box experience, and alternatives exist for everyone.

    • Michelle

      So beautifully said. What’s unfortunate is that millions like your grandparents do not know HOW to eat differently or know the extent to which their choices are truly affecting their health. They have been so conditioned by marketing and low prices, that it is completely understandable and rational that they make the choices they do. If we raised the prices on low nutrient foods, and used that money to begin a massive national campaign to properly educate people about the correlation between food choice and health, I believe it’s a start.

  • Kristin Nicholas

    Very well written post and enjoying all the comments. My husband and I raise pasture raised lamb in western Massachusetts. We market it through local farmers markets (including winter ones!). Depending on the market, customers either walk away from our prices or they happily pay $7.95/lb. for our ground lamb and stew meat. Every time I price our packages of lamb, I think about the animal who has been born and raised in our fields and who has perished to be sold as meat. I also think of the complexities of how much an animal’s life is worth to those who eat it and to us as farmers. It is a mind-boggling conversation that goes around in my head, especially when you are raising animals for meat to be sold direct to the consumer. I know we give our animals the best life possible and that the reason animals were put on the earth is to pro-create. I also know how hard we work to produce a quality product and to treat the earth correctly and to leave it for future generations of farmers. I appreciate your blog, efforts and thoughts. Thanks for bringing up an interesting question and food for thought.

    • Michelle

      I would love to try your meat one day! I feel the same as you – have we so little respect for the food we eat (including the animals) that we believe that costs should be as low as possible even for the highest quality? In every other area of our life we seem to agree that we “get what we pay for” – a low priced car may be 10 years old with 10 dents to go along with it, a less expensive home might be right on the highway with a leaking roof, but when it comes to food, we have this idea that ALL our food should be cheap because it’s all the same! When people see a slab of beef they can’t tell by looking at it (unlike the car or house) the quality of the meat, and so they (understandably) have little desire to pay more … Much of this challenge is around education. But it’s a tough one, since looks alone, are highly deceiving…

    • Ashley M

      Kristin I’m sure I buy your lamb :) Thanks for giving us these great options!

  • Cherie H.

    I agree with a lot of the comments posted. I am mostly a vegetarian that eats a little bit of organic chicken and lately less and less seafood (due to sustainability and the same issues described). The film Food, Inc. was a very powerful motivator for me to go to all organic meats when I did purchase them for my family. I really now think about not only where my food comes from but also the environmental impact of what I am purchasing. I agree with Michelle that more is not better (quality over quantity)! I exercise a lot and have a lot of interest in fitness and nutrition. I have made the decision to eat a much lower protein diet for the reasons I described against the advice of a lot of trainers and nutritionists. I feel great and advocate a lower protein, PLANT BASED diet (organic, of course!). Thanks for this wonderful posting, Michelle!

    • Michelle

      I too eat a lot of plants, but my one “concern” about the message around decreasing protein intake is that I strongly believe that this is leading many to overeat. Protein fills you up, and is a vital nutrient and I eat it in some form at every meal. Many people when they lower the protein, substitute it with refined carbs and sugar, simply because they are hungry all the time! If I eat eggs for breakfast, chicken for lunch etc – I’m not hungry until hours afterwards. For me personally, protein (in moderation) is critical for my health. But one has to find what works for their OWN body. Good for you for finding your food groove!

      • Cherie H.

        I actually totally agree with you! I attempted a vegan diet and found I was constantly HUNGRY! I have to watch my glucose levels (tendency to be high) so I am careful to balance all meals, and make sure I get enough healthy protein and fat. Even if it means balancing slivered almonds, ground flax seed and raw wheat germ with a bowl of fresh fruit. I gave up refined sugars and carbs long before I even attempted a lower protein diet. I had trainers telling me I needed 125-150 grams of protein a day! I feel great after eating a meal that is wholesome and balanced but also feel energized by the ones packed with veggies, fruits and legumes with the protein present but cast in a supporting role.

