When We Half Understand Poverty

Yesterday’s New York Times carried an article on the relative cost of fast food and fresh, home-prepared food. The article challenges the notion that junk food is cheaper than fresh, using fast food as its comparison.

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

This is cheating a little bit, given that the actual poor don’t really go out that often, even to McDonald’s. A better comparison would have been prepared and unprepared grocery food. The numbers would have been closer as well, though I’m not sure which food would have come out ahead on average.

When Jennifer Ouellette linked to the article, someone (with time to comment but not to read, apparently) asked whether the article addressed time poverty. Another person noted that she can make healthy food for her kids in 20 minutes. She also keeps fresh fruit around for snacking and pushes the most perishable fruit on the kids first so it doesn’t go bad.

I’ll get to the problem with applying that perspective to poverty shortly, but I’d also like to point out that the Times made a similar mistake in the article.

It’s cooking that’s the real challenge. (The real challenge is not “I’m too busy to cook.” In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there.)

The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch. “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.” “Their reaction is, ‘Let me enjoy what I want to eat, and stop telling me what to do.’ And it’s one of the few things that less well-off people have: they don’t have to cook.”

Yes, fast food is defined as a treat, but as I noted above, focusing on that as a major replacement for cooking from scratch is missing the mark. Fast food just is much more a lower middle class phenomenon than it is a phenomenon of poverty. If you want to understand food and poverty in the U.S., you need to pay more attention to what is cooked at home, and by whom.

Let’s start with that hour and a half of television. Sure, if you’re a reporter with a college degree, you probably watch your television sitting down with your feet up. That’s fine, but assuming the same applies in poor households is poor journalism. I know it’s hard to understand poverty if you haven’t lived in it, but getting it right in a country where the wealth divide has been growing for decades is incredibly important. If you want to understand adult television use and poverty, ask someone who’s spent time in poverty, like me.

Sitting down to watch television when you’re a poor adult with maybe multiple jobs but definitely all the hours you can manage to work, with a long commute often at the hands of public transportation, with all the other time-intensive, money-saving tasks to be done, is every bit as much a luxury as cooking from scratch. Televisions run in the background of life most of the time, while laundry is being done and/or children are being put to bed or watched over as they do homework and/or mail is being opened and winced over and/or food is being heated up. Television use is not a measure of luxury time.

In fact, poor parents frequently aren’t the people doing the cooking at all. That would require that they manage to make it home with time to spare before dinner is due on the table. Dinner is cooked by people taking care of the children from multiple families or, where some children are older, by the children themselves. Food preparation can’t outstrip the attention the adults are able to spare or the skills of the children involved. Snacks are what the children will grab on their own.

If you want to create food policy for the poor, you have to understand these facts and accommodate them. Luckily, although the Times reporter doesn’t fully grasp cooking in poverty, some of the programs on which he reports do, and they’re taking the right steps.

The People’s Grocery in Oakland secures affordable groceries for low-income people. Zoning laws in Los Angeles restrict the number of fast-food restaurants in high-obesity neighborhoods. There’s the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a successful Pennsylvania program to build fresh food outlets in underserved areas, now being expanded nationally. FoodCorps and Cooking Matters teach young people how to farm and cook.

The reporter thinks that a cultural shift away from fast food will have to be driven by parents, but as long as we fix access to fresh foods, it’s those last couple of programs that will make the bigger difference among poor families. Unfortunately, plenty of people are going to read this article and simply decide, once again, that the problem is poor, lazy parents who just don’t want to cook. And that’s going to make more bad policy.

Further Reading
Poverty isn’t just a game: “Jenny Nicholson is tired of hearing how the poor are poor because they make poor choices. Let’s see what kind of choices you make when it’s your turn to be flattened by the economy.”

Being Poor: “Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.”

A Year of Writing About Poverty: “For a variety of reasons, today’s column will be my last for 3QuarksDaily, and I thought I’d use it to sum up what I’ve learned over the past year.”

When We Half Understand Poverty
The Orbit is still fighting a SLAPP suit! Help defend freedom of speech, click here to find out more and donate!

