The Poor in America can Afford Healthy Food

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Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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179 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    Thanks for the SNAP links! Been looking for ways to reduce the food budget.Report

  2. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    If the poor lack the time, energy, discipline, motivation, or knowledge to cook

    My wife & run into this a lot, given our time constraints & having a high energy almost-3 year old. We’ve owned this book for a long time, but lately we’ve taken to really getting into it & learning how to basically just throw things together quickly and still get a tasty meal.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Oscar Gordon
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      says:

      Oopsie! Can someone please close the tag.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        The ability to cook is sort of a huge thing. I thought it was funny when I was growing up that some students took home economics courses that included learning to cook, but it makes sense now that I fully realize the implications of not having parents producing food for me on a continuous basis.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        With cooking, there is more to it than just knowing how to properly boil water or cook meat. Being able to use seasonings effectively is something that takes training, or experience & the ability to experiment (which includes the ability to be able to toss ruined food because you messed up). Prepared foods can go a long way to making up for that lack of knowledge (as do spice packs, etc.).Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        I’m still going to throw a bs flag that poor/working class people don’t know how to cook, considering the workingest working class profession is cooking. I’m absolutely behind the premise that working class people don’t have *time* to cook*, but that’s a completely different cause with a completely different remedy than ignorance.

        *particularly since ‘time spent cooking’ really consists not only of the time stuff is on a stove or in a oven, but also the time it takes to go to a food store, prep the food for heating, and the time to clean up everything afterwards. A single parent after a 9 hour shift *is* making a rational (on the first order) choice by spending the 20 minutes at McDonalds rather than the 2 hours involved for a home meal.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        Yeah, what Oscar said. I know how to cook from a technical pov (buy ingredients, prep, turn on the stove…) but the food I make never tastes as good as (one example!) my wife’s cooking or (another example!) store bought food. Left to my own devices, I’d be eating at fast food places (not the gross kind!) all the time.

        Also, I’m curious whether certain types of fast food aren’t actually just as healthy as home cooked food. I’m thinking Chipotle and Qdoba here as just one example. Perhaps Panda Express.

        Also, and sorta along the same lines as the OP, I’m always amazed that upper-middle class white collar workers will wait in a really long line at Quizno’s when there’s an even quicker Indian food lunch buffet they could eat at right across the street.

        Lots of people just like the taste of processed food, seems to me.Report

      • Avatar A Compromised Immune System in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        @stillwater I wouldn’t say “like” the taste so much as “are used to” the taste.

        http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-5-stupidest-habits-you-develop-growing-up-poor/

        “Once You Escape …

        To this day, my kids won’t eat fresh green beans. There’s such a huge difference in texture and taste compared to the canned version that they’re honestly like two different foods. None of us will eat homemade macaroni and cheese. If it doesn’t come out of a box, it tastes weird. And the list is a mile long. We’ve eaten these things for so long, we’ve grown to prefer them to the fresh version.”Report

  3. Avatar Shelley
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    says:

    There’s a strange social component to what foods are considered okay to eat. As with smoking, maybe habits won’t change until doing it the wrong way seems socially unacceptable?Report

  4. Avatar greginak
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    says:

    To slightly restate your conclusion: many people nowadays find processed and often unhealthier food easier for many reasons including having little time ( due to children, work, many demands, poor transpo) or because it brings emotional satisfaction from being high fat, etc. Poor people will more often have high stress lives or be more pressed for time.Report

  5. Avatar aaron david
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    says:

    One thing that I feel gets forgotten is that cooking is a skill. And like most skills, you need to learn it somewhere. Whether a family member or school teaches you how to cook is immaterial, you still need to learn somehow.Report

    • Avatar A Compromised Immune System in reply to aaron david
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      says:

      And it’s harder to “learn to cook” when the opportunity cost isn’t just some burned or wrecked dish, toss it out and start over, but actually missing a meal if you burned it or otherwise ruined the attempt.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to aaron david
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      says:

      That’s important. The OP is incorrect in claiming that flour is nearly free (it’s about a dollar a pound where I live), although I would agree that it’s only a fraction of the cost of prepared bread. But turning flour into bread is something that isn’t easy to do and produce a reasonably edible product, at least not without some instruction and some practice.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        Wouldn’t the poor just use their 400 dollar breadmakers?Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        I forgot to write down the figure while at the store. “Free” is probably an unfair approximation.

        My 25 pound bag of fancy shmancy King Arthur flour was about $15 at Costco. This is one of those examples where a financial cushion (and space to store things properly) allows you to save money. When I was younger, I might gawk and say “I don’t have $15 to pay for flour.” Actually, I wouldn’t even do that because I didn’t cook. But I can understand why someone on a limited monthly grocery budget would have the a similar reaction since it takes a while for that $15 to prove its worth. And they wouldn’t have the Costco membership in the first place.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        I like King Arthur flour too — Costco only sells the AP flour, though, and I’ve come to prefer the high-gluten bread flour. Were I on a more limited budget, I’d not get the fancy flour; store brand is still very cheap. But four months ago, when I didn’t know much about baking bread, I’d have simply bought my bread pre-sliced in a plastic bag like I’d been doing for many years and as many people do.

        Nothing hugely wrong with buying bread that way, FTR.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        Oh, that is a concession. We just use KA’s all-purpose flour. My understanding is that their all-purpose flour has as much gluten as the bread flours of some others.

        At any rate, we don’t actually bake bread. The wife uses it to make noodles, dumplings, or steamed buns. It’s more work than making bread, but I think it’s less easy to screw up.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        If bread is (quick google, hand wave) 40% moisture, then a one pound loaf of bread is about .6 of a pound of flour, so maybe 50 c of the main ingredient and maybe a dime of salt, oil, yeast, molasses, whatever else you like in your bread.

        A one pound loaf of unremarkable but perfectly edible bread is $1.25 for me. So, the process of turning the ingredients into the finished bread is something like a 65 c service.

        Or, I could spend an hour making four loaves of bread at home, using $2.40 of ingredients and 10 c of electricity and washing-up water and dish soap. In the end I’ve produced $5 of value with $2.50 of inputs, and an hour of labour.

        That’s a terrible use of time. If I can scrape up any kind of work at all I can do much better than $2.50 an hour. A friend of mine did cans and bottles for a while when his work visa ran out, and ISTR he was doing better than $2.50 an hour.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        I won’t quibble with your math, @dragonfrog , but there’s also the bread you make being better and fresher.Report

      • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        Also, as Alton Brown pointed out (although I think he was talking about something not-bread, but the point is the same) – you brainwash the kids into thinking that beating up bread dough is fun, and use their labor, which /is/ free from an economist’s perspective…Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Burt Likko
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        says:

        I certainly agree that homemade bread is a lovely thing, much better than cheap-ish storebought. I’m only suggesting that if it’s in question whether one can afford to eat and provide one’s family with nutritious food, then baking bread at home doesn’t seem like a worthwhile cost-saving measure, in the way that making other dishes more or less from scratch is.Report

  6. Avatar A Compromised Immune System
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    says:

    You’re missing a lot in this analysis and conclusion. Start with the concept of food deserts, which are the most common for poorer neighborhoods.

    http://americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter/usda-defines-food-desertsReport

  7. Avatar A Compromised Immune System
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    says:

    Now for part 2, consider that most of the food choices made by the poor are probably made based on things other than just nutritional value. “Freshness” can actually be a downside here, if it’s likely to spoil.

    “Here’s the thing,” she explained. “We can’t have anything perishable in the shelter. So, the girls never get enough fruits or vegetables. We don’t have a stove or a fridge. I don’t want you to think I’m buying bad things. I just don’t have a way to keep the good things.”

    http://www.babble.com/best-recipes/what-i-learned-after-taking-a-homeless-mother-grocery-shopping/Report

    • Avatar A Compromised Immune System in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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      says:

      Looking at her list, you can see two clear groups of items. Nearly every item under $5 is a shelf-stable item. Most of it processed, canned, or packaged. When you live in a crisis shelter with a dozen other families, with only a microwave for cooking and no way of storing perishables, these low-cost foods are vital.