        • Michelle

          The other issue with eating that level of protein (125+ grams) – which I agree is excessive, is that the people (and many trainers) who DO eat this level of protein do so by consuming protein powders. Which I highly discourage. Soy protein isolate (one of the most common ones) has been extracted from the whole soy bean and are increasingly being viewed as dangerous to our health at high levels. Eating pure protein in the form it came (meat, fish, lentils etc) is the ONLY way we should be getting protein. The extracted forms of protein are foreign and dangerous to our bodies -especially when consumed at such high levels.

      • fifty

        I so agree, Michelle.

  • Marti

    I agree with every last word of what you wrote. I wanted to share this as well.

    I was at the doctor last week and found this in the waiting room. I was reading it while waiting and started talking with the nurse about it. She was quick to object, saying that nutritious food IS cheap. We got into a bit of debate (I brought-up food subsidies, e.g., broccoli costing more than frozen pizza)… but she had a point. Beans and rice ARE cheap… but poor people in the USA don’t eat that anymore. Poor people eat a supersize meal.

    I wonder how we get back to a place where everyone cooks? Is it possible to go back?

    • Michelle

      Let’s look at it as moving forward!!! Moving into an era where cooking is NOT drugery, and eating well is understood to be directly correlated with good health! I also believe the medical community is FAR too quick to prescribe drugs rather than working with the patient on diet. I feel that when ANYONE is given a drug for any disease that is either caused by or worsened by poor diet (eg diabetes, heart disease) they MUST be required to spend x amount of time working with a nutritionist.

      The diseases in society caused by weight-issues, the diseases that are costing us billions in health care, are not only curable by diet but preventable by diet! THAT is the message that needs to get out there and that is what needs to motivate people to cook!

  • Tess

    What a great question! It seems there’s a huge price gap between super-sized supermarket food and local, organic food. We live in California, where there is an abundance, but even here we spend at least 50% of our income on purchasing organic food, and we don’t even eat meat. Maybe that’s the problem: the highest quality food is simply cost prohibitive for so many people.

    • Gary

      50% of your income on food? And the other 50% on shelter, clothing, medical, insurance, travel, electricity, etc. on and on?

  • brent

    If would could only see the true cost of food, grass fed beef and 5 dollar/doz. neighbor grown eggs would be a deal. After farm subsidies on corn, wars to secure cheap oil based fertilizers, and the research cost granted to the universities to build G.M.’s and etc. get added back in cheap food just isn’t. brent

    • Michelle

      And don’t forget to add the cost of health care when we DO consume too much of this low-nutrient food!

  • Tammy

    I’ve been thinking of this lately as I’ve been shopping (don’t know why). It makes me suspicious if something is very inexpensive & I definitely question quality. I’d rather buy less, pay more and know that I’m getting my money’s worth (but not sure how to guarantee that either).

  • Tomas

    Lots of great observations about the quality of our food. I saw an early comment on the efficiency of American food production, which results in very cheap prices. As you fly over our country and look out the window, you see miles and mile and miles of agricultural land. And very few homes. It is mostly corporate farms, with a few hire hands doing the work as cheap as possible.
    I recently returned from eastern Europe. Flying east, into Munich Airport, I looked out of the jet and saw miles and miles and miles of farm land. And thousands of farmsteads, the homes and barns of thousands of farmers. I am guessing that each farm was about 20 acres. The result is thousands of people tied to the land, working their own land. Not so efficient as American agriculture I’m sure. Certainly the food produced will be more expensive. But is that so bad? (When I returned to the US, the first thing I noticed was how fat we are.)
    Several years ago, National Geographic magazine published a story on food found in kitchens around the world. There were photos of what a family would expect to eat during one week. The most un-appetizing was the picture of the American food…boxes and boxes of prepared foods, and a little bit of plastic wrapped meat. The best food? From those poor third world counries: nothing but grains, fruits, vegetables (lots of peppers) and fresh meat. We do have a lot to learn.
    Good topic Michelle

    • Michelle

      So true. I have joined a natural foods buying club in NYC where I’d say half the members are non American born. Why? Because these people have come to America from countries where they had access to and ate high quality natural foods! They come to America where they can’t find this food in the grocery store – and so they make it a priority to seek it out. And no they’re not 75 years old! Most of the members are 25 – 45.