18 thoughts on “When We Half Understand Poverty

  1. 1

    Strikes me as odd that the first article would insist on including Big Macs in their price analysis of MacDonalds. Big Macs cost as much as 3 or 4 Double cheeseburgers, and if you were going to insist on getting them when also purchasing fries and sodas, you could get the Big Mac meal for a dollar or two more that comes with fries and soda. This means that two of the sodas and two the fries would basically be at half price. The two small fries and two small fries should be a dollar a piece, the cheeseburger also, the 6 piece chicken nugget might be one or two, and the rest can be obtained with a roughly 7 dollar Big Mac meal, for a total of $21. Alternatively, replace each Big Mac with two cheeseburgers and assume the need to buy 2 $2 sodas and fries to compensate. Total would be $19 ($17 if they only had one cheeseburger replacing each Big Mac). It is actually fairly cheap for a ready-cooked meal. (Granted, prices vary from region to region.) It would typically cost $4 for the same number of drinks (bottled or ordered in a glass) and $10 for one pizza/2 Chinese restaurant specials/one dish at a sit-down restaurant where I come from, and would cost only about half as much for a home-cooked meal, in addition to the need to spend an hour or so to make a meal for four. The fact that not everyone would want to spend every waking hour doing some form of work, and would prefer to have a meal that they didn’t have to cook is not surprising. And that the Times article would insult people who make that choice based on the fact that they (supposedly) have enough time to squeeze in an hour of relaxation in front of the television is disgusting. Apparently the only good poor person is a constantly laboring poor person, and rest is only for people who can afford it.

  2. 2

    OK, this is coming from the other side of the pond and somebody who is fortunately middle-class.
    But I pay a lot of attention on food, food items and prices.
    The cheapest things we could live on: Frozen pizza and canned soup. I can get a frozen pizza for less than 2 €, canned soup for less than 1€ for about 1 1/2 servings.
    I know how to cook a cheap, healthy meal but it never gets close to the prices of cheap, fast, very unhealthy meals.
    You also need time and money to start with in order to be able to safe time and money later, like a freezer to store things and the time and money to invest when certain items are cheap.
    Really poor people can’t afford that.
    That’s like Same Vimes’ economy of boots: a rich man can buy good boots that last a long time. A poor man can only buy cheap boots that need to be replaced soon, and gets wet feet, too.

  3. 3

    I just returned to reading your blog and am happy to see you are still writing great posts.

    There are two issues related to this post that I’ve noticed play a major role in communities I am involved in:
    1. Lack of grocery stores or markets in low-income neighborhoods. I’ve lived in areas where it was easy to stop at a fast food join on my way home from school or while out and about in the neighborhood but it required a concerted effort to get on a bus and get to a grocery store to buy produce.

    2. We have a lot of great year round farmer’s markets in many areas but most do not accept food assistance coupons. Boo.

  4. 4

    One of my favorite examples is bread. Just plain bread.

    We recently picked up our fourth Oster bread machine on EBay. The other three either went to the kids or (most recently) wore out after five years of almost daily use. Bread costs us much less than $0.50 for a 1.5 pound loaf. It’s better than anything you can buy for less than five times that much.

    We buy the flour at Costco, dry milk lasts forever a tablespoon at a time, kosher salt likewise, sugar likewise, yeast we use a quarter teaspoon at a time and buy by the pound (keeps forever in the freezer.) Oil a tablespoon at a time yada yada.

    Takes less than three minutes to set up (try making a milk run in three minutes) and the machine cost $30. Do the math.

    The problem that we see with too many of the “young and poor” that we know is that, I kid you not, they don’t have the skills to feed themselves. Seriously. I had to teach one of my boys’ friends how to make an omelette — about the cheapest, quickest, easiest protein meal you can get.

    I think I grew up on another planet. Say what you will about mandatory HomeEc, but you at least learned survival skills.

  5. 5

    Giliell, those costs are pretty close on this side as well. Add in frozen burritos, mac and cheese, and tuna casserole for the subsistence food diet.

    Hey, modscientist, good to see a busy woman like you around these parts again. You remind me that a first-generation immigrant population is very good for dealing with the local market problem. Having a group that doesn’t want to eat the same things as everyone else makes for lots of small, local grocery stores. And good news on the farmers market front. Minneapolis ran a program this year that was apparently very successful. People should be able to start pointing to our local success very soon in getting people around them to start similar programs.

    D. C., those kids aren’t helped by us having essentially a missing generation (or two) when it comes to cooking. People who grew up in the 50s and 60s learned to “cook” off the back of boxes and from recipes that were actually advertising for companies like Campbell’s Soup. Even when they took HomeEc, everything else in their lives was telling them that cooking from scratch was quaint. They passed those values on. I’m lucky that I ended up associating that food with poverty–as something I wanted nothing to do with. Otherwise, the world would have to do without my pies and soups.

