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Passive Activism: Eating Fresh

May 21, 2012

  This image rolled across my Facebook wall a while back with the caption “$20 and a crock pot. Think of the possibilities.”  In general, I tend to be frustrated by image meme activism.  Most of them are gross oversimplifications of complicated issues and the rest are just flat out wrong.  This one in particular irked me because it’s both.  Not only does it ignore a lot of complex factors in why people buy fast food over fresh, but the prices on the fresh food is considerably cheaper than your average grocery store and while price seems to vary on KFC products, $20 is generally pretty high for this meal.

Then there’s those complex issues.  This image makes several assumptions.

1) That people live near large grocery stores which are able to sell healthier food at low prices.  Specifically, a Wal-mart (Great Value being a Wal-mart brand).

2) That these people are capable of transporting all of this food to their home.  That’s about 25 pounds of food right there.  That’s a lot of food to carry if you don’t own a car.

3) That once home, people are capable of storing this food over a long enough period to make it worth buying in the first place.  Once purchased, most of this will need to be eaten within a few days or cooked and stored.

4) That people have the time to spend going to the grocery store, purchase fresh food, and cooking it every night.

5) That people own a crockpot, let alone know how to use it.  Even a cheap crock pot can cost between $15 and $20.  That may not seem like much, but when you’re so poor that $20 seems like a lot of money, you’re also usually so poor that you don’t think of things like how much money you can save in the long run by spending that $20 now.

6)  Finally, at the very core is the basic assumption that people know how to turn that food, in that image, into a meal.  There are people out there who don’t know how to boil water, let alone steam an ear of corn.  They wouldn’t even know where to start.

After getting into a somewhat heated discussion on these very things with the person who posted this, I realized that I didn’t want to lose her friendship over this one image.  She is someone whose opinion I usually respect but we were probably never going to agree on whether or not posting something like this was actually productive.  And to be brutally honest, arguing with her about it wasn’t going to accomplish anything either.  I certainly can’t force companies to fix the problem of food deserts, I can’t fix the lack of mass transportation all over the country, I can’t fix whether or not people live in places and ways that prevent them from being able to keep better food in their homes.

I can, however, teach people how to cook.

In undertaking this project, I acknowledge my many privileges and understand that this whole series makes several assumptions about the lives of the people that I intend to educate.  Not the least of which is that they have internet access at all.  Or that they even particularly give a fuck what a middle class white woman has to say about their food habits.  But the one thing I am constantly pushing back against is the creeping lure of passive activism.  It’s easy to pass along an image like this and feel like you’re accomplishing something (for varying definitions of “something”).  It’s also easy to bitch about images like this and not accomplish a damn thing in doing so.

So this is me, putting my money where my mouth is.  Over the next week or so, I’ll be posting the results of an experiment I did while Moose was out of the house for a week.  If nothing else, I’ve educated myself and entertained y’all.  Which is always a worthy accomplishment.

EDIT: With thanks to MrCorvin for providing the link to the original article that the graphic was pulled from: $20 Food Showdown: Fast Food vs. Healthy Food. Clearly, I have some further analysis to do. O.o

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2012 7:41 am

    Looking forward to hearing your suggestions 🙂

  2. May 21, 2012 8:01 am

    Actual article for the graphics (just so you can be informed for the experiment)
    http://www.dailyspark.com/blog.asp?post=what_20_will_buy_at_the_drivethru_and_at_the_supermarket

    A good response to the graphics (about the fact that the food in the graphics are way low)
    http://www.sparkpeople.com/mypage_public_journal_individual.asp?blog_id=3974586

    I really want to see what happens with your experiment. These food things annoy me. I’m not sure if these are price per portion or not, but I don’t know where the person in this graphic is shopping because if prices were actually that low on most of these items (Ground beef, chicken, milk, pound of peaches, 10 pounds of potatoes…all of those prices are AWFULLY low), I would have mad stacks of cash all over the place.

    All of these studies use price per portion or price per edible gram.

    The fact of the matter is, things aren’t priced “per portion.”

    Take Banana’s for example. Now, I get a banana almost every day for my own self at work. .95 cents big deal.

    A bunch of bananas though, tend to be by the pound (I have not found a supermarket that has a flat rate). I could go and buy them by the pound, however, if I don’t eat all of them in a few days, they go bad. For a family of 5, buying a bunch of the bananas feeds you for one day.

    There was another guy that said that milk was something like .16 cents a portion. However, a gallon of milk I’ve seen as high as 5 dollars (and that was the supermarket brand). Sometimes a parent, who has no money,has to decide if they can pay 5 dollars in gas so they can get to work so the kids aren’t thrown out in the street. Sometimes when you are a single parent working 2 jobs, you don’t have time to actually make sure there are healthy meals prepared. We had to be raised on some crap food as a kid. Many days it was hot dogs and boxed macaroni and cheese (without milk in it). Sometimes it was just rice or pasta and if we were lucky we’d have margarine with it. We lived day to day on what we could scrounge because my mom was busy working her ass off paying all the bills.

    The fact is, you can’t show something isn’t “more expensive” just because of portion size. I’d like to see a study based on “What you would need to prepare 3 healthy meals for a family of 5, with the prices of the full item that is needed to buy it.”

    • May 21, 2012 8:52 am

      The last part of this series is a couple of simple recipes which are intended as healthy alternatives to fast food meals, so you’ll get part of your wish. 😀

      And wow, some of those images are actually worse than the one that I saw. Seriously, if you’re on a budget, why in the hell would you buy green tea? Some of the replacements are completely nonsensical. “Look, instead of buying Coke, you could buy fruits and veggies!”

