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It is considered common knowledge that junk food is cheaper than fresh food. This ‘fact’ is the reason that poor communities tend towards McDonalds rather than grocery stores and get their calories from fries, not fruits. It has legitimized the over-consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrient food in poor communities across North America. So why has Mark Bittman of the New York Times, among others, challenged this truism?

Bittman has calculated that for a family of four to eat at McDonalds, the all-in cost is $28 (feasibly reduced to $23 if judicial ordering is exercised). Comparatively, the same family can eat a chicken dinner with vegetables, a simple salad, and milk for a mere $14.

He doesn’t pretend that a family dependent on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (which grants approximately $5 per person, per day), will be able to afford free-range chickens from their local butcher. His argument is based on nutrition, rather than ideal food choices, and the fact that nearly every American can afford real food. The limiting factor to good eating is not cost, but rather convenience.

At this point, Tom Philpott of Mother Jones, points out a flaw in the argument. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for an American is $16.27. Assuming the process of putting food on the table and cleaning up afterwards takes 2 hours, that labor cost is about $32. Suddenly, the aforementioned chicken dinner costs $46 – a far cry from Micky D’s burgers.

Cooking as a lifestyle choice

Beyond the “ubiquity, convenience, and habit-forming appeal of hyper-processed food” is the notion that cooking is work. That the time spent shopping for, preparing, and cleaning up a meal is time better spent at leisure activities. Regardless of annual income, the average American spends no less than 1.5 hours per day watching TV. So it has to be inferred that the time to eat properly is there, but not being harnessed.

And thus, the reason for Bittman’s article: the only way to change how people eat is to alter the perceived cost of a meal. Encourage them to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least part of a normal life. Conversely, understand that what’s sold under those golden arches isn’t real food; its prices reflect that.

What it will take to change eating habits

The shift will have to include both cultural and political motivators. Changing how someone feels about their food, celebrating what’s real, and raising children in homes that reject fast-produced, low-nutrition junk – those are the cultural moves. Political action would be much more difficult. It requires applying limits to the marketing of junk, forcing companies to pay the true costs of production (not reduced wages for mindless operation of a cooking machine), and making sure real food is available and affordable (even in rural communities and to people without cars).

Slow Food USA has imposed a $5 challenge. For the same cost as fast-food, SF proposes that anyone can cook and healthy and easy meal. A community has been created where those who have tips and tricks can share them, and those new to the concept can learn. It is a movement to create “more enlightened eaters and more engaged citizens.” While it may be a small step, it’s one in the right direction. Get involved at Slow Food USA.