      The two grocery items over $5? Fresh produce. A few less-expensive fruits and veggies were purchased, but the amounts were snack-sized, not meal-sized. One bell pepper. A quart of blueberries.

      I look at this list and can’t help but wonder how she’s supposed to do it. If $11 of apples equals two snacks but $3 in Ramen will feed her entire family for dinner, how can she possibly pick apples with her limited food stamp budget? And how will she ever afford to fill half of every mealtime plate with fruits and veggies, the amount recommended by the same government that issued her food stamps?Report

      • I do have another post I’ve been working on for a while on the consequences of food stamps being deposited into accounts so infrequently. It seems to lead to a bubble of shopping the day after the money drops. (I have, in fact, talked to people who use food stamps.)

        Thanks for the link. The $11.45 for the tiny bag of apples sounds insane to me. It is helpful that the whole list of items is there. Reading through the list altogether, it does sound like ~$70 worth of food.

        I do notice it seems like the woman bought a bunch of easy-to-prepare stuff, which makes a lot of sense for a homeless person. The stuff that requires any prep beyond putting it in a container and heating are the meats and the oatmeal. (I wonder what she plans on doing with those.) Altogether, I’m still reading this as consistent with the idea that she has a barrier to producing her own food (i.e. no kitchen) than that the price of raw, natural ingredients are too high. Showing only the items purchased, we can’t tell whether the woman failed to buy a bag of carrots, onions, or potatoes because they were too expensive or because they required too much preparation using materials homeless people don’t actually have access to.Report

      • I’m also noticing that none of the items she bought really need any refrigeration. She bought cereal but no milk. This again suggests to me that she has problems other than the food prices themselves.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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        says:

        I do have another post I’ve been working on for a while on the consequences of food stamps being deposited into accounts so infrequently. It seems to lead to a bubble of shopping the day after the money drops. (I have, in fact, talked to people who use food stamps.)

        This seems to be the case with much government assistance. It’s difficult, when dealing with necessities like food and clothing, to budget for an entire month on a “just enough” amount, if for no other reason than that unforeseen circumstances arise (never mind that our brains don’t really work well that way, short of saying, “I can only spend $X a day” and sticking to it exactly, which is highly unlikely). So even those who don’t run out of money completely by the end of a benefit period will likely be accumulating un-purchased necessities (sugar, salt, loaves of bread, cereal, that sort of thing) as they approach that end, which will result in spending inordinate amounts as soon as the next benefit period begins, and thereby repeating the cycle.

        Until recently I lived in a neighborhood in which a high percentage of the residents were on some form of government assistance, most commonly WIC and/or SNAP. Before these programs switched to pre-filled cards, this meant the lines at grocery stores were really long at the beginning of the month, because people were paying with the paper vouchers that took significantly longer to process than cash or debit/credit cards.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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        says:

        Chris,
        oh, it’s worse than that. If you tried to budget right, you’d be getting substandard stuff (even for urbancity prices). Because they plan on large volume at the beginning of the month, and pretty much candy bars for the rest.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to A Compromised Immune System
        Ignored
        says:

        It seems to lead to a bubble of shopping the day after the money drops
        Buying in bulk is more economical. That must be why some state legislature is considering allowing only 25 dollars in purchases a day. (Also, they can’t be spent on cruises! I shudder in angry, white collar rage at the thought of all then SNAP recipients on cruise ships!. Shopping duty free, no less!)Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to A Compromised Immune System
        Ignored
        says:

        I saw this awesome quote today:

        poverty is a chaos that screams in the present tense

        Time matters, here. It takes time to cook. It takes time to learn to cook. Like growing food, it’s one of those things written off as unskilled and lacking in demands on the conceptual mind, which is utter old, sour milk.

        Industrial food has been engineered to provoke our tastes and to make us want to eat them again. That BigMac and coke you like to have everyday is comforting; like a smoke on your workbreak or during your commute.

        And I recently read a study (Salon?) that when you calculate the time involved in preparation, healthy food isn’t cheaper; only if you don’t value the labor.

        Finally, access. Food Deserts are a real thing. It’s hard to schlep that stuff over long distances. For fresh, you really need daily access to a variety.Report

      • zic,
        Yeah, I wouldn’t ordinarily only consider out-of-pocket costs. I only did so in this post because the arguments I am trying to counter only consider out-of-pocket costs.

        On the other hand, I do stand by sweet potatoes as an overlooked healthy food. It’s easier than some of the processed foods mentioned. I don’t even bother to rinse them before throwing them in the oven. (Hopefully that’s not a bad thing.)Report

      • Avatar gingergene in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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        says:

        @vikram-bath I once participated in a fall farm share that seemed to produce only sweet potatoes. I ate them for 8 solid weeks, and froze about half of them. At the end of the farm share two things happened: 1) I reaallllyyy resented sweet potatoes. I was sick of them. Took me more than a month of not eating them at all before I would consider the frozen ones. 2) I worried that I was getting an orange tint (mostly kidding).Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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        says:

        And I recently read a study (Salon?) that when you calculate the time involved in preparation, healthy food isn’t cheaper; only if you don’t value the labor.

        I’ve never seen convincing numbers on this. I’ve seen a lot of arguments that it’s true–page after page. But they seem not to bother to actually run the numbers.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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        says:

        The orange tint is a real thing. Extremely high intake of dietary carotenoids can show up in your skin.Report

      • @brandon-berg – yeah, I’ve seen it happen. A kid in my college dorm was a real health nut, got a juicer and starting juicing…well, everything, but a ton of carrots, and his skin turned (temporarily) orangeish.

        We were of course a model of sympathetic understanding, and in no way mocked him mercilessly.Report

      • Furious at the non-stop mocking, Glyph’s dorm-mate vowed to become a success, a man of such power and achievement that no one would treat him that way, ever again,

        And now you know….. the REST of the story.Report

      • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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        says:

        Apparently flamingoes in zoos tend to be more orange than pink, because foods containing carotene are a whole lot cheaper than shrimp. Flamingoes fed a healthy diet devoid of either pigment source may be in perfectly good health, but their feathers turn white, which is not what the zoo visitors expect to see in a flamingo.

        @vikram-bath – re the shopping list – the only meat I saw was Vienna sausages, which are canned and don’t require cooking; a bowl of oatmeal is ready in the microwave in about two minutes.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumber in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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        says:

        @will-truman

        What? That the time stamps aren’t in order, or something else?Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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        says:

        @mike-schilling

        Ohhh, nicely done!
        [Applause]Report

    • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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      says:

      Homeless people are kind of a special case here, and their needs are unique. Almost every American household has a stove and a refrigerator.

      It’s true that buying fresh produce does expose you to the risk of waste, but we’re generally not talking about people without access to refrigeration.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        OTOH, we’re also not talking about people with good refrigeration.

        I have a refrigerator, but it’s not consistently cold enough that I’m comfortable keeping meat in there for more than a day or two. If I buy refrigerated veggies in bulk, I’d better eat them all right away or they’ll go off. Those things matter a lot, because the best way to buy both cheap and healthy is by buying products in large quantities.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        @alan-scott

        Somewhat off-topic, but that’s the norm outside of America. You buy meat or milk in other countries, even other developed countries, and the clock starts ticking immediately.Report

  8. Avatar A Compromised Immune System
    Ignored
    says:

    Flour is near free, which means baking your own fresh bread is comparably free.

    Provided you have the time, and a working oven in which to bake.

    Do I really need to go any further? I think the entire premise of this article is off, it could only have been written by someone who’s never been poor or even bothered to talk to someone who was.Report

    • I think you missed the last paragraph. I cite time as a plausible reason for not cooking.

