Barriers to Healthier Eating: Cost, Access or Culture?

By Nora Peters, VISTA Volunteer

On the morning of September 24th, 2011 I stumbled across an intriguing New York Times article that posed the question: Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?  This immediately caught my attention because as a Hunger Free King County VISTA I consistently get the opposite message – that healthy food is too expensive so most people struggling with money opt for the cheaper foods which tend to be generally unhealthy.  After a few more people sent the article to me I knew I had to reflect on it.

Despite first glance judgment, author Mark Bittman is surprisingly not a neoconservative with a secret lobbying agenda for Big Food; he’s actually just a journalist and avid home cook that seeks to demystify cooking and bring people away from the fast food line and back into the kitchen.

He asserts that this is easier than people might think.  His main claim is that “hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home” and cites a meal of roast chicken and vegetables costing $14 to prepare, while a McDonalds meal for 5 costs $28.  After giving a few more examples of low-cost meals that can be prepared at home, Bittman also comments that though some may say these processed foods are cheaper by the calorie, that “half the people in this country consume too many calories rather than too few;” plus, we can get more bang for our buck in healthy calories from meals made at home.   He also states that one does not need to venture all the way to Whole Foods or buy local, organic, grass-fed or cage free to escape fast food – one simply needs to make the effort to seek out basic, unprocessed ingredients at their local grocer because “if you can drive to a McDonalds, you can drive to Safeway.”

However cooking, he says, is the real challenge because “cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch.”  We need real cultural change and “no-nonsense cooking and eating must become popular again,” and not just by hipsters and locavores.

As opposed to more leftist thinkers, Bittman places a bit more responsibility on the individual to fight their psychosocial addiction to fast food.  Although, Bittman still does recognizes that food deserts are a problem and that not all people have the time and resources to consistently seek out healthy food.  He also believes that to change behaviors, we need to change the environment.  We know this can be successful because we’ve done it before – with tobacco.   Smoking has been converted from “a cool habit to one practiced by pariahs.”  Bittman dreams of the day when kids everywhere will “boo” when their parents drive past a McDonald’s.

I second this call to cultural change and agree that just as with tobacco use, if enough people get behind the food movement, we can alter the social landscape to make unhealthy and fast foods socially unacceptable and make it cool to eat healthy.

Although I agreed with a lot of what Bittman had to say, I was looking for more depth about the mounting issue of hunger in America, affecting 49 million people, including 1 in 4 children.  If healthy food was indeed always cheaper, then why doesn’t everyone consistently eat well without worrying?  Seattle Times reporter Emily Heffter covered a story that took a different perspective.  It turns out that 212 women surveyed in South King County said that although their main priority was providing healthy food for their families, “the high cost of fresh and organic fruits and vegetables” was the barrier.  They say that they know how to cook, so education is not the issue and moreover that projects like community gardens, while great in theory, do not work for everyone who does not have the time or money to tend them.

The group that compiled the survey, Got Green, recommended leveraging state SNAP benefits by matching those dollars at farmers’ markets and also simply providing a bit more money in the food stamp program.

Which side is right?  I personally think the food system in America is too complex and varied to boil down into one main reason why we have both hunger and obesity.  Rather, it’s important to hear all sides of the story and judge on a case-by-case (community-by-community) basis on how to get people eating healthier, all the while keeping the big picture of food justice and sustainability in mind.

What do you think?