  3. Brandi D permalink
    May 21, 2012 10:12 am

    Thank you, mrcorvin, for the expanded links.

    I definitely agree that her numbers are not representational, especially for those of us living in higher cost areas (like Burbank, CA). Meat here is exceptionally expensive. If you want to eat organic (or anything in that vein), you can forget having a ‘reasonable’ food budget. Not to mention, the closest Walmart to us is a 45 minutes drive (and gas is about $4.38/gallon at the moment).

    My family is blessed with a unique set of circumstances that allows the monetary support, ability to walk to two grocery stores, time to shop at least twice a week, time to cook, and a small enough family unit that food storage isn’t a big issue. I know a lot (if not most) people aren’t like that. Though I do agree that one of the fundamental issues is that people don’t know how to prepare their own food (unless you can microwave it). Education is the first step, allowing people to be armed if they want to take charge of what they’re eating.

    Another issue that a lot of people don’t address is that the average American family spends less that 10% of it’s disposable income on food. Twenty years ago, it was 11.7%. It was around 20% when the baby boomers were born and 25% in 1933. If folks allocated twice as much (or more) to their food budget, they could eat a lot better (if they know how to cook, have the time to shop and cook, etc.)

    Basically it comes down to the fact that the American lifestyle has shifted away from putting a strong emphasis on food. It’s become more of an afterthought than a central drive in the age of double income families, single parents, high unemployment/low wages, iPhones, media plans, high gas prices, etc. The money is rarer for many and food doesn’t get the priority in most cases.

    Some folks are shifting that priority for themselves. There are some good blogs dedicated to making whole food living cheaper and more time effective. Though it’s obviously never going to be as cheap or easy as a drive through. Otherwise most people would do it. But I’ve found that people really need to decided for themselves if it’s important to them. It seems to be much more effective for long term change. I know the weight lost, energy gained, and money saved on doctor’s visits and over the counter meds have totally made it worth it to me, but that’s just a personal opinion. It might be a lot different if I was working multiple jobs to support my kids and family.

    I know that I can get overly excited when talking about food politics, but hopefully I reined it in enough to the point.

    I really look forward to hearing more about your experiment. Good luck!

    • May 21, 2012 11:56 am

      I just remember as a kid in New Jersey that if the veggies weren’t in a can you don’t have veggies. Why? Cause we can’t afford them. A lot of the time we didn’t have breakfast except when they sent a letter out that stated “Your child is taking the Iowa Tests this next week, make sure they have breakfast.”

      Then again I believe I’m the only member of my family that knows how to cook fresh veggies.

      • Brandi D permalink
        May 21, 2012 12:10 pm

        We had it easier growing up, but still lived on hamburger helper and canned veggies for the sake of ease. It’s also tough that there’s no easy education about cooking (in school, etc.)

        It’s good that you’ve at least learned to cook for yourself. 🙂 Hope springs eternal.

  4. May 21, 2012 1:18 pm

    I can’t wait to see your recipes. With our big family, you know I’m always looking for more ideas to feed us all healthy and cheaply. (Two houses in two states and four kids is totally kicking our butt.)

    I am passionate about this subject, too, probably evident by the fact that I work helping to manage a farmer’s market. We go without a lot of things, just so we can eat grassfed beef and lots of fresh produce. We’re thankful that we only have to sacrifice things that aren’t necessities to do it. We’ve definitely been in that place in our lives where we lived off ramen because we couldn’t afford anything else.

  5. Lee permalink
    May 22, 2012 3:11 pm

    Everyone else has said a lot of what I was thinking, so I’ll just add a couple of trivial things based on personal experience.

    1) We bought meat at Wal-Mart ONCE. It had an *ingredients list* on the label, and it tasted pretty bad by comparison to what we could get for the same price at HEB. If you’re trying to “buy healthier”, meat that includes Miracles of Modern Chemistry is probably not your best option.

    2) We tried “Great Value” cashews ONCE too, and found them to be badly misnamed. This is not to say that name brands are necessarily better — but store brands aren’t necessarily just as good either. You have to try them individually, and figure out which ones work for you and which ones don’t. The HEB Hill Country brand is generally okay, but they have another slightly cheaper store brand (the name of which I can’t remember) that’s pretty bad. Target’s Archer Farms brand is another good one.

    3) Connected to my previous point — if you buy healthier foods and then don’t eat them either because they don’t taste good or they go bad, you haven’t saved any money, you’ve WASTED money. And if you’ve gotten used to eating junk food, it may take some time and effort to retrain your sense of taste to enjoy natural foods. The upside of this is that sometimes you splurge on some previously-favorite junk food as a special treat, and then discover that it just doesn’t taste as good as it used to — which makes resisting that particular temptation much easier from then on! (Dunkin’ Donuts, I’m looking at you.)

    • May 22, 2012 3:30 pm

      I agree with generally everything on this list.

      The only Great Value thing off the top of my head that I know I buy is Peanut Butter. But if you want regular boxed cheese macaroni (i know, not healthly) I can only eat Kraft.

      I prefer to buy my meat cut on site. Walmart use to do that now they get it ordered from a 3rd party vendor. In fact I think somewhere in Texas the meat cutters decided to go union and walmart decided that they didn’t need the department anymore so WOOSH.

      And on the last point, I had to do exactly that. I learned how to actually make certain veggies that I hated as a kid and enjoy them. Fresh Green Beans, Spinach, etc.

      At the same time my junk food is still junkie goodness.

      • May 23, 2012 3:36 pm

        Collective bargaining is against the law in Texas. So while you’re allowed to join a union there, there’s little to no benefit to it.

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