      I did neglect the working-oven requirement. I acknowledge that many things need functioning equipment to cook. Processed foods do tend to be less taxing in that way.Report

    • Avatar Notme in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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      says:

      I can see the next govt giveaway, the obama oven. Clearly the govt needs to hand out more money.Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to A Compromised Immune System
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      says:

      Do I really need to go any further? I think the entire premise of this article is off…

      What exactly do you think the premise of this article is?Report

      • Avatar A Compromised Immune System in reply to j r
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        says:

        It appears to be “the poor don’t really lack access to affordable healthy food, they just make bad choices. Because they’re dumb. So we shouldn’t have sympathy for them.”Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to j r
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        says:

        Quoting things that aren’t quotes just leads people to believe that the conversations you are having are with the straw men in your head and not with actual people.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to j r
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        says:

        j r,

        Here’s a quote to make ACIS’s point:

        And this might be the real problem. If the poor lack the time, energy, discipline, motivation, or knowledge to cook, they might prefer processed options even though they are more expensive.

        It’s an interpretable account! I agree with you, tho, that there isn’t a shaming going on here. (There might be a little bita “above the fray” condescension, tho…)Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to j r
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        says:

        @stillwater

        I disagree. This isn’t about shaming or no shaming. It’s about getting the methodology correct.

        If you are going to purport to help people, then you need to get the diagnosis for the problem correctly. And if people unquestioningly accept a “healthy food is too expensive” story that leads to a particular set of interventions, then we run the risk of getting the interventions wrong. Getting the interventions wrong mean that you don’t help anybody and may end up doing harm.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to j r
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        says:

        I listed the adjectives so that people could choose based on the pictures they have in their heads. I have no desire to tell others whether the poor are generally good or generally bad. I don’t see that as a useful discussion to have. (Though I neglected to mention a lack of equipment, and I really should have.)

        At any rate, if the-poor-are-dumb is what was taken away from my post, then I did a very bad job communicating.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to j r
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        says:

        @vikram-bath

        VK,
        Communication is a two way street.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to j r
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        says:

        @vikram-bath

        I don’t think you did a bad job communicating, some people will take offense no matter how inoffensive you try to be. This is bolstered by you acknowledging above that yes, cooking is a skill and if it is lacking, access to fresh ingredients is not much help.

        ACIS clearly took your argument and ran it to the margins & edge cases in an attempt to discredit the central premise so he could stomp all over you.Report

      • Avatar A Compromised Immune System in reply to j r
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        says:

        And this might be the real problem. If the poor lack the time, energy, discipline, motivation, or knowledge to cook, they might prefer processed options even though they are more expensive. – Vikram Bath

        ACIS clearly took your argument and ran it to the margins & edge cases in an attempt to discredit the central premise so he could stomp all over you. – Oscar Gordon

        No, @oscar-gordon , I don’t think I misread anything and I do not agree that I “ran it to the margins” either. The premise of the article by @vikram-bath as summed by the closing argument was less about methodology than saying that the poor lack time, energy, discipline, motivation, knowledge. Or to put it in simpler terms, basically that they’re lazy and stupid.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to j r
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        says:

        The premise of the article by @Vikram Bath as summed by the closing argument was less about methodology than saying that the poor lack time, energy, discipline, motivation, knowledge.

        Generally, people don’t bury the premise of an article in the last sentence. The article is quite clearly about methodology. At worse, that last sentence is an unexamined afterthought.

        ps – this is how you correctly use quotes.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to j r
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        says:

        @a-compromised-immune-system

        You took it to the margins by immediately deciding that “poor = homeless or otherwise without a basic kitchen”. Poor is a much wider range than that, and people who are homeless or living in flop houses without basic kitchens have deeper issues than what Vikram was addressing.

        … poor lack time, energy, discipline, motivation, knowledge. Or to put it in simpler terms, basically that they’re lazy and stupid.

        As someone who grew up poor, my family scraping by & living off food stamps quite a few times, allow me to inform you that I did not take that meaning from Vikram at all. You are the one who ascribed that view to his post, unfairly. Unless you have some historical evidence that Vikram regularly thinks the poor fit that definition, I suggest you make more of an effort to maintain the ability to offer a charitable read of posts here.

        And allow me to add, there is nothing lazy or stupid about working to overcome habits developed from living while poor. The habits are easy to gain, directly touch our lizard brains, and require a considerable conscious & long term effort to overcome. It can take years for even the strongest willed person to change these habits when you have the time & resources to do it, anyone expecting poor people with limited time, resources, & decision fatigue to do it is living in a fantasy land, and that is part of what Vikram is saying.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to j r
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        says:

        That’s an impressively uncharitable reading ACIS and a summarization that leaves out several elements.

        For instance to sum up the statement “the poor lack time, energy, discipline, motivation, knowledge” as “they’re lazy and stupid” is either dishonest or mistaken. If the poor lack time and energy then they are logically not lazy since a lazy person would have enormous time on their hands and considerably more energy.

        With respect it feels like you’re working very hard to gin up offense over the post while ignoring the core assertion which is sums up to: “unprocessed healthy foods are cheaper than processed unhealthy foods” and says very little about the poor at all.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to j r
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        says:

        ACIS, you seem to be reading the word “or” the way that I use the word “and”.Report

  9. Avatar LWA
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    says:

    Any discussion with the premise of “Poor People” is going to go off the rails pretty quickly.

    There are so many varieties of poor that we are guaranteed to be speaking about wildly different groups of “poor”.

    Welfare mothers who don’t work?
    Working poor single mothers?
    Nonworking single men?
    Homeless transients?

    I think before we decide we are going to shame “poor” people for eating badly, we should ask why ordinary folks eat badly. Wealthy people may have diets that are slightly more healthful, but they still suffer obesity and poor diets at only slightly lower rates than everyone else.

    So again- why do we- all of us- eat the way we do?Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to LWA
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      says:

      Who is threatening to shame poor people?Report

      • Avatar A Compromised Immune System in reply to j r
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        says:

        Let’s start with the article writer, who wrote an entire article about “what the poor are doing wrong” while talking about going to specialty shops, ethnic grocers, and buying the stuff that if you bought it in a poor-neighborhood’s “produce” section would be long past freshness and covered in slimes and molds.

        So, basically everything that someone who’s working 2 jobs and trying to manage on public transportation is going to find to be impossible to start with.

        And forgetting basic things about being poor like the strong likelihood that a microwave oven and maybe a hot-pot for making boiled water will be your only available cooking methods, neither of which will work very well for most of his proposed “cheap foods.”Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to j r
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        says:

        @a-compromised-immune-system, the OP is almost entirely about the price of “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods, not poor people and their behaviors. It’s an attempt to debunk the idea that there are no healthy items that are cheap.

        That is entirely compatible with the idea that the poor might not have working equipment with which to cook or that they might not have access to decent grocery stores. You are responding to an article other than the one I wrote.Report

      • Avatar A Compromised Immune System in reply to j r
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        says:

        So in other words @vikram-bath what you’ve done is prove the standing point that it costs money to be poor, and only people who reach a certain level above poverty can afford to engage in many of the cost-cutting measures that conservatives take for granted when accusing the poor of “wasting money.”Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to j r
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        says:

        You think that’s a universally recognized point?Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to j r
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        says:

        A couple of things:

        Let’s start with the article writer, who wrote an entire article about “what the poor are doing wrong”…

        Why use quotation marks if you aren’t actually going to quote? The only mention of the poor is in the last sentence. This is a post about the methodologies used to support the claim that healthy food is more expensive. You appear to be objecting to some other article and not to this one.

        So, basically everything that someone who’s working 2 jobs and trying to manage on public transportation is going to find to be impossible to start with.

        And forgetting basic things about being poor like the strong likelihood that a microwave oven and maybe a hot-pot for making boiled water will be your only available cooking methods…

        Says who? You are doing the exact thing that you are accusing the OP of: making imprecise unsourced claims about what poor people have and do not have.

