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Cheap Eats: Part II

November 10, 2009

In my last post, I started talking about food.  Specifically, cheap food.

You know, the “Dollar Menu-its so cheap it should be a sin-I can’t believe I bought a meal for a buck” food.

The thing is, food this cheap should be a sin.  Not because food should be expensive, but because the price of these cheap foods aren’t actually as cheap as we think.

Foods like $2.50 frozen pizzas seem like a deal, but in fact hide a very real and very expensive cost: detrimental effects on the environment and our health.  These external costs may not appear on your grocery bill or drive thru receipt, but still we bear their effects on a day-to-day basis.

What are these external costs and what creates them?

Cost: Obesity     Cause: Farm Bill Subsidies

The majority of subsidies distributed by the farm bill are put into the pockets of large, commercial farms growing commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat.  Rather than help maintain a balanced agricultural economy, the government pays by bushels produced–keeping prices low and encouraging overproduction.  What to do then with all the extra corn, soybeans, and wheat?  Simply look at the ingredients list of most processed foods, from cereal to soda, chips to Hamburger Helper.  You’ll likely find a derivative of these commodity crops there.

These cheap, subsidy endorsed add-ons (click here for a list) allow food producers to sell their high-calorie, high-fat, high-cholesterol foods at incredibly low prices.  Meanwhile, farmers who grow fresh produce have received hardly any assistance.  Therefore, while waistline-widening fast foods and junk foods get cheaper and cheaper, vegetables and fruits become more and more expensive.

Here’s a talk given by Mark Bittman, a food journalist, on how our modern diet is effecting the planet and our health:

Cost: Air and water pollution     Cause: Industrial food production

Commodity crops such as corn and soy are also very resource intensive crops, meaning that they require large amounts of water and chemical fertilizers to grow.  Born out of fossil fuels, these chemical fertilizers are a double whammy on the environment: first it releases greenhouse gases (pow!) and then the chemical runoff pollute both soil and water (wapow!). 

The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico? We have agricultural runoff to thank for that.

Pig-farm Toxic Lagoons? We have industrial meat production to congratulate.  (Warning: the link contains some semi-graphic pictures)

Though this kind of environmental degredation is occuring, many of us continue to eat industrially produced food.  Why?  Because it’s easy to simply turn off your computer or TV, ignore the pollution, and chomp into a $1 cheeseburger.  Environmental costs are external costs, meaning that they aren’t factored into the price of the food.  Furthermore, even if they were factored in, how do we figure out the costs?  How much is clean air or drinkable water worth?  Who do we charge: the chemical producers, the farmers, or the consumer?

So what can we do about it?

It is tough to change the way we eat.  In no way am I saying that tomorrow we should all be vegan locavores who only eat organic foods.  My teacher always says: “The key is balance and moderation.”  There are a number of things you can do to incorporate a different way of eating into your life–one that allows you to enjoy good food without turning your meals upside down.

1. Cook more! After a stressful day, nothing sounds easier than running through Taco Bell or popping in a TV dinner.  But cooking can be therapeutic, enjoyable, and easy.  To make things speedier, take a free evening to cut and prepare your food for the week.  That way, when you’re ready to cook, all the ingredients are already ready to be thrown together. Using a slow cooker allows you to cook while you’re out.

2. Eat more fresh veggies. Hate broccoli but love potatoes?  Throw some steamed broccoli into mashed potatoes (you seriously won’t even taste them).  Vegetables are low in calories, high in nutrients, and void of any corn or soy additives.

When I asked Austin and his friends why they don’t eat more vegetables, they argued that vegetables don’t have the calories or protein that they need.  To a certain extent, I agree.  Eating salads all day wouldn’t cut it for me either.  You can still have a steak…just add steamed veggies on the side.  Challenge yourself to incorporate a vegetable into every meal.

3. Grow your own food or buy from those who do.  Ok, I don’t have a green thumb.  My only successful plant was a cactus.  But growing your own veggies isn’t only for farmers with acres of land.  Many people try to utilize the space they have and try to grow what they can.  For some inspiration, check out: The 6×8 Garden, a blog about a woman who grows food on the balcony of her second story apartment.

CSA (community supported agriculture) and local farmers are a great source of fresh produce for those who have no green thumb whatsoever (like me!).  Click here to find CSAs and local farmers in your area.

I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts on cheap food!  Why do you eat fast or processed foods?  How are some ways you incorporate fresh ingredients into your food?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. jclynes permalink
    November 11, 2009 1:19 am

    wow, awesome post. This is a great overview of a really important topic.

  2. Danny Smyl permalink
    November 12, 2009 8:38 am

    Good post, I agree with you. I think Americans eat too much fast food, processed crap, and not enough whole foods. As a result America is quite plump. While we cannot eliminate fast food because it is engineered to taste good and its incredibly good, we need to cut down on the quantity we consume.

    Cooking is a great alternative, as you’ve pointed out. But America needs to cook good food, not Macaroni and Hot dogs (talk about a processed combo!). I’m as broke as it comes, but I can still manage to eat oatmeal, milk, pasta, tomato sauce (vegetable/fruit!), chicken breasts, and potatoes. America you have no excuse!

  3. November 14, 2010 10:37 am

    i have a very busy lifestyle too, and i would always frequently eat on Fastfoods ..:

  4. November 24, 2010 5:05 pm

    you can always buy cheap foods on any supermarket these days because food production is mechanized already ~*.

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