Unhealthy Food Is Cheap Food.


How much food can you buy for one dollar? With the help of his camera, Jonathan Blaustein traveled New Mexico to find out:

It was a cheeseburger that initially encouraged Mr. Blaustein, 36, to pursue his project, “The Value of a Dollar.” When the economy was in the midst of its downward spiral, he visited a fast-food chain in New Mexico, where he lives.

“On one menu they had a cheeseburger for a dollar,” he said. What caught his eye, though, was another menu, which featured a double cheeseburger for the same price. That additional piece of meat, and the extra slice of cheese, somehow didn’t change the price.

So he set out to see what he could buy for one dollar in New Mexico. Then he turned the techniques used in advertising on their head, showcasing food in its most realistic form.

In public conversations about obesity and health, we wonder why people, especially the poor, don't buy healthier food. But the explanation isn't that complicated; a dollar doesn't buy much, and what it does buy isn't particularly nutritious or healthy. Blaustein found that with one dollar, you can buy a single double cheeseburger from McDonald's -- 440 calories, 25 grams of protein -- four grapefruit (184 calories*, 2.4 grams of protein), 10 organic blueberries from California (4 calories, no protein), or seven packages of shrimp-flavored ramen noodles (1,330 calories, 27.3 grams of protein).

At your average grocery chain -- based on my estimates from a few years of shopping -- a can of beans, a cup of uncooked rice, and a vegetable (let's say zucchini) will cost about $2, and net you 1,200 calories, with an ample amount of protein. Per dollar, that's a lot less than the seven packages of ramen, and when you add in cooking time, a little more effort than a single double cheeseburger. Simply put, when your chief concern is ease of preparation and bang for buck, it's hard to rationalize fresh ingredients and home-cooked meals, even with the (big) assumption that everyone can prepare something like beans and rice.

When it comes to obesity and health -- especially among the lower-income -- you're not going to get anywhere by lecturing poor people about their eating habits, or declaring certain foods "off limits" for people with food stamps and the like. To tackle obesity, we have to change the calculus for poor and working-class families. Healthy food needs to be more affordable, and unhealthy food -- hamburgers, processed snacks, etc. -- needs to reflect its true cost. Fixing a meal needs to be cheaper than buying a hamburger for the country to make any headway in the fight against poor health.

*Calorie counter found here.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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