        According to the U.S. Census Bureau there was a spike in poverty levels in 2012 to somewhere just under 50 million people living under the official poverty line. At the same time, according to HUD, the homeless population of America is somewhere around 600k at any given point in time. Another source says that as many as 3.5 million people experience a period of homelessness in a given year (this includes people in shelters and temporary housing situation.)

        What does this tell us? It tells us that the overwhelming majority of poor in the United States are in some form of permanent housing and, therefore, likely to have more than a microwave and a hotpot.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to j r
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        says:

        Again, the Vimes “Boots” theory of economic injustice rears it’s head.

        Really, if you’re going to talk about poverty and the Boots theory isn’t brought up, you’re doing it wrong. It’s the simplest, most elegant explanation of a common (and often unavoidable) trap in poverty I’ve ever heard.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to j r
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        says:

        For the unawares:

        “The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

        Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

        But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

        This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

        ? Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms: The PlayReport

  10. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    Can you guess what time it is? It is time for my favorite passage from Orwell again!!!

    “Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you.”-The Road to Wigan Pier

    Having been through bouts of unemployment (but not poor and luckily not too long-term) because of the law I can attest to this. I found it much easier to get to the gym when I was working than when I was unemployed. I also found it much easier to have a salad for lunch and/or dinner as an employed person and perhaps to skip snacks.

    1. Time is part of affordability. Healthy takes a lot of time as compared to take-out or prepared food unless health is just eating raw vegetables and fruits. If you want to get people to eat healthier and be healthier, you need to give them more time to rest. The benefits of rest and sleep are well known but we seemingly never want to design policies that encourage or allow rest and sleep because that would be socialism or some such.

    2. The worst part about cooking for me is not the prep but the clean up. I wonder if this is true for a lot of people.

    3. Access to healthy food year round is very geographic. The farmers markets in the Bay Area offer wonderful produce year round and often at affordable prices. I can probably buy veggies and fruits for the week for around 10-15 dollars depending. The requirement though is being able to afford to live in the SF Bay Area.

    4. Taste is a big issue again. See the Orwell quote. Perhaps fast food is really the only pleasure that many who are poor have. Why take it away from them? I am rather irked by upper-middle class liberals who work at non-profits that wish to impart upper-middle class food attitudes to the poor without doing anything about the structural situation of the poor. In many ways, I see these non-profits as kind of doing a mea culpa of “We will never be able to fight income and wealth inequality but at least you can eat like you are upper-middle class and care about kale and cleansing.”Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Saul Degraw
      Ignored
      says:

      This was a great comment.

      I think it’s worth noting that this all deals with things other than the per-unit price of various foods. I think it’s worth asking if we are doing the poor any favors by mis-diagnosing their problems as being about corporate subsidies rather than what their actual problems are.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        I’ve never misdiagnosed those problems. Who has? Who’s we?

        THe problem of the poor and food is the same as all the other problems with the poor: if you have no interests you can act on, no productive engagement with society, no personal rewards derived from your efforts, you do stuff to make life as interesting as it can be in the circumstances. And lots of us who aren’t in that position look at it like a correctable character flaw.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        Corporate subsidies might not be the actual problem of the poor but its at least a solvable problem on a theoretic level. The other problems of poor run into a lot of ideological and political problems when trying to deal with them because they deal with income inequality and the distribution of wealth. Liberals have one solution to these problems. Libertarians and conservatives another. Others deny the existence of such problems because it is uncomfortable for them.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        Who’s we?

        Eh. I was trying to be nice by saying “we”. But all the news outlets that breathlessly passed on the findings of that PLOS one study are guilty of misdiagnosing the problem and further distributing the misdiagnosis. It’s a study that shouldn’t have been published in the form that it is in now.

        And to re-state what I am saying is the misdiagnosis is that the poor “can’t afford high-quality, nutritious food. They’re trapped in a food system that subsidizes processed foods, making them artificially cheaper than natural food sources.” (Irwin) Maybe the can’t or won’t cook it, store it, or access it. But they can afford it.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        Vik,

        I agree with that point. And I’m very glad it’s being argued, actually. I read a while ago that in relative terms Americans are spending less on food now than in 1950: something like 19% of total income (on average) went to food back in the day, in 2010 (or whenever I read the article) it was down to 9%. Course, that doesn’t mean that poor people will be able to buy food. It’s that if poor people can’t afford food – or more importantly, good food – it’s not because food prices have gotten higher.

        Personally, I don’t know what to do about the poor. Apparently, they will always be with us…Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      @saul-degraw

      I agree with Vikram. This is an excellent comment.Report

  11. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    Even in purely economic terms, processed food is overall cheaper than fresh foods. Fresh foods are cheaper than processed foods before you cook them. However, transforming fresh foods into cooked foods requires time, energy, and equipment. All of the latter have a monetary cost. It might not be exact as the cost of rice or flour compared to instant ramen but it exists. This means that for lower income or even many middle income people will find it more economical to rely on processed food over fresh foods. There are lots of ads on TV involving solidly middle class families eating processed foods.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      Irwin’s claim isn’t that time, energy, and equipment make fresh foods expensive. Rather, he says subsidies of processed foods makes fresh foods expensive relative to processed foods.Report

    • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      I think this analysis is still a bit off. The energy required to cook a meal is negligible in terms of financial cost. A pot or pan can be purchased for less than $10 and will last a lifetime, so on a per-meal basis it’s practically free. We bemoan the lack of good investments that are easily accessible to the poor, but an $8 pot that saves you from buying several prepared meals a month is like buying $8 worth of Microsoft stock in the 80s.

      The time investment is the real killer. It’s just hard to do that stuff when you’re working hard. However, I do hear stories about people trying to get that extra hour of minimum wage work in to top off the bank account and then not having time to cook in the evening, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Your implied wage cooking a meal for your family, even if it takes an hour of your time, is way higher than minimum wage. If you’re on a strict schedule it really sucks and may not be a reasonable possibility. But if you have any time at all to do it, preparing food to eat yourself is probably the best paid work a low wage worker can get. It is literally a financially better use of time than an hour of OT if you’re at a low wage point.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        However, I do hear stories about people trying to get that extra hour of minimum wage work in to top off the bank account and then not having time to cook in the evening, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Your implied wage cooking a meal for your family, even if it takes an hour of your time, is way higher than minimum wage.

        That’s decision fatigue, right there.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        A pot or pan can be purchased for less than $10 and will last a lifetime, so on a per-meal basis it’s practically free. We bemoan the lack of good investments that are easily accessible to the poor, but an $8 pot that saves you from buying several prepared meals a month is like buying $8 worth of Microsoft stock in the 80s.

        I’m not actually convinced this is true. It can be hard to find reliable cook ware now; most of it’s too light and flimsy, and it’s very, very difficult to cook in. Pots don’t need to cost hundreds of dollars, but it’s important to have pots that function well for the kind of cooking you do. A big part of the problem here is new cooks don’t even know what to look for and often make poor choices.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        I am a big fan of my slow cooker.

        You can just throw a whole bunch of ingredients in there, set it, and forget it. (Though, granted, I tend to stir mine every few hours because I’m a busybody.)

        Now, of course, I take many things for granted with that:
        A small amount of counter space
        Storage space for the 4 liters’ worth of leftovers
        Containers for the 4 liters’ worth of leftovers
        A willingness to eat 4 liters’ worth of leftovers

        So, yeah, there are a lot of things that I have that other people might not have available. I think that it’s probably not a stretch to say that someone who wants but cannot afford the first three of those four things is living in poverty and, as part of our War On Poverty, we should do what we can to make sure that everybody has those three things.

