Real Food Can Be Cheaper Than Junk Food

CookforGood.com has a compelling set of instructions for how to shop and cook inexpensively enough to live on food stamps. Well thought out and presented. This is a long and ongoing discussion — worthy of a cookbook, really — but here is a nice start.

The person who brought this challenge to my attention is Jill Richardson, who runs lavidalocavore.org (fast becoming my favorite) and who argues that people on food stamps may be not only short on cash but without easy transportation to adequate grocery stores.

Ms. Richardson also maintains that food stamp recipients may not have the cooking equipment and/or skill needed to get the cooking done. She proceeds to quote the often brilliant Adam Drewnowski, thusly:

“When you suggest that people buy rice, pasta, and beans, you presuppose that they have resources for capital investment for future meals, a kitchen, pots, pans, utensils, gas, electricity, a refrigerator, a home with rent paid, the time to cook. Those healthy rice and beans can take hours; another class bias is that poor people’s time is worthless.”

Part of this is true: If you don’t have a kitchen it is really hard to cook (though, modesty aside, I once lived for six months with nothing more than a hot plate and a microwave and wrote most of my columns without borrowing friends’ kitchens).

One can argue that we do need to address all these issues: transportation, housing, the urban food deserts, poverty. But meanwhile, many people could probably benefit from the idea that cooking cheaply can be done, and in much healthier fashion than buying chili dogs and donuts at the local convenience store. Assuming a kitchen, a stove, running water, etc., cooking is not that time-consuming — it can be done while performing other household chores, or for that matter by using a slow cooker, which takes almost no time at all, since it’s almost entirely unattended.

No. it’s not automatic. It’s not a true no-brainer. But it’s been done by the most varied assortment of the world’s citizens imaginable, since humans stood upright.

You don’t need a capital investment for rice and beans, any more than you do for cheeseburgers and fries. You don’t need more than ten dollars worth of cooking equipment to get started, either. And while it’s true that the ten dollars is hard to come by for some people, the point is this: You can cook less expensively than you can buy fast food, junk food, processed, packaged, and prepared food – and you can get enough sound calories to live better.

One more myth I’d like to tackle here. The idea that death and destruction lie in the “middle aisles” of supermarkets, and the “real” food is found in the periphery is outdated. In those middle aisles one can find rice, beans, sometime-decent canned foods, sometime-decent frozen vegetables, whole grains and whole grain cereals, and other real food.

Published in New York Times May 29, 2009

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