      • meezermom

        Yes food co-ops, buying clubs are a good thing. We used to have several in our area. They were popular in the late 60’s through the mid 80’s – no I’m not 75 either LOL! But I am a child of the 60s. At one time my husband was this area’s regional manager for the Michigan Federation of Co-ops back in the hey-day of co-ops.

        At one time this was the only way to get organic foods (other than produce from a local farmer or growing it yourself) in our area. However, now this seems to have ‘gone out of fashion’ here. We must drive down to Ann Arbor to get to the closest one (over an hour away with no traffic) – needless to say we don’t do it often. When we do we stock up on the things we can’t get locally.

        This is so unfortunate because we were able to get good natural foods through the co-op, a portion of which came from Michigan farmers and the prices were relatively inexpensive. Most often cheaper than buying the same things at a grocery or health store. Even though everything came by the case, people shared cases, divided bags of grains, beans, dried fruits etc.

        Some of the co-ops we belonged to (we kept moving from one to another as they slowly dissolved) the members gathered together at a local church or community center the day the truck was scheduled to arrive, helped unload the truck and divide the food. It takes a good number of members to make it worthwhile for the delivery truck to come, as well as a number of clubs within a certain mile range for the truck route; which are a couple of the reasons why the co-ops one by one have gone the way of the dinosaur here – that and some sort of mind-set that food must come from a regular grocery store and have fancy wrappings.

        However, I feel this is a good solution for people who want quality food at a reasonable price – especially if one lives in a rural area. Each member only has to give up about one hour a month to make this happen (with the exception of the manager or organizer who also arranges the place to meet, collects (these days by computer) the order and sends it in; and oversees the splitting of cases, as well as pick-up of items).

        I would love to see a resurgence of food co-ops.

  • Jiggsy

    I live in Canada and am constantly reminded when I visit the US how much cheaper food is, no matter what it is, healthy or non healthy food. So many great points have been made re. what might be influencing this. The problems are multi layered. I think we’d agree the solution is not raising the price of food, but instead addressing all the other issues which cause the greater problems that result from cheap food.

    • Michelle

      True. And one of those key issues is creating a deeper awareness of the connection between what we eat and how we feel (ie our health). That is an ENORMOUS challenge when the temptation of low priced, low nutrient food is so high.

      One thing I think would help is to make nutrition labels easier to make sense of – for ex, why show grams of sugar on a cereal box, when no one knows what a gram looks like! We should put the # of teaspoons. If we were told on the box that there are 3 tsps of sugar in a small bowl of Froot Loops, that has MUCH more impact than “11 grams”.

      I also think it would be effective to have ads where people who are debilitated by severe diabetes (caused by excess sugar and refined carbs), talked about what a typical meal would be for them. If we are EVER going to reverse our health crisis, we HAVE to find a way to make people aware of how food affects their health … Ideas welcome!

      • fifty

        I think junk food can be addicting. Like the saying goes – modern food is too cheap, is too tasty, and is too convenient.

        It’s hard to wean oneself away when natural food may not even taste good to a sugar-salt-additive trained palate. It’s hard to wean oneself away when handing over the hard earned dollars. It’s hard to wean oneself away when one has to work at making the food, instead of just going thru the drive-up or opening the package.

  • Karen Ellis-Ritter

    I love that you brought this up. Factory farmed foods are cheaply made and therefore affordably sold in larger quantities. The dark side is these foods are toxic to our bodies and the environment. Due to the conditions and duress which these animals live under and the hormones, pesticides and antibiotics they are given, many chickens (in particular) have cancerous tumors at the time of slaughter, which are cut out of the meat and then this sickly meat is still packaged and sold.

    I have founded a non-profit called The Compassionate Farming Education Initiative, Inc. The aim is to shift agriculture in this country back to humane and sustainably farmed foods, for the protection of our bodies, animal welfare and the environment. We are doing this through educating and empowering people, rather than fighting the lobbyists. There is a great resources and recommended reading section on our site:

    If anyone has any questions, please feel free to contact me!


    • Michelle

      Thanks for sharing this Karen – and beautiful logo! If you have any resources or reading that specifically discusses how we can feed a planet with 6Bn people on it, in a way that still preserves the quality of the food (especially the meat), I’d love it if you could point me to it.

