What Price Food?

I'm doing my own little part to steer focus away from the election, so you, my dear readers, will get my semi-annual post.

Today's NY Times has an article on the difficulties on eating healthy food on a tight budget. The main focus (and most interesting part) of the article discusses two school teachers who underwent a month-long experiment of eating on under a dollar a day per person:

This fall a couple in Encinitas, Calif., conducted their own experiment to find out what it was like to live for a month on just a dollar a day for food. Overnight, their diets changed significantly. The budget forced them to give up many store-bought foods and dinners out. Even bread and canned refried beans were too expensive.

Instead, the couple — Christopher Greenslate, 28, and Kerri Leonard, 29, both high school social studies teachers — bought raw beans, rice, cornmeal and oatmeal in bulk, and made their own bread and tortillas. Fresh fruits and vegetables weren’t an option. Ms. Leonard’s mother was so worried about scurvy, a result of vitamin C deficiency, that they made room in their budget for Tang orange drink mix. (They don’t eat meat — not that they could have afforded it.)


Ms. Leonard and Mr. Greenslate, who chronicled their dollar-a-day experience on their blog, onedollardietproject.wordpress.com, say they are looking at other ways to explore how difficult it is for people with limited income to eat a healthful diet.

“I challenge anyone to try to live on a dollar a day and eat fresh food in this country,” Mr. Greenslate said. “I would love to be proven wrong.”

The article goes on to cite other studies and experiments (including various governors taking a week-long challenge eating on the food stamp budgets for their states). The claim is that feeding a family on just dollars a day per person ($3 in Oregon, $5.87 in Michigan) is impossible, and the only alternative is junk food:

Last year, Dr. Drewnowski led a study, published in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, comparing the prices of 370 foods sold at supermarkets in the Seattle area. The study showed that “energy dense” junk foods, which pack the most calories and fewest nutrients per gram, were far less expensive than nutrient-rich, lower-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables. The prices of the most healthful foods surged 19.5 percent over the two-year study period, while the junk food prices dropped 1.8 percent.

Obesity researchers worry that these trends will push consumers toward less healthful foods. “The message for this year and next year is going to be affordable nutrition,” Dr. Drewnowski said. “It’s not the food pyramid, it’s the budget pyramid.”

Color me somewhat skeptical, on two counts. First, the Missus and I keep very detailed record of our spending. Our historical expense for the past 16 months for all food and supplies (toiletries, cleaning products, etc.) is $6.86 per person per day. This includes eating out and many non-food groceries (we go through mouthwash like nobody's business) - I estimate with pretty good precision that, for grocery food only, we spend about $4.50 per person per day. We rarely eat out, but it adds up fast.

Anyway, I should point out that we eat well. We pay attention to price and get good deals, but we don't ever forgo groceries because they are too expensive. We eat what we like and we don't miss meals. We eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and high-quality meats. I'm confident we could cut that down to $3 a day comfortably if we had to (along with no more meals out, of course). We buy a boatload of soft drinks (at about 25 to 35 cents/can) and gatorade, when water is less than a penny a glass. We sometimes buy food and snacks at work that probably averages 50 cents to a dollar a day. I could go on.

Further, to satisfy a curious obsession of mine, I often calculate the cost of meals we make - if you count leftovers, we have a nice little menu of meals that cost much less than a dollar a meal, and they're tasty and healthy (and quick - we rarely spend more than 45 minutes preparing, eating, and cleaning up). Pasta dishes, stir fry with rice, homemade pizzas, fish and chicken - these aren't just mac and cheese and raman noodles. (I should offer the caveat that we live in Lexington, KY; prices may be somewhat cheaper here than in other parts of the country).

Secondly, I can't imagine substituting junk and processed foods for our current meals and have our food budget go anywhere but up! At this point, I should probably read the above study that found that junk foods are cheaper, but lets just say I would have to be bowled over to be convinced. Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming that we could ever eat with our current behaviors on a $1 a day, nor am I claiming that it would be easy to accomplish. But it would be just as hard to do it with junk foods as with health foods.

What's your experience?

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It only proves one thing

It only proves one thing they were terrible at budgeting... and they were biased. Let me do the experiment, trying to prove the opposite. I'll start by going at the back of Wholefoods on the evening. Every day they throw away a lot of fruits and vegetables which are perfectly good. Here you go, fresh food. Bread ? Same, I know a few bakeries where you can get some for free when they close. Meat ? Save your dollar every day and pair up with other people to buy bulk packs.

