Better access to supermarkets — long touted as a way to curb obesity in low-income neighborhoods — doesn’t improve people’s diets, according to new research. The study, which tracked thousands of people in several large cities for 15 years, found that people didn’t eat more fruits and vegetables when they had supermarkets available in their neighborhoods.
Instead, income — and proximity to fast food restaurants — were the strongest factors in food choice.
Not emphatic enough. Here: NO SHIT!
I know that we need studies to formalize the obvious sometimes. And I know that there are folks out there who do not think that it’s obvious at all that fresh fruits and vegetables and meats are luxury items below a certain income level, but they are. Try as I might not to generalize, I have a feeling that anyone who believes that simply opening a grocery store will fix things has never been properly out of money for any length of time.
We still struggle with this in my household. We both work, we both come home exhausted, and between us we make little enough that the kids still qualify for state insurance (and will likely make *less* this year, not more). We try (and sometimes even succeed) to do right by the kids nutritionally, but fresh veggies have mostly gone right out the window, as even when we can get them at a good price they require extra preparation. Much easier to spend a buck twenty-five and throw a bag of corn in the microwave–or heat up a can of corn for even less. Fruit can be cheap enough in season, but three kids can eat *pounds* of the stuff, and so, for example, apples this time of year? Not a frequent thing. When I was shopping last week, the cheapest apples in the store were going for a dollar and ninety-nine cents a pound.
I know this has been said before, but it bears repeating: for the same two dollars as a couple of apples, I can have chicken nuggets and fries from BK (feeds one kid). Kids are thrilled, because that stuff is damned tasty, parents are thrilled because they don’t have to cook it and even more thrilled that the kids won’t be demanding a snack an hour later. There are a hell of a lot less calories in an apple than in a bag of fries.
Meat is something that doesn’t always get considered adequately in these discussions. Lean meat is crazy expensive when you’re feeding three kids and are at our present income level. We can find chicken with relative ease–boneless, skinless breasts at a dollar ninety-nine a pound (better deal than a pair of apples, if you’re looking to fill a kid up)–but you have to buy the things in seven to eight dollar packages to get the big discount. More than once a sale has gone by while we waited for payday. And lean beef, ground or otherwise? Forget it. I actually prefer fattier ground beef for cooking, but even the eighty/twenty I’d be making pasta with is rarely under three dollars a pound. An occasional sale will hit two forty-nine, but mostly? More than that.
Keep in mind that we have a variety of grocery stores within a reasonable radius. Within fifteen miles, there are three Walmart Supercenters, a Hannaford, a Market Basket, two Stop&Shops, two Shaw’s and two grocery stores that belong to small local chains. We’re also lucky enough to have a farmer’s market close by, where the produce prices are sometimes extraordinary. We can shop the living hell out the sales, between all of these, and get food much cheaper than we could if we had only one store close to us, or if we had transportation issues that restricted the number of stores we could shop at. We are also lucky in that most of these stores are in places we would be driving by in the normal course of things; if we had to spend extra gas to get to them, the savings would be minimal to non-existent, thus essentially putting that store beyond our reach.
Even when we manage to put meat and fresh veggies on the table, there is always the problem of starch. Starches are cheap, and if you buy them pre-processed, they’re really cheap. Minute Rice and Potato Buds, anyone? In all seriousness, we go for the even-cheaper-but-you-have-to-cook it plain white rice around here, as it’s inexpensive enough to measure the amount for a meal in cents rather than dollars…unless you’re using it to bulk out a meal. The issue here is that stretching the healthy food you do have often means filling out a meal with much less expensive, much less healthy alternatives. Not as much meat as you really wish you had? Make extra rice. Make a big pot of pasta and add a token amount of burger to it. Make small burgers and have a big serving of tater tots. Or potato chips. Hell, when I was a kid, we sometimes ate mashed potatoes with chunks of cheese melted into them and called it a meal.
Or ramen. There’s always ramen. Twelve packages for a dollar ninety-eight at the Walmart. And even then we’re making a set of assumptions; when your electric has been cut off, it’s hard to boil water. Then even ramen is something that’s beyond your reach.