      I want to believe that we can extend this kind of humane treatment (incl no hormones and antibiotics) to ALL animals, but how can we do this and still feed 6 Bn people, many of whom (as their wealth grows, particularly in developing countires) are wanting more meat in their diet.

      • Karen Ellis-Ritter

        If people did not rely on meat products, the grain and water that is now used to produce our meat would be allocated to people; enough to feed our world 6 times over! I know that is not feasible at this point; people will eat meat. The way for us to have an abundance of food for the planet is to cut down on our consumption levels of meat products and introducing vegetarian options into our diets for supplementation. Many of the books on my recommended reading list address these concerns. In particular, check out ‘The Food Revolution’ by John Robbins. An older book that he wrote, that is still a profound classic is ‘Diet For A New America’.


        • Michelle

          Thanks, will check them out. What I would love to see happen is less meat but higher QUALITY meat, for all 6Bn of us. I also know that the waste of meat is acute, which is tragic!

          I personally feel that high quality meat is very important for good health not to mention a feeling of satiety, and the fear of meat and natural animal fats, part of the reason many people are abusing (in the form of excess eating)low-nutrient carbs.

  • David from Toronto

    I think anyone coming to your page will agree with you, and will wrestle with guilt over eating cheaply and guilt over spending too much on food.

    It’s not easy. It’s a life style choice. Largely due to my partner we just don’t eat out. We spend our money on quality food. That’s easier if you don’t have children, don’t have a long commute and when you actually enjoy cooking. I should probably add, have a secure job as well.

    If I may make a suggestions to those who want to be vegetarian but don’t have the will power (myself included): the best place to eat vegetarian is when you find yourself having to eat out, particularly if you are stuck with a food court or chain restaurant. This is the cheapest and least healthy market for food. Exercise damage control.

  • Rick Machado

    Hi Michelle, very good question. As a farmer, I often debate this topic with other farmers and customers.

    But I don’t think that’s the right way to frame the question. The price of food relevant to the customer is extremely subjective. A better question might be, as others have pointed out, ” Is food priced according to it’s true cost?”, or ” Does the price of food reflect it’s true value?”, where the higher the price the better the food. Both of these may or may not be true- sometimes yes, sometimes no. Dried beans are cheap- but not “too” cheap, I think. A burrito from Taco Bell is “cheap”- maybe “too” cheap.

    Some points about farming.
    1. Almost all the “organic” food you buy in a supermarket is owned by the multi-national corporate world. See for yourself-

    The bigger problem than cheap food is the corporate world controlling food from from seed to table.

    2. You are lionizing the small , family owned organic farmer, but farming is not natural. Not even real organic farming. It’s a trade off, with it’s own set of compromises. Even very good farmers rountinely destroy life, compact soil, create huge ecological footprints, waste water, exterminate natural vegetation, over fertilize- all in the name of producing food for people. Some farmers are better-true. But I have to accept the fact that I am intruding on nature, sometimes violently, and hope the damage I inflict will be minimal, and corrected in time.

    3. In Food Inc, there’s a line where a guy says about factory farming ” We produce a lot of food in a very small area-what’s wrong with that?”. It seems a silly defense- there is very much a lot wrong with that. Yet we do that on a farm every day- produce a lot of food ( relatively ) in a small space. I can feed a hundred people a very good salad in a couple hundred square feet. It’s healthy, and some would see it as “bad”, or ” good”, both words either true or false, depending on who is doing the judging. The environmentalist might see it as bad- In order to accomplish this salad growing, I destroyed the natural world and created an artificial world. The salad eater sees it as “good”. It’s worth what I destroyed. So farming, even very good farming, takes a toll on the earth and on people.

    4. I can’t see how raising the price of “cheap” food will help anyone except the producers of “cheap” food. The people who buy it will either shell out more money, buy something cheaper, or go hungry. They are not going to become healthier because their food costs more. They are simply going to fall further and further behind, and one day, they will just fall down. We might, as a society, look at it not as a character flaw in people because they eat cheap food, but more as a public health problem, where everyone has access to the healthiest foods we can produce at a reasonable price- the logistics of it as a society, rather than the split between the “good” eaters and the “cheap” eaters.