Junk food is cheaper

My sense of it is that junk food observably is and must be cheaper than healthy food because it is primarily composed of cheap satisfying ingredients (sugar, salt, wheat, oil) and skimps on ingredients with nutritional value apart from calories. A healthy diet contains a significant amount of green and other vegetables and fruit, ingredients which are almost entirely absent from junk food, and these ingredients constitute a significant fraction of the cost of a healthy meal. A junky meal is essentially the carbs/fats/salt portion of a healthy meal with about the same calories (since the vast majority of calories come from carbs and fats). If you want to consider animal protein, I think we can come to a similar conclusion. Apart from vegan/vegetarian, a healthy meal will tend to have more and more expensive animal protein than a junky meal. A junky meal might have no meat at all, or if it has meat will tend to have meat high in fat. A healthy meal with meat will tend to have lean meat or fish - significantly adding to the price.

I'm not sure what the argument here is. Is it that junk food is as expensive as healthy food? Or is it that, while junk food is cheaper, healthy food is less expensive in absolute terms than what is suggested?

Two additional points worth pondering is that where you live in the USA has a significant impact on the price of food. That's one point. The other is that where you live within a state or county has an additional impact on the price of food. If you live in a city then food is more expensive than if you live outside the city. And if you live in a high-crime neighborhood then the cost of crime will be factoried into the cost of food.

Another couple of points worth pondering are living arrangements and transportation. People with cars can go to large regional stores and buy items in bulk. People taking the bus cannot do this. And people in large homes have somewhere to put the items they bought in bulk. People living in cramped apartments do not. For example, not everyone is in a position to "buy a boatload of soft drinks (at about 25 to 35 cents/can)"

try growing your own

When the kids lived at home we grew most of our veggies. It doesn't take much space. Tried growing spuds on the city planting strip and it worked just fine.

Multis and Bs in pill form are cheap insurance.

Agricultural advances

Growing your own veggies would probably involve using methods that are thousands of years old. No automation, no mass production. Your efficiency would be about equal to the efficiency of someone in the middle ages, if that.

When you consider the advantages of specialization and add them to the massive improvement in agricultural efficiency due to technological advance, then the price of food must be in real terms much lower than it was in the middle ages - but this would apply only to food that you bought on the market. It would not apply to food you grew yourself, for reasons mentioned above. So it is likely to be a really bad deal to grow your own food. You would in effect be paying yourself a third world wage.

There are 278 calories in a potato (a curiously precise number I know - I'm just quoting). About ten of these a day will give a person his calories intake. So to supply yourself with your calories you need to grow ten potatoes a day. For a family of four, that forty potatoes a day. Of course, nobody eats 10 potatoes - we get our calories by other means. But if you were seriously going to produce your own calories by one means or another, it would be similarly intensive.

I can see gardening as a hobby, as a very small supplement to food that is almost entirely obtained on the market.

Yard and seed sharing!

We have a couple projects going that don't need funding - just participants!

The first is hyperlocavore.com. Hyperlocavore is a yardsharing community - built to support people in the practice of creating 'yardsharing' arrangements to grow food together.

Many people want to grow food but they lack one or two of these four things:
- physical strength

Forming a yardsharing group with your friends, neighbors, family or with your religious communities is easy - and free! You can set up a 'seeking yardshare' group for your area (like Chicago, South Side) or a private group for your own yardshare "Grandma's Backyard Garden"

CSAs are filling up fast. Community gardens have waiting lists. Food is getting more and more expensive.
Find some people and start growing together!

The other project we've started is The Great Let's Get Growing Seed Share.
We are asking experienced gardeners to become 'seed angels,' to adopt a newbie gardener and send them some garden seeds! I have sent four newbie gardners enough seed that each of them will have huge beautiful edible gardens this summer. It's easy - it cost me less than 4 dollars to get four gardens going!

If you are an experienced gardener we need you to become a seed angel!
If you are a newbie food grower - sign up!


If you think these are good ideas please help us get the word out to your communities!

Healthy food is much cheaper than junk

Doesn't anyone cook for themselves?

My friend Ari Armstrong did the same experiment a while ago, and had little problem feeding himself.


One more thing

Ari didn't try one dollar a day - food stamps would give several dollars a day. The one buck a day figure is rather pointless if you're talking about domestic poverty.