The upshot of all of this is simply that it’s damned hard to feed a family a healthy diet on a small amount of money. It involves having access to a variety of places to shop, enough money at one time to stock up and to shop the sales, and the energy to not just figure out what to buy where when, but to cook it once you do.
These are the current USDA guidelines for a healthy meal:
Now, I’m going to grant you that this exercise would be less expensive if you had time and space and enough cash on hand to build up some supplies, but for the moment imagine this: a new grocery store just opened down the block from you. You’re thrilled, as most of the time you’ve been eating either fast food or simple, pre-processed meals. How much would it cost to bring home the ingredients to make this dinner for a family of five?
A gallon of milk runs around $4 at my local stores,
more a little less if you buy the 1% or skim that the USDA recommends.
You can buy enough chicken for two meals for $8, but only if you buy enough right now for two meals. Otherwise it will be almost as much to buy two smaller packages for this meal at the higher price per pound.
You can get a small bag of rice for a little more than $1. The brown rice that would go toward the USDA recommendation that at least half your grains be whole grains? More.
To have enough veggies to make up the correct proportion of your plates, you can buy 2 cans of peas for $2 or 2 steamer bags for $2.70. If you want the fresh veggies that the articles are always talking about when they get excited about store openings, you can buy broccoli crowns on sale for $1.49 a pound, which actually puts you ahead of the game, since you only buy a pound and a quarter. This only works, though, if you’ve got the proper steamer pan or insert to cook it in or if you don’t mind boiling it or eating it raw. (Simple things can become complicated very quickly when we’re talking about food choices and poverty.)
Fruit is actually pretty easy, if the canned stuff is to your taste. 2 cans of mixed fruit will run you about $2.50. Plums are in season at $.99 a pound, which runs you about the same.
So you’re looking at spending a minimum of $17 to $18, with half a gallon of milk and enough chicken for another meal left over. That is, if all of this is on sale at the same store, if you have the facilities to cook it properly and to store the leftover, and if the kids aren’t teenagers and thus much more expensive to feed. If you have the knowledge and the energy to cook something that tastes decent, and if you have a few things floating around the kitchen to start with…a fat to cook the chicken in, salt and pepper, the right pans, some knives. If not, then adjust the cost upward accordingly.
Now, given that each meal you make will be successively less expensive for a while as you build a pantry, this may not make the most persuasive argument for BK being cheaper (working from the dollar menu, my family of 5 generally eats for $10 to $12 dollars, and usually we get the kids $6 worth and scrounge around the house for something to eat for ourselves). But it does make an argument for BK being *easier,* and given the challenges that folks in the lower income brackets often face–like working multiple jobs–that may be an even more important factor.
Cheap *and* easy is where things really go down the nutritional drain. Assume that you have hot dogs often enough that you have ketchup and maybe some mustard and relish floating around (startup cost around $6). Pack of hot dogs, say $2.50 for something decent (I can get rock-bottom hot dogs for $.88 at my local Walmart), buns maybe $1.39, giant bag of store brand chips $2.79. Between $6 and $7 bucks, and you have chips left over. $12 to $13 if you have to buy the condiments, and you have those leftover, too.
We’ve had that meal more than once lately.
I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before. This subject, though, is near and dear to my heart, because I absolutely *hate* that we wind up feeding the kids the hot dogs and chips so often lately, as have resorted to BK more frequently than we have in the past just because we’re both too tired to cook. We wouldn’t eat nearly as many good meals as we do if we were limited to the store that’s within walking distance of us; we simply couldn’t afford to do that. The prices above are based on what I’ve managed to find on sale within the last several weeks at several different stores.
My point is simply this: plopping a grocery store down somewhere will not give everyone access to decent food, if by decent food you mean food that meets USDA recommendations and by access you mean the money, skills, equipment and time to actually cook it. It’s a hell of a lot more complicated than it looks on the surface, while being absurdly obvious at the same time. It baffles me that anyone who takes the subject seriously wouldn’t be able to see that.