        It’s not to our credit that we haven’t managed to make sure that everybody has what seems to me to be a relatively cheap list of things.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        How many people know about implied wages?Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Troublesome Frog
        Ignored
        says:

        Also how often do people stay at the job to make sure they still have a job? There is more to the decision than just the extra amount of minimum wage an hour.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        Man, if poor people understood micro economics and opportunity cost they wouldn’t be poor!

        I’m only sorta kidding Tfrog; what you say is correct. From a purely economic pov.

        {{Man, if only poor people were more economically savvy…..! }}Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        @zic

        I’m curious what you think is the minimum buy in for a useful pot that will last a reasonably long time. I know the ones I bought in college 10+ years before I replaced them, and even then it wasn’t because they wore out. Ross or Marshall’s or our local 99 Ranch has entire aisles devoted to open stock low-end cookware. It’s not the best stuff in the world, but it’s more than serviceable and it’s very unlikely to be bad enough that it won’t pay for itself with plenty of margin left over.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        Man, if poor people understood micro economics and opportunity cost they wouldn’t be poor!

        OK, even this “sorta kidding” stuff is starting to piss me off because the goalposts move back and forth so quickly that I’m worried I’m going to get hurt. There are two sets of claims going on here.

        1) Poor people eat badly because it’s a good financial decision. They’ve done the whole analysis and they know what’s best for them and we’re all know-it-all assholes for even questioning their analysis.
        2) Poor people eat badly for other reasons involving personal trade offs, tastes and preferences.

        I was going to let people guess which one I was responding to, but I’ll come out and say it. Claim 2 is far more interesting and actually has real merit. I’m responding to claim 1. It’s nonsense. The numbers are easily knowable. There’s no need to speculate about what a pot might cost or how much electricity it takes to bake a potato.

        I’ll go a step further. There are a lot of reasons for people to be poor ranging from plain old bad luck to outright laziness, but one reason I know applies to a nonzero percentage is that they’re just not that great with money. These posts always end up with a bunch of replies implying that it’s totally condescending to second guess people on how they run their households, but the fact is that a lot of people don’t know WTF they’re doing when running their households.

        The more observant among us may have noticed that the post I responded to literally started with the words, “Even in purely economic terms…” Jeez.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        So, you’re argument is that some poor folk are bad with money?

        Some middle class folk are as well. As are some upper class folk.

        Let’s just say that, people being people, the common-sense view that purchasing X on the expectation that it saves Y amount of money in the long term makes good economic sense. How many people actually act that way? Only the smart ones? Only the ones who aren’t poor?

        I really don’t know what you’re suggesting in this comment, other than there are ways for poor people to alleviate their burdens/better their economic situation. But who disagrees with that? It’s a fishing truism.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        I’ll go a step further. There are a lot of reasons for people to be poor ranging from plain old bad luck to outright laziness, but one reason I know applies to a nonzero percentage is that they’re just not that great with money. These posts always end up with a bunch of replies implying that it’s totally condescending to second guess people on how they run their households, but the fact is that a lot of people don’t know WTF they’re doing when running their households.

        I agree. At some point, you have to decide if you are interested in this topic primarily as a means of placing or deflecting blame or if you are actually interested in what solutions might work best to help.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        I’m curious what you think is the minimum buy in for a useful pot that will last a reasonably long time. I know the ones I bought in college 10+ years before I replaced them, and even then it wasn’t because they wore out.

        Well, we go from ‘a pot’ to ‘the ones I bought,’ so you’re not really talking about an$8 pot, but a set of cookware. And what you even need depends on what and how you cook. Certainly, everyone needs a small pot to cook vegetables, a fry pan, a stock pot; three essentials. What of a baking sheet and pans? Roasting pan? Bean pot?

        Good cooking technique requires a pan that is heavy enough to hold heat to brown pieces of chicken or a steak; thin pans warp and then are useless. The inside coating matters; and an appropriate choice depends on purpose. You don’t make tomato sauce in a cast-iron dutch oven that hasn’t been enameled. The cost of a single pot doesn’t have to be much; cast iron is still relatively cheap; but most department-store pots I’ve seen (Target and WalMart are where I’ve looked,) were not heavy enough to be worth purchasing; it was disposable cookware. Goodwill always seems to have similar-weight stuff, new, in stock, as well; and it’s incredibly inexpensive;

        More importantly, crappy pans mean you’re less likely to have a cooking success, and more likely to give up on cooking if you’re just learning. Food failures are really expensive. It’s not just the expense that counts, it’s the investment in tools and time to gain the skills to cook consistently, so that there’s not food waste.

        Thrifty cooking also means having a wide knowledge of how to cook so that you can take advantage of what’s available; bringing out the best qualities of the vegetable or cut of meat available; it’s more important then knowing a lot of recipes or how to follow a recipe. This is what’s available, how can I best use it to feed my people?Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        So, you’re argument is that some poor folk are bad with money?

        Really? WTF?

        Since it’s clearly necessary, my one-sentence argument is this: The claim that poor people have low quality diets because it’s financially the right decision rather than because of other factors (which may be perfectly reasonable!) is not true.

        I’d add on some more to that and explain why I wrote what I wrote and break down how each argument applies, but I’m pretty sure it won’t do any good.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        Tfrg,

        The claim that eating processed fast foods is not the financially right decision isn’t up for dispute at this point. It’s the “other factors” part I’m taking exception to. In particular, the suggestion that poor folk are bad with money. Christ, who isn’t? Are you suggesting that they’re uniquely bad?Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Troublesome Frog
        Ignored
        says:

        Well, we go from ‘a pot’ to ‘the ones I bought,’ so you’re not really talking about an $8 pot, but a set of cookware.

        The fact that it’s better to have a set of cookware than to have one pot doesn’t mean that a single pot on its own is not a good investment. I bought my first set of cookware piecemeal and at every margin, it paid off. It’s not as though you need all of the pieces before the first one is useful. In fact, I don’t think I bought a baking sheet until after college.

        I have to throw it out there and note that although I have quite a lot of cooking experience, I had to look up the term “bean pot” so it may be that our definition of a “better than no cookware” collection of cookware is different.

        My recollection from doing simple cooking in college was that while thin, low-grade cookware wasn’t great, it was far from useless and I prepared a lot of meals with it. I think the most used piece was a crappy thin-ass Granite Wear stock pot (currently $14.97 at Wal Mart). Sure, I’m much better off now that I have stuff with better thermal properties and a wider variety of shapes and sizes, but that’s really not the point.

        Also, I still don’t see any numbers from you. There’s a lot of complex argumentation going into how these costs add up, but not a lot of adding up of costs. What’s the minimum buy-in?

        And what you even need depends on what and how you cook.

        I think there’s a very good argument to be made that if you’re trying to make ends meet, how you cook should depend on what tools you have access to. You can’t say, “Well, my cooking style is all red meat sous vide style, so it’s totally irrational for me to buy any cooking hardware. The startup costs are too high.” We’re talking about the step from not cooking to cooking, which likely starts with something like a moderately sized pot-shaped piece of metal with a lid.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        or if you are actually interested in what solutions might work best to help.

        Merely describing the ways poor people throw away money isn’t solution to the problem of the poor. Granted, it’s not a useless activity, but….

        So what’s the solution then? Either gummint or Preferred Charitable Institution buys these poor folks some pots and pans? Then what? We’ll be greeted as liberators?Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        @troublesome-frog

        Is the argument that poor people are making the best financial decision, or that they are making the best rational decision they can given the constraints?

        Re: Cookware – I have a collection of rather expensive pots & pans that I use & enjoy, but I can, if I had to, walk into a discount store & come out with enough cookware & utensils to outfit a kitchen & make good food for ~$100. But, I know what I am looking for (the difference between cheap & useful, & cheap crap), and I know how to cook reasonably well over uneven and inconsistent heat (thank you Boy Scouts & campfire cooking!).

        It may be a poor craftsman who blames his tools, but poor tools are the bane of the poor craftsman.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Troublesome Frog
        Ignored
        says:

        The claim that eating processed fast foods is not the financially right decision isn’t up for dispute at this point.