    Thanks for this space Michelle, I really love your blog/column, very informative and interesting.

    Rick Machado
    Machado Farms

    • Michelle

      Your line that really stuck with me is this: “We might, as a society, look at it not as a character flaw in people because they eat cheap food, but more as a public health problem.” I 100% agree. It not only is not a character flaw, it is INEVITABLE that if one is challenged financially they would be drawn to lower priced food. Problem is that the lower priced food is usually the lower nutrient food – so I agree, we have to find a way to bring the healthier food prices more in line with the less healthy food, AND do a better job of educating people on the health hazards of their food choices.

  • Juliana

    I read your posts and learn from them. I actually grilled some vegetables like you suggested the last time and it was such a great experiment. And nowe to read this…I am not originally from the U.S but live here aprox 10 yrs ago, the change on quantities and portions is overwhelming still. I am used to the small farm, picking up the eggs from the hens, actually if we wanted the chicken we literally would kill the rooster so I know what you mean in the big supermarkets and the tricks of modern marketing that seems to get in our senses with yellow flashy letters but also harm our health and old school of moderate eating…I am sorry for this word relief but its good to know that on the thinknig of this topics I am not alone! thanks for sharing a great blog!

    • Michelle

      Increasingly people are starting to value food quality over quantity but sadly it’s more of a fringe group than a sentiment shared by most … And it’s not that the masses don’t want it, it’s that there are many people that either a) don’t know, until they taste them, that truly farm fresh eggs taste totally different from the bland factory raised eggs or b) have no access to high quality food or c) both …

  • ctb

    Jumping down w/o reading all the comments (yet) to say that IMO, cheap food is almost always crap food. IOW, less nutritious & usually less flavorful & poorer quality as well.

    Over the last decade, I’ve gradually become an *almost* 100% organics buyer. I also garden organically – which really helps keep cost down for us – along w/ making most things from scratch.

    • ctb

      Oh yeah – & I’m guessing most readers of this blog will be self-selected foodies – not that likely to sing the praises of cheap eats….

      • Michelle

        I am all for “good value” with food, and if I can find healthy, wholesome foods for less than I normally would pay I stock up! But my biggest concern is the strong correlation between low price and low quality … I think it is incredibly unjust that people with the lowest incomes are the ones that are being deprived access to healthier foods, and instead are bombarded with low cost low nutrient products. Sadly, many of them are not even aware at how strongly their food choices are affecting their health …

  • Jesi

    This is a great topic of debate. I have in the past found myself buying “quantity” over “quality” for just my husband and I. Totally silly I know, but lately I have been making a conscious decision to buy just what I need at the time…maybe a little extra to freeze but really the Costco sized portions are kind of ridiculous for a family of 2.
    What are your thoughts on Trader Joe’s? I have loved them in the past few years as I was a single girl (their veggies, fruits, etc are perfect two-packs) and still find myself there often as a now married lady. They seem to label EVERYTHING organic, is it really?

    • Michelle

      I shop at TJ occasionally and I think some of their food is very good quality and good value. The fruit and veg (at least at my TJs) are never local and often look a bit “tired” so I generally don’t buy produce there. As for the Q of “is food X really organic?”. If it says it’s organic, I think it’s fair to assume it is (though there have been cases of food labeled organic and NOT, especially frozen veg from China) – remember though that organic does not mean, tastier or fresher! You could buy organic apples that are soft and dreadful, or organic cucumbers that have been shipped across the country and stored for a week. Be sure too to read all ingredients, even on organic products, as there still might be things in the organic food that you might want to avoid. For me those things would be: sugar (in any form), natural flavors, fillers(guar gum) and many others!

      If there is a specific product you want my opinion on, let me know!