  6. 6

    People who grew up in the 50s and 60s learned to “cook” off the back of boxes and from recipes that were actually advertising for companies like Campbell’s Soup.

    Hey, I resemble that remark!

    Seriously, neither $HERSELF nor I grew up exactly “poor,” but didn’t eat much that came frozen either. Meat was something I saw a few times a week at most, and usually as a seasoning rather than a main dish. And when her family ate meat, it was because her father shot it or traded for it.

    Bread, for me, was an exception — I grew up on that spongy imitation “bread” they sell in stores. But beans came in bags, rice came in BIG bags, macaroni and cheese came in bags of pasta along with cartons of milk and blocks of cheese, etc. Our parents grew up during the Depression (mine more than hers; her father was older by a bit) and never were comfortable spending a penny when it could be saved. Tastes like that stick with you: once the weather gets cool enough [1] we’ll be back to oatmeal. The kind that comes in bulk.

    And you know what one of the lessons was? It’s less trouble to cook stuff from scratch, barring things you don’t know well and some exceptions like mole. We don’t eat out much because it’s such a pain in the ass. And boy, howdy! do we live cheap. Not because I can’t afford it, either — $COMPANY pays me quite well, really. But it’s just nicer [2] to cook my own. And I don’t mind saving the money either.

    But you need to know how, and regardless of the 50s or the 70s, there’s been a shocking loss of intergenerational skill transmission. We’ve been kicking around the notion of working out a program with the local schools to do an adult-ed program on remedial living skills. Could be fun, and it sure looks like it’s needed.

    [1] We’re getting there: the temperature this morning was just barely above 70F and the we’re off of air conditioning again in favor of the swamp cooler.
    [2] Don’t forget, you and Ben have a standing invitation for breakfast. Ask Celia Friedman how that went.

  7. 7

    D. C., trust me. I haven’t forgotten. I don’t know when I’ll manage to make it to that part of the country again, but I’m definitely taking you up on that–and hoping our other local friend can join us.

    Talking about all those dry goods, though, brings up another point: It isn’t only refrigeration that makes for storage problems. I really don’t want to think about how many bugs I’ve eaten because they were eating food that couldn’t affordably be thrown away. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with eating bugs, but a choice would be good.

  8. 8

    DC Sessions
    Hmm, don’t forget the cost of electricity. That’s something a lot of people underestimate.
    Also the 30$ starting investment can be too much for somebody who is really poor.
    That’s what I said above: If you have a little money, you can actually save a lot of money. The local chinese food-store would sell me a 20 kg bag of rice for the same price the supermarket would sell me 5 X 1 kg. Being middle-class, I could afford the starting investment, take my car to go there and buy it. When the peaches are in high season I can buy them cheap and cook jam that’ll last for the rest of the year. I recently bought my daughter’s new wardrobe for the next summer. She’ll have grown out of her current wardrobe come next summer and those things were on sale. It would cost me three times as much to buy them when I actually need them. But when you’re only eating canned soup for the last week of the month, you can’t afford to pay 100€ for something you’re only going to need in 12 months.
    My energy bill is only about half of what poor people pay. That’s not because they’re stupidly wasting energy, but because I can afford to buy new, energy-efficient applicances. Poor people have to pick up cheap second-hand stuff. Within some years, my total costs are lower than theirs and I save money.

    Hmmm, yes, apart from the time-factor, cooking is a problem. I think it’s something that should be taught in high-school, for all kids. Probably a subject called “essential household skills” that combines cooking, shopping, nutrition, balancing a checkbook and so on.
    In Germany, those small packets full of artificial flavours, modified starch, and processed fats are very popular. I’m always wondering what you need a “Mixture for Spaghetti Bolognese” or “Magic Chili con Carne” for, because those things don’t save time, the recipes rely heavily on meat and cream and other expensive stuff and in the end you fool yourself into thinking you cooked a home-made meal.
    How to propperly store things is a skill, too. And how to actually compare prices and nutritional information when the industry does everything to obscure those facts.
    I remember unwillingly eavesdropping on a conversation between a couple where he wanted to buy frozen burger patties and she “compared” the prices: The patties would be like 3€ and the buns 1€, and they would need to buy ketchup and if they just went to McD they could grab 2 burgers for 2€.
    So, she argued that McD would be cheaper. Only of course that the packet were 10 patties and 8 buns and they surely never left McD with only 2 burgers

  9. 9

    I wouldn’t fault the blogger or others involved for their comparisons and analogies of time and money, but there’s a much more a propos comparison that could be made.