        Right, it’s not like this thread literally began with exactly that claim. I can’t imagine why I would make the mistake and think that the topic was even up for discussion.

        It’s the “other factors” part I’m taking exception to. In particular, the suggestion that poor folk are bad with money.

        OK, I’ll spend some time unpacking that a bit. The argument that starts with the “They’re just doing what makes sense financially,” is often followed up with something that sounds remarkably like the “efficient markets” arguments that crop up elsewhere. They’ve done the analysis and the very idea that the analysis might be incorrect is just crazy. I mean, who would think that there might be some nontrivial percentage of people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder who aren’t making optimum financial decisions all the time, right?

        Are you suggesting that they’re uniquely bad?

        No. I think Mike Tyson managed to spend about $200M and have nothing to show for it, so that can’t possibly be true.

        On the flip side, do you think that being good with money is 100% uncorrelated with how much money you have? Like, there are no factors whatsoever that correlate both with low net worth and bad resource management skills?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        On the flip side, do you think that being good with money is 100% uncorrelated with how much money you have?

        No. For most people it’s correlated with how much they make. And poor people generally don’t make very much.Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Troublesome Frog
        Ignored
        says:

        So what’s the solution then? Either gummint or Preferred Charitable Institution buys these poor folks some pots and pans? Then what? We’ll be greeted as liberators?

        I don’t think that’s it at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. If we can all just come to grips with the fact that the food choices of the poor are not driven by pure financial optimization, that would probably enable us to make better decisions about what they need. Giving them pots and pans and putting them over the margin to start cooking may well be the wrong answer–one rooted in the assumption that food choice for them is a purely financial question.

        My theory is that “other factors” are a major player. If your work is exhausting and fulfilling and your discretionary budget is extremely small, spending extra on fun/easy food is your affordable luxury. It’s literally worth the extra money to them, so finding a way to do away with it won’t be making them much better off. It’s like the $4 coffee the middle class people buy. They’d be measurably better of financially if they didn’t do it, but it makes them really happy and if you look at it as a treat rather than “coffee” it makes perfect sense.

        I think that the people who make the “Healthy food is expensive,” claim are more guilty of treating it as a dollars-and-cents problem than the people pushing back against them with numbers. It’s not just a dollars-and-cents problem. Human beings need reward and rest and variety, not just inputs and outputs. Boiling this down to inputs and outputs is wrong.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        @troublesome-frog Like, there are no factors whatsoever that correlate both with low net worth and bad resource management skills?

        I think that not having enough money; or always having to juggle money-making decisions leads to different kinds of decisions. In a family that’s floating from financial crisis to financial crisis, a small windfall, to you or me, saved would seem a good idea. But if a doctor’s bill or car bill or your kid’s legal bill or a parking ticket are likely to zap that windfall, sometimes it’s better not to save it, to spend it now, maybe on something that really does improve your quality of life, like a night out or a new pot or a new bathroom shower curtain or a new pair of boots.

        My job, in my family, is cook. I manage what we eat. It takes a lot of time and energy. For someone who works full time, who has to attend all the other household chores, and manage and care for children, turning that responsibility over to someone else is a reasonable thing to do.

        (Note that I gained my cooking skills beginning at about nine years of age, when my parents separated and my mother went to work full time. If we wanted to eat, I had to do the cooking. I also provided the child-care for my two younger siblings. This option — turning over most household tasks to middle-school children, is highly frowned upon these days.)Report

      • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        I’ll second @oscar-gordon with a shout out to the Boy Scouts for teaching me (sometimes the hard way) how to feed myself with simple ingredients, uneven heat, and cookware that a Civil War soldier on forced march might not bother with.

        On the other hand, I was well into adulthood before I learned how to use a microwave effectively.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        @troublesome-frog

        Microwaves are for melting butter & … I got nothing else.

        I was lucky in that my Boy Scout Troop had an assistant scout leader who was a gourmet chef. For those of who who wanted to learn, he was eager to teach.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        No love for pressure cookers here? Some people have mentioned energy costs. Pressure cookers demolish energy costs.

        Of course, I haven’t found a decent one in a normal store in the US. The one I have is great but was flown in from India by my parents. (Privilege!)Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Troublesome Frog
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        says:

        I am officially showing love for pressure cookers.Report

  12. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    OT but related to Saul’s comment. A lot of foodie arguments a la Bitman or Pollan annoy me because they are very ahistorical. According to the foodies, in the world before industrialization people lived a bountiful diet of seasonable and fresh produce and meat. This simply isn’t true. Most people ate a monotonous diet of the local tuber or grain because they could afford little else. There would be some vegetables and the occassional piece of meat on festivals. The upper classes prefferred to define on bread made of very refined flour, meat, and sweets. Vegetables and fruits were generally avoided by Europeans that could afford to do so. In the cities, the poor ate take out from cook shopes because few had a place to cook. Even the well-off needed to loan over space from a baker at times.

    It was the process of industrialization, including industrial agriculture, that started to diversify the diet of most humans. Plantations made former luxuries like sugar, tea, coffee, and chocolate available for the masses. Canning, refrigeration, and other preservation techniques combined with trains and steam ships allowed more people access to a wider variety of foods than ever before.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      Most people ate a monotonous diet of the local tuber or grain because they could afford little else.

      If I were to take a slightly cynical view of my own post, it’d be that you still can do this! I eat sweet potatoes all the time. Beans and lentils rarely go bad and are hard to overcook.Report

      • Avatar A Compromised Immune System in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        Another problem with most of your approaches is preservation, @vikram-bath . A major advantage of the packaged items is that they are set up for an equivalence of one box or bag or can to one meal.

        Once you’ve opened one of those giant rice bags or the flour bag, you’ve either got to figure out a way to re-seal it or you need to get some alternate method of storage. Once you’ve opened up the pasta, you’ll need to bag it or seal it.

        If you’ve made a large pot of cooked beans and lentils and rice or something else then depending on your situation any leftovers may be wasted food.

        Yes, someone armed with a set of various canisters and sealing bags and other things can do this but then it’s a matter of investing money in them. And someone living on the short term already may not be willing to do so. How can you expect to cart around the various containers if your expectation of housing and storage is month-to-month?Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        Hey! I’ve got a sweet potato cooking right now! (Lain seems to kinda like them.)Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        “you’ve either got to figure out a way to re-seal it”

        1) fold over flap
        2) put bag on shelf
        3) there is no step 3 because you were done at step 2

        “Yes, someone armed with a set of various canisters and sealing bags and other things can do this but then it’s a matter of investing money in them. ”

        Store-brand Tupperware-type containers cost less than bottled water.Report

      • Avatar gingergene in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        @densityduck Where I live (humid deep south) nothing can be stored using the “fold over and leave it” method. Rice become inedible, flour acquires insects, anything crispy becomes soggy and anything soft becomes compost. To Vikram’s point, legumes are probably the easiest to care for, but man can not live on lentils alone.

        My pantry is a sea of airtight containers. I have the nice ones that are meant to be reusable; the cheap ones – which I have never seen for less than the cost of a bottle of water- are not meant to last and must be replaced time and again. (Vimes’ tupperware, I guess)Report

  13. Avatar trizzlor
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    says:

    I think this is a useful starting point in that it disputes the simple dollar/calorie interpretation of food affordability. But, as others have pointed out, it misses a large part of the equation: time & resources (e.g. a car, a nearby grocer) required to get the ingredients on a regular basis or in bulk; time & skill & equipment required to plan and cook the meals. This is such a large part of the equation that it may actually make the rest of the analysis meaningless. You could, for example, argue that all healthy food is technically free if the poor simply became a subsistence farmer: the seed prices at my local nursery are insignificant; the food just comes out of the ground; you can learn about farming from blogs! And that analysis would be correct, but it would be missing so many of the practical constraints as to be nearly uninformative.