  • danielle

    i haven’t read every single comment on here so apologies if i’m saying something someone else already has.

    while i agree with your post – it also makes me think of that one blog where the woman writing basically blogged about how to feed her children on a certain budget. i found out about the blog (which i’m sorry i can’t even remember the right name of) through another blog that was criticizing her for basically feeding her children lower quality food.

    i personally think people need to be reeducated about food. and while food is precious – to me it should be a right, such as water, shelter & a good education for *everyone*. there are certain things nations have to do to consider these as rights – and by rights i don’t mean “oh we’re humans so we should kill/destroy everything in sight for the benefit of our own kind” – i think to really see these as rights is to work in balance and harmony with our earth and it’s resources but when it comes down to it, everyone, including the birds and the bees need to eat, drink water & have shelter.

    i guess my point is that yeah it sucks you can buy such low quality food for low prices but some people truly can’t afford the money or don’t have the time while working two jobs trying to support their children in a single parent household… from being a vegan i can say that diet or any healthier diet doesn’t actually cost more if you’re ok with making most of your foods, i’m also sure there are single parents out there who manage to feed their children and themselves with healthy quality foods but it seems there are so many more who are just so overwhelmed with trying to make it day by day… i don’t know, i guess i think it would be helpful if there were more resources available to low income people on how to make the most out of food that may be pricer but is overall healthier for their families. if whole foods took food stamps, that would be alright too.

    just my two cents!

    • Michelle

      I agree the biggest problem is that high quality food IS more expensive and if one is stressed and tired, in the moment it seems to makes more sense to buy the lower priced, low quality food. As you say, we need to find ways to teach people how to cook kale, how to cook a whole chicken, how to make bean … I am a firm believer that if people are taught two things 1) what good food will do for their health and 2) how to cook it – they WILL make changes!

      As for the food stamps, it’s wonderful to see that my local farmers mkt accepts them and many seem to be using them …

  • Greg Fleischaker

    It all has to start at home, with our children or other people that we can teach. It seems most people on this comment string believe in eating well and are prepared to pay a bit more for fresh healthy ingredients. And it should be all of our jobs to inform others about the health benefits, and consequences, of our choices.

    As a parent of two young children, I have found that it does take extra work, extra money and some dedication to fight the constant advertising my children see everyday. But eating a home-made dinner with fruits and vegetables at every meal, as a family, every night, will have such a huge impact on their lives that I feel that I owe it to them as a parent.

    I’m not as hardcore as a lot of the people writing here, but I strongly feel that most Americans are simply not willing to do the work necessary to eat well, or raise their children well for that matter.

  • Gervais Vignola

    Buying in bulk and discounted prices is the new gospel. Walmart, costco are all part of the great pleasure and bliss of buying lots for less. That food falls in that category is not surprising but at what cost. Taste, nutrients, environment something’s gonna give. I am not sure that blaming the shoppers is the right way to go. People have to realize that the real power is with the consumers. If people don’t buy it, they won’t produce it. Walmart may be spearheading the organic milk movement because people now demand it and not because their marketing department had an epiphany and they realize that everyone including the animals would benefit from those practices. Again, labels on product are misleading, narrow insights into food make the headlines and create further confusion about the food we eat. Try to sort out the truth about omega 3 just for the fun of it. Most people are trying their best to navigate in a world with half truths about the food they eat. Awareness and education may be the key to turning some of the bad trends around, not blaming the consumers.

    • Michelle

      The consumers (via their actions) play a far more limited role in setting prices than the gov, manufacturers and the retailers so I”m not blaming the customers in the least! When customers are presented with food at low prices, it’s quite rational that they’d buy those products. So, no, my point is not at all to blame the customers but to look more deeply at our system and ask “why” is it that we as a country can continue to sell low-nutrient food for so cheap while being alarmed at the obesity epidemic and escalation of diseases related to weight.

  • fifty

    That’s a great phrase, Michelle. The one that “…(we have) driven out the notion of food being a precious resource”.

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  • more than 50

    Great article and I agree. I don’t buy much meat but when I do it is organic; chicken is air-chilled and I buy it whole [courtesy of other things I’ve read]. I think the ‘all you can eat’ mentality has really ruined the food chain. If they stopped serving the huge portions and especially the ‘all you can eat’ buffets or restaurant sit-downs, maybe the trickle back effect would take hold and after a year or so wind down production back to quality. Can you imagine if there were no more ‘all you can eat’ days at seafood establishments? We are our own worst enemy. Thank goodness for the ‘slow food’ movement and sites like yours!!!