    After the earthquake in Haiti, people in the west (especially in the US) started to become aware of what product dumping did to Haitian farming. Starting when Clinton was president, the US exported cheap food to Haiti, destroying local farming by undercutting prices the local farmers asked and drove them into bankruptcy. They left their farms and moved to the cities, leaving no one to grow food in the country. Local agriculture in Haiti is only a fraction of what it once was.

    Once the earthquake hit and imports were unaffordable, starvation became a problem (or even before then, because of rising oil prices). The Haitians had no local food sources and couldn’t afford to buy what was imported. Malnutrition and starvation have been on the rise since then.

    The same applies to the poor in the US. Low priced junk food and instant food was peddled to them as a “time saver”, but now that the poor have become accustomed to buying it and eating it, many have stopped cooking altogether or forgotten how. Their children have grown up not seeing their parents cook. It has become a generation that sees food as something provided by commercial industry, not a function of home life or health.

    As food prices rise and cost cutting reduces what little nutritional value there is in such “food”, malnutrition and poverty will continue to increase. And like the Haitian farmers, the poor have lost the basic knowledge of how to do it themselves.

    Some might say my analogy is inappropriate because I’m not an American or because I’ve lived in Asia for a decade, but I can tell you the same problems are occuring here. Young people in many large cities are living in apartments which don’t have kitchens and are eating out 24/7. Prepared/instant/fast food is all they eat, and these are young people with decent enough income to live above the poverty line. The number of young adults who are obese is on the rise, as is the number of children.

    The poorest here in Taiwan cook their food at home and often end up eating healthier than those with disposable income do. That’s one of the few things I’m grateful to my parents for it learning how to cook, and I’m willing to pay the extra cost in rent every month because my apartment has a small kitchen.


  10. 10


    Yes, there are fixed cost/variable cost tradeoffs that favor people like me who can afford the fixed costs. I alluded to them when I mentioned that I buy flour and yeast at Costco, but non-US residents might miss that: Costco is a warehouse store chain that charges an annual “membership” fee of about $60 for my household. It doesn’t take many 10 kg bags of flour or rice to make that up, though, and the 454g brick of vacuum-packed yeast vs. individual packets would almost do for a year by itself.

    Truth is, we do most of our staple shopping there but that means we have other fixed costs as well: we need bins for the flour and rice to keep insects out, we have a good freezer, we have storage containers to keep the yeast in, etc. (Truth be told, the lack of pantry space is one thing I really look forward to when I move.)

    There are ways around some of these problems, but they imply social mechanisms that aren’t always present. For instance, I know of one (very) small town in western New Mexico (Pie Town) which is almost three hours away from decent shopping in Albuquerque. The people there let each other know when they’re heading to ABQ for a shopping trip and take orders for their neighbors. When they come back with a pickup truck load, they distribute the goods and in some cases split up bulk goods like rice and beans.

    This used to be a pretty common pattern in rural communities, and for all I know still is. In contrast, I haven’t heard of urban poor doing much similar and that’s a problem in itself.

  11. 11

    @GillielYou also need time and money to start with in order to be able to safe time and money later, like a freezer to store things and the time and money to invest when certain items are cheap. Really poor people can’t afford that.

    In the USA, rather than abject poverty, it’s more likely that they don’t have the education in how to make it happen, there are social pressures preventing it, or it’s not a priority for them.

    EDUCATION: You need the time to do the planning and shopping for bargains and the knowledge on how to leverage those small amounts of money to get the first thing in bulk … and the techniques to keep rolling the savings into more of what you need for a while. Bootstrapping is what you need.

    Having an example of parents who planned, shopped and cooked frugally is superb, but a good home economics teacher is as good, or even a friend with the knack of it. As thrifty as my parents were, I learned a lot from other people.

    SOCIAL EXAMPLE: I used to buy bread from the “day old” bread outlet for 30% supermarket price. A co-worker refused to buy bread there because people might think she couldn’t afford bread at full price. She had children and made less money than I did, but her social image stopped her from doing all that was possible to make the money last.

    PRIORITY EXAMPLE: I had tenants who could never quite scrape together the money for repairs to their oil-guzzling car. The car needed a quart a day. They always had enough money to stroll to the corner store for cigarettes, cola and candy. If they had gone without the ciggys, cola, and candy for a month, the car could have been repaired, and the expense for the daily quart of oil for the car would have been gone.

    With me, saving money where possible makes the small luxuries possible. Cheap no-name club soda means I can buy better whisky and beer.