    Along those lines, I looked through the SNAP challenge blog and my first impression was “boy, you really need to have a lot of time, know-how, and equipment to do this” and even then you’re eating an awful lot of pasta.Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to trizzlor
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      says:

      This is such a large part of the equation that it may actually make the rest of the analysis meaningless.

      If this is true, then why do so many advocates bother to make the dollar per calorie argument in the first place?

      There is a bit of goalpost moving going on here.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor in reply to j r
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        says:

        Probably because they’re more motivated by ideology than accuracy: we know poor people have a hard time staying healthy, so let’s put together the simplest narrative to explain it. That doesn’t mean an accurate – but equally simple – rejection of that narrative tells the whole story (or even most of it).Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to j r
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        says:

        That’s true, but I’m not sure that @vikram-bath, at any point, claimed to be authoring the definitive analysis on healthy eating and the poor.

        He is offering a critique of a very common explanation. And that, in itself, has value.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor in reply to j r
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        says:

        >>He is offering a critique of a very common explanation. And that, in itself, has value.

        I agree the critique is valuable in that it shows the flaws of anti-hunger programs that say “let’s make healthy produce more affordable for the poor”. As Vikram points out – and the commenters tend to agree – direct dollar cost is not the main issue here.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to trizzlor
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      says:

      I just looked at the SNAP challenge blog, and I agree that $120/month is not enough to eat decently. But vegetables still aren’t the most expensive parts of a meal. Grains are the cheapest (especially pasta; rice has tripled in price, or more, over the last several years); meats and cheese are the most expensive.

      Inability to buy in bulk is also a great point; if you’re poor you often have to buy things in small amounts at a time because you don’t have the money for the larger amounts. That adds up to being more expensive in the long run.Report

  14. Avatar KatherineMW
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    says:

    In my experience, cost is not the barrier to eating healthy foods. During times when I was on a tight budget, the most expensive items were meat, cheese, and junk food. Vegetables and fruits, at least the more basic ones, are quite cheap: apples, cucumbers, carrots, fresh beans, fresh peas. (Frozen peas are even cheaper, but less nice.) Peppers are expensive.

    But healthy foods take more time, energy, and initiative to cook than pre-made meals, and they’re not as appealing when you’re tired and cranky. (Saul’s Orwell quote is spot-on, as is the rest of his comment.) They also take more time and effort to cook, particularly if you want to make them more appealing than just eating raw veggies. And many people in poor households may not grow up learning how to cook at all, so they’ve got no starting point. If you don’t know the recipes, then it’s even more effort to cook your own stuff rather than using frozen dinners and the like, and there’s less inclination to cook because, personally, I’m cautious about trying new recipes when I’m on my own because if I screw it up then I’ve wasted costly food and I don’t have dinner.

    Conditions may be different in parts of US cities; there may be places that don’t have any grocery stores with fresh produce within convenient distance. In those cases access to healthy food would also be a barrier. I’ve lived mainly in midsized Canadian cities, where I haven’t noticed such issues.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to KatherineMW
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      says:

      There is also a family dynamic that can be at play. My father, while I was growing up, was very much a meat & potatoes kind of man. Very few fruit & vegetables were acceptable to him, and so my mom, despite her desire to do so, did not cook a wealth of variety for the family on a daily basis (she could not even steam broccoli if dad was home, the smell was so offensive to him).

      I was lucky in that my mom did believe in variety, and during the summers I got lots of exposure to different fruits & veggies for lunches, mostly from our garden (we were rural poor), but I can easily see how a single adult with a very limited palate can set the habits for a whole family.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        @oscar-gordon

        There are whole cultural and social times when vegetables went into and out of favor. The English hated vegetables during the Restoration and Victorian Eras (Constipation was a huge health problem during the Restoration. Pepys wrote about it in his diary!) and saw them as unhealthy animal fodder that came from the ground. Plus being able to eat meat (and a lot of it) was a sign of wealth. I wonder if these attitudes went forward with groups.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        I’d argue that for most of Anglophone history from the Middle Ages until the 20th century, vegetables were looked at with disfavor for a variety of reasons. At best, they were seen as an accompaniment for meat. At worse, unhealthy animal fodder or food for those that could not afford meat on a regular basis. That is for the poor. People didn’t understand the value of eating uncooked vegetables until the 20th century. Before that, vegetables were eaten cooked if possible.Report

  15. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    Our poor just aren’t good enough at being poor, is what really seems to be the problem. Probably because they aren’t really poor (enough) or not persistently and hopelessly enough. They keep thinking they don’t really need to learn to be poor, because they don’t accept that their lives are condemned to it like the poor of other countries, so that they think they can kind of skate along on lower-middle class getting-by strategies rather than really learning how to be poor.Report

  16. Avatar zic
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    says:

    Next Monday, I’ll go work at the food pantry again. We just got two big donations, the shelves will be well stocked, and it’s coming on mud season. This is a winter recreation area; skiing, snowmobiling, even back-country dog sledding. Snowmakers, hotel staff, wait staff, ski schools, will all be out of work. We’ll be busy this month.

    We always run out of produce first. In the summer, we get excess produce from local farmers, and that always goes first, too.

    What we provide depends on what’s available in the food system. Usually, it’s bulk stuff that didn’t sell out of warehouses, etc., sometimes highly processed (all-rib meat mechanically-processed chicken is a frightening food), sometimes not. There’s always beans, lentils, cans of beans and jars of tomato sauce; carrots, peas. Frequently a dried fruit — raisins or cranberries.

    Each food-pantry day, we get a delivery from a nearby Wal-Mart — the stuff they had to take of the shelf that day. This includes a lot of pretty-nasty fruit and vegetables and a lot of meat that needs to be frozen immediately, odds and ends we’ll give out next month. And then there’s the pastries; the doughnuts and pies and trays of cinnamon roles and boxes of cupcakes with gayly-colored frostings. Those are the second most popular thing we distribute at the food pantry.Report

  17. Avatar Tod Kelly
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    says:

    @vikram-bath I largely agree with you. In fact I’ve written previous posts that cooking with whole foods is less expensive that cooking with processed foods — if you know how to cook.

    That being said, I think when we’re talking about people who are impoverished there are a few things that we privileged middle-classers take for granted:

    Time: Spare time is one of those things we tend to thing the working poor have in abundance, but they really don’t. I’m able to do a lot of cooking with whole foods that leads to great economy, but I have a whole lot of spare time — and a second parent — to help me do so.

    Investment: I’ve been in the kitchens of a whole lot of people who may have a pot to piss in, but they don’t Preallyhave one to cook in. Rice is indeed very cheap, but even if you don’t need to spring for a nice rice cooker you at least need a pan or a pot, and if you don’t want it to come out inedible you probably need a halfway decent one. Telling someone deeply impoverished they should just stock their kitchen properly with the right pantry items and equipment is a little like telling them they should just buy a car so they don’t have to limit themselves to jobs near public transportation.

    Education: If you’re like me you have learned to cook from a variety of sources: family members who already knew, as well as going to nice restaurants and talking chefs, buying and reading cookbooks (or going to the library), subscribing to things like America’s Test Kitchen, watching cable TV and growing videos on the internet. (See Time, Investment above.)

    Which, again, isn’t to say that your thesis isn’t correct — it is. It’s just that I don’t think it’s quite that simple.Report

  18. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    Comparing pasta to ramen isn’t an apples to apples comparison. Plain pasta is bland. Ramen has, as you note, all that other stuff in it that makes it yummy. If you want to add that to your pasta, the price goes up. More importantly, the amount of work (and time) required also go up AND you probably end up with something that is still less palatable to most people.

    People tend to eat less healthily not because it is cheaper, but because it is cheap, easy, convenient, and tasty in a way that plays on the body’s natural food cravings.