  • Ryan

    I think that both the writer and commentators here reflect a bigger problem in America. A recent study said that 29% of Americans say it is difficult to afford food for their families. The growing disparity of have, and have nots, is accelerating at an alarming pace.

    Readers here enjoy their organic high quality food and don’t mind paying for it because it has virtually no impact on their finances. We live in our segregated worlds to the point where we have become separated from reality. Millions of Americans suffer from hunger & extreme poverty! For the rest of us cheap food and bad eating habits has created an obesity problem. The solution? How about mandatory nutrition classes in elementary, middle school, and high school?

    • Michelle

      I couldn’t agree more – and how about ensuring these economically challenged neighborhoods have access to low-priced, fresh foods.

      I am know that I am fortunate to have easy access to stores that sell fresh produce not to mention access to a farmers market 3 blocks away. I know that it is a rate gift. I am incredibly thankful too for the fact that I can afford high quality food.

      Thank you for reminding me, and others to never take this for granted …

  • Brandon Bailey

    Great post. The American food system has externalized costs in pursuit of short-term gains, growth, and profits. I’m sure this has been mentioned by others based on the comments I read through, but while the price of McDonald’s hamburgers may have gone down in price by 30%**, the actual cost of a pound of beef is probably closer to $30/ lb. The difference between a $3 burger and the $30 that beef actually costs is that the $27 dollar deficit is “invisible” to accountants and thus externalized and paid for by people, communities, society, the environment, and future generations.

    The price paid comes in many forms such as subsidies for corn-feed, rising health-care costs associated with obesity and other related health issues, employment of labor force from outside of local communities, the waste created by “factories” effect that local community, and the end result is low quality food that is “cheap”.

    • Michelle

      Right on. If we could measure our body’s health in dollars and cents the same way we do our bank account’s health, we would view the low cost of so many low quality foods very differently.

    • Michelle

      Oh and great web site! Fab pics.

  • John

    If you’re looking for actually healthy, nutrient dense meat, I suggest you get yourself a slingshot and go for squirrels, possums, groundhogs, and racoons. Seriously. I grew up on a farm and, besides the meat we raised ourselves, my dad and I butched many a roadkill deer. Dense flavor, dense nutrients. Almost all of the meat you can possibly buy at any store is the same crap, regardless of the government-approved labels like “free range” or any other word combinations the industry can come up with to make you think you’re buying Old MacDonald’s cow. You’re buying some monocultured corn that has been converted into chicken…even if it’s “organic.”

    There is nothing wrong with eating road kill, especially in the winter when it’s cold. Generally, if the carcass hasn’t swollen yet (and if you drove that way earlier and don’t recall seeing it), it’s fresh. Drag it off into the woods, field dress it, take the cuts you want, and leave the rest for the coyotes. It’ll be the healthiest meat you’ve ever eaten.

    The other option is to go freegan. Find a good dumpster, go at the right times, and you’ll be finding all the “organic” and “grass fed” beef and chicken you can eat. My dog and cats eat almost exclusively organic chicken and beef for the past two years.

    But otherwise, eating vegan is the healthiest and least expensive option if you don’t want to butcher road kill or dig through dumpsters (it’s actually lots of fun).

  • Alice Constantin

    You hit the nail on the head. I’ve eaten out a lot in the past, but lately I’ve been cooking at home, or making a salad because it is quicker, with ingredients from farmers markets, because this is just more fresh, and I know exactly what i’m eating. You can still find deals at these markets, some farmers sell similar items, but they are slightly diff in price, or if you go at the end of the day, they’ll drop the price to unload what they have left, they don’t want to pack it up when they leave. This is a lot better in many ways you’ve listed above, but I still spend the same amount of money on food. About 700/month for 1 person, including going out. Not sure if Los Angeles is more expensive, but is this a lot?

    • Michelle Madden

      Does not sound like a lot to me at all — $700/mo is about $23/day or $8/meal. Bon appetit!

  • ayu febriana

    cheap or expensive depending on the purchasing power of food buyers. Another story if the purchase was cara alami membersihkan keputihan