    @Stephanie Bug infestation is always a problem, but it’s not expensive to get containers that can keep them out. I wash and save the jars from canned fruit or pasta sauce – they get used to store bulk spices, lentils and kasha.

    If you get a good deal on staples or something, spend the savings (the first time or two) on things to store it in. If you split the bulk purchase into several containers you are less likely to lose it ALL to weevils.

  12. 12

    True, it isn’t expensive. It can be difficult, however, to find containers that actually work as advertised, particularly when you’re buying cheap.

    Even being able to spend significantly more now, we’ve ended up with containers that appeared and were advertised to close tightly but didn’t. We can manage just fine when something like that happens and a bulk purchase is lost, but we’re not poor.

    Good tip on splitting things up.

  13. 13

    DC Sessions
    OK, that shopping concept is new to me, nothing comparable here.

    Tsu Dho Nimh
    Well, I actually don’t disagree with you on most of those points. There are objective problems that lie within the social situation (lacking the money to invest so they can save later), there are obvious problems with education (as I said, it is probably soething we should teach in high-school on both sides of the pond), and there are also people who make shitty decissions, no question.
    My parents-in-law always wanted to look like middle-class so much they never actually made it there. My daughter has a lot of hand-me-down clothes from a woman who also has a niece the exact same age my daughter is. And the kid’s parents are rather poor, but she refused to accept those clothes because then people would think she couldn’t afford to buy new stuff.

    But the real lack of resources cannot be explained solely by this. German welfare has a food-allowance of 2,55€ a day for a kid under 14. My daughter’s lunch in kindergarten costs 2,90€ alone. But even I, with my abilities to make starting investments couldn’t feed her for that money with a healthy and balanced diet, especially not one that included 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. So even for parents who know and who care, poverty would lead to malnutrition in the long run if there weren’t charities that handed ouf food baskets.

  14. 14

    I’m poor, I have no problem admitting it. I don’t mean by the subjective standards of the exec making $200k who says he can barely pay his bills, I mean by the standards set by the government I am below the poverty level. Luckily I’m single, have no kids, and live in an area where cost of living is fairly low so I’m doing a lot better than most people with my income, but things are tight and I don’t have many luxuries.

    I manage to feed myself for about $150 a month and I can do it easily and nutritiously. I work from home so I have more time (not having to commute and the fact that I can take a 20 minute break in the middle of the day to start dinner then go back to work until it’s done) and more importantly: I know how to cook well. Articles like that NYT one ignore the time and know how needed to cook nutritious food. Also they missed the fact that food stamps can’t be used for prepared foods so you can’t buy McDonald’s food with them.

    First the time: If you aren’t home for 9+ hours a day (work plus commute) then buying boxes of mac&cheese and cheap hotdogs that take only 5 or 10 minutes to make is going to be the choice over roast chicken and vegetables. It is is cheaper but takes about 2 hours, a problem if you get home at 6pm and have hungry kids who don’t want to wait until nearly bedtime to eat. Rice and beans are even cheaper, and a staple of my diet, but dried beans have to be soaked overnight and both take a while to cook.

    Few schools still teach home ec so if there’s no one in a household who knows how to cook then the kids won’t either and it becomes a cycle. If your food experience is at the most cooking up ground beef for hamburger helper then having someone tell you that you should be making whole roast chicken is ridiculous.

    We have a huge problem in this country with access to affordable, nutritious, and quick to prepare foods for working families. Add on top of that a lack of knowledge of cooking and safe food handling and of course people go for cheap, unhealthy, and filling foods.

  15. 15

    (Truth be told, the lack of pantry space is one thing I really look forward to when I move.)

    Reading that, it certainly sounds like I’m looking forward to having less pantry space, doesn’t it?

    Preview is your friend, as is waiting to hit “submit.”

  16. 17

    […] When We Half Understand Poverty Chart of the Day: Women Earn More Than Half of All Doctorate Degrees in 2009 Are you disappointed with Obama simply because you’re a racist? Sometimes It’s Not All About Race When It Comes to Criticizing Obama What’s the Real Story Behind the Postal Crisis? Please drop the red herrings from televised debates Judaism Without God? Confessions of a Retail Worker: When lentils are too expensive Why Don’t the Deficit Hawks Want to Tax Wall Street? Share this:TwitterFacebookStumbleUponRedditDiggEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Lotsa Links. Bookmark the permalink. ← A Pre-Yom Kippur Meditation […]

Comments are closed.