Sunday, November 21, 2010

MARTHA: Unpacking Groceries - Inexpensive vs. Cheap

After pouring over the supermarket ads in the Sunday paper, Paula and I decided to stick to the shopping list and make a few vegetarian substitutions. Armed with detailed lists and coupons, we shopped at five different stores: ALDI, Rainbow, Cub, Dollar Tree, and United Noodles (they sell tofu for .99/pound). This took well over two hours. But, we came in a little under budget and were able to splurge on some fresh spinach and squash from the farmer's market for $2.50. That makes six vendors.


I do most of the food shopping and cooking in our house, and I make everything from scratch (including soup stock). This is labor and time intensive, but our meals are super tasty, relatively inexpensive, and highly nutritious. I was amazed to see how many foods on our SNAP grocery list contain high fructose corn syrup. I expected to find this in the tinned fruit, but not in the bread, pasta sauce, raisin bran, tomato soup, and vegetable broth! I have trouble pronouncing some of the other added ingredients. What are they and where do they come from? Why so many additives?


Over the past few years, documentary films like Super Size Me, King Corn, and Food, Inc., have turned a critical eye on American agribusiness and the corporate food industry. These giant companies turn a profit by cheapening the nutritional value of food and selling it inexpensively. High fructose corn syrup and sodium are a major part of this process, from Big Macs to vegetable broth. It's one thing to eat these foods on occasion as a choice, but for folks using the SNAP card, this is the only option. Is it any wonder that diet-related illnesses like obesity, hypertension, and diabetes are epidemics, especially among poorer people? What are the long-range "costs" of eating this way?


Giant food companies are far more interested in marketing their products than in educating consumers about nutritional content. These companies' methods of advertising and packaging have mastered the art of seduction, and have even contributed to widespread confusion about fat, cholesterol, trans-fats, and calories (not to mention the long list of additives). Indeed, knowledge is power, but when your stomach is growling, how much time and energy do you really have to learn the facts about food content and detect nutritional scams posing as bargains?


I notice a great deal of outrage and judgment directed at people who use food stamps and are "subsidized" by our government. I do not notice the same criticism of government subsidies of agribusiness and the corporate food industry. Surely, these hidden subsidies deserve critical attention and should comprise part of the larger set of arguments around poverty and food justice.


When it comes to food, is there no moral imperative to produce healthy, desirable foods that SNAP card users can afford? Must quality food always cost more? How inexpensive is cheap food?


  1. Just know there is ones on SNAP, like I whom shop at The Wedge just to be able to put the piece of mind, not getting sick from HFCS or other items that aren't desirable to me.

    Cheap food isn't worth spending money on to me, if it isn't going to make me better. Stronger and able to work near a better future. I just figure the world doesn't care about it being affordable because if people themselves don't know, it doesn't matter. Like you said, the education is lacking.

    //From a 21 year old.

  2. I am not understanding the notion that someone using SNAP cannot cook from scratch.....
    Buying a whole chicken on sale for $3.99 and making soup from scratch is do-able no matter what method of payment you use at the check out.
    The difference is the amount of time people want to devote to the decisions they make about which foods they put in their body.

  3. Well, that chicken on sale for 3.99 might provide 2 to three meals, and that is just the chicken. If you really want to make soup you need other vegetables and possibly a starch. Add in another 2 dollars (although I am sure in most soups it would be more) and you have consumed 1/4 of your budget for the week. I think the writer that commented about the whole chicken might want to take the SNAP challange themselves before making such assumptions.