Myth or Fact: Junk Food is Cheap

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Op-Ed columnist Mark Bittman with the The New York Times dispels the all-too-convenient myth that fast food is less expensive than a decent home cooked meal.

To illustrate his point, Bittman uses what he views as a typical order for a family of four at McDonald’s: two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas, for a total cost of about $28.

Bittman contrasts the $28 McDonald’s meal to a dinner that serves from four to six people consisting of a roasted chicken with vegetables, and a simple salad for about $14, or a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions for four people at about $9.

“Anything that you do that’s not fast food is terrific; cooking once a week is far better than not cooking at all,” says Marion Nestle, professor of food studies at New York University.

But as Bittman points out, there are a great many cultural elements that diminish the incentives for people, especially the poor, from both shopping at supermarkets for wholesome foods, and taking the time to cook at home.

More than two million Americans in low-income rural areas live in virtual “Food Deserts” that are 10 miles or more from a supermarket, and more than five million households without access to cars live more than a half mile from a supermarket.

Bittman notes that while 93 percent of those with limited access to supermarkets have access to vehicles, it takes them 20 more minutes to travel to the store than the national average. “For those working one or even two jobs, 20 extra minutes — plus cooking time — must seem like an eternity.”

“People really are stressed out with all that they have to do, and they don’t want to cook,” says Julie Guthman, associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism.”

The omnipresence, convenience and addictive lure of what Bittman calls “hyperprocessed foods” has diluted the appeal of healthy alternatives.

There are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States, writes Bittman. “In recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has decreased by as much as 30 percent; and nearly inconceivable resources go into encouraging consumption in restaurants: fast-food companies spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009.”

According to a 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine.

Bittman concludes that what the report suggests is the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report proposes that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.

For 50 years, says David A. Kessler, author of “The End of Overeating,” companies strove to create food that was “energy-dense, highly stimulating, and went down easy. They put it on every street corner and made it mobile, and they made it socially acceptable to eat anytime and anyplace. They created a food carnival, and that’s where we live. And if you’re used to self-stimulation every 15 minutes, well, you can’t run into the kitchen to satisfy that urge.”

Bittman warns that only powerful cultural changes can neutralize the potent influence pop culture has on what we eat. Simple home cooking must become vogue again and valued by everyone not just by “hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley.”

The smart campaign, writes Bittman, is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper

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