    Sure, I can teach you to make an amazing, healthy pasta dinner for pretty cheap. BUT, it requires relatively high start up costs (you can’t buy a tablespoon of EVOO… you have to buy the whole bottle for $12), takes time, and is going to include things like asparagus or spinach or brocollini that most people would never prefer over orange cheese.Report

  19. Avatar Michael Cain
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    says:

    Spare time is one of those things we tend to thing the working poor have in abundance, but they really don’t.

    Don’t forget to add clean-up time to the total. As I recall from my college days when I cooked with a minimal set of mismatched pots and pans and plates and stuff, dishes had to be washed every night. We were fortunate to have enough counter space to let things air dry.Report

  20. Avatar Brandon Berg
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    says:

    Are these subsidies for processed foods a real thing? I know there are some agricultural subsidies, but those are for raw ingredients. It’s also my understanding that food subsidies generally take the form of price supports.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg
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      says:

      After doing a bit of research, my tentative conclusion is that agricultural subsidies:

      1. Total about $20B per year, compared to about $1400B in annual food expenditures.
      2. Probably do not drive prices up, as my original comment suggested. There are price floors, but they work by having the government make up the difference, rather than having the government buy enough to raise the price.
      3. Do not appreciably favor some crops over others. Corn receives the biggest share of subsidies, but only because that’s what farmers produce the most of.

      I’m not really finding any evidence that subsidies even implicitly favor processed foods to any appreciable degree. I suspect that processed foods are popular because they taste good to most people, have a long shelf life, and require little preparation, not because they’re subsidized.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        I’d disagree. Not about the processed foods, but about the ag subsidies. IIRC, corn is subsidized and is even cheaper than sugar. That’s why it’s used in most processed food vs real sugar. HFC is nasty stuff and much sweater than real sugar. I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons HFC is so prevalent is the corn subsidy. Oh, and the ethanol subsidy, which is derived predominately from corn, effects beef production costs.

        And price floors can drive up prices because you’re mandating a minimum price. It’s the same as a minimum wage. If someone wants to sell you something below the floor, they can’t.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        I’d disagree BB, candy manufacturing is especially prevalent in Ontario for export to the US. Why? Because sugar is cheaper in Canada than the US due to sugar tarriffs primarily in place to protect native sugar producers. Corn subsidies couple with this to make corn syrup the go to sweetener for manufacturers in the US which has significant price and health consequences. Corn subsidies, again, make corn the #1 snack ingredient in the US as well.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        Corn receives the biggest share of subsidies, but only because that’s what farmers produce the most of.

        There might be a bit of which-came-first going on here. A lot of corn gets planted in part because there is a price floor for it.

        But even then we can’t get from here to the idea that processed foods are subsidized. Processed corn products are not subsidized relative to corn on the cob, the latter of which I assume is healthy since it’s pictured in the National Cancer Institute picture I used with this post.

        I am not a food scientist, but my guess is that if apples happened to be really cheap and easy to extract sugar from and grown in a politically important part of the country, we’d have a bunch of apple subsidies and we’d be hearing about all the problems associated with using Apple-derived fructose as a food additive. But it still wouldn’t mean that apples themselves are bad for you.Report

      • Avatar gingergene in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        @vikram-bath Although fresh sweet corn may be subsidized at the same rate as other varieties (is that actually the case?), that doesn’t mean it’s economical- it has the same costs and risks as other fresh fruit and vegetables. The varieties of corn that are grown for HFCF and ethanol (as well as animal feed, and it isn’t any healthier for cows than for us) are hardier and require less care during harvesting and processing.

        If the subsidies are the same, the other incentives favor industrial corn (for lack of a better term) over fresh corn on the cob.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        I didn’t actually know there were different varieties for making HFCS than for corn on the cob.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        Corn is a peculiar case these days, since there are also implicit subsidies in the form of ethanol mandates at both federal and state levels. Iowa State University’s annual forecast estimates that just under 40% of the corn crop will go into ethanol plants this year. Anecdotally, based on my periodic drives across Nebraska, areas that used to be mixed crops and now almost all corn, and even areas where there is enough rainfall for dryland farming are irrigating the corn to push yields.Report

      • Avatar gingergene in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        Even if you used the same varieties (and why would you? Your end customers want completely different things), just the cost of careful harvesting and transportation would make grocery corn less economical than industrial corn.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        @vikram-bath
        Sweet corn intended for human consumption — a quite small fraction of total production — has been bred for higher sugar content and is hand-picked at a stage in its life cycle when the kernels are fragile due to high water content. Dent corn — which is used for pretty much everything except human consumption — is picked much later in the cycle after the plant has died and the kernels have dried (dried kernels of any variety are darned near indestructible; you wouldn’t believe how roughly it gets handled in transport). Speaking from experience as a kid, dent corn picked at the same point in the life cycle as sweet corn is picked is perfectly edible, although you usually boil it in water with some sugar added instead of steaming it. Once the plant dies, or the ear is picked from a living plant, sugars in the kernel convert to starch fairly quickly. HFCS is produced by separating out the starch and then subjecting it to an industrial process to convert the starch molecules to sugars.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        @gingergene

        Back when I was growing up on WI farms, it was just called field corn.

        Sweet corn has soft kernels, field corn has much harder kernels, but can be just as sweet. It’s edible if you cook the hell out of it.Report

  21. Avatar Alan Scott
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    says:

    I think a little bit more thought needs to go into what counts as “healthy food” for the purpose of this discussion.

    I’m given to understand that the old mode of low-in-fat, high-in-carbohydrate diets as the key to healthy weight is considered out-dated–and that for example, a plate of spaghetti might not actually be any healthier than a bowl of ramen.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Alan Scott
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      says:

      I’m surprised that throughout this discussion no one called me out on that. I guess this post was controversial enough that what foods are healthy and which are not was the *least* controversial aspect, which is saying something.

      The approach I took in writing the OP was to adopt Irwin’s framework of “processed” means unhealthy and “unprocessed” means healthy. And I happen to think he’s probably right on that.

      With respect to spaghetti and ramen, I think you’re right that the unprocessed option might not be healthier than the processed option. The unprocessed one is certainly much cheaper though (with the caveats mentioned by @kazzy that you have to have some of the other ingredients around to add them to the pasta to make it edible).Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Alan Scott
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      says:

      What types of food matters greatly, and it’s not always easy or obvious to make healthy choices.

      Take redeemed fats in our diet. We now know that fats are important in the diet; but the type of fat matters greatly. Unrefined fats — olive oil, nut oils, etc., are healthy. But refined oils, which have had most of the vegetal matter cleaned from them, not so much. Like most things food, the difference shows in the shelf life — unrefined oils become rancid faster. So a first consideration in shopping for home-cooking ingredients is shelf life, storage, and expense. Unrefined oils are much more expensive than refined oils.

      Butter and eggs are another thing to consider; certainly in butter’s far more healthy than margarines; and eggs are a cheap and quick-cooking source of protein. But both vary tremendously based on the diet of the producing animal. Animals fed a corn-based diet really brings down the nutritional quality of the butter and eggs both; a natural diet, on the other hand, produces foods rich in Omega-3 Acids.

      Much of ‘health’ of foods is difficult to discern; two foods can appear much the same; and because they’re from living things, it’s health starts with the diet provided to that living thing. I love pork, but refuse to purchase what’s sold from factory farms in the grocery store because of the conditions used in raising the bigs that meat comes from. Yes, there’s some cuddly, be-kind-to-animals going on here, but more importantly, the high levels of stress, of antibiotic use, and improper diet generally suggest meat that’s nor likely to be healthy. Note here that I’m not necessarily talking organic; but I am talking traditional instead of industrial.Report

    • Avatar Dave in reply to Alan Scott
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      says:

      @alan-scott

      Believe me, my alarm bells were going off the second I started reading this post, but that’s a can of worms I did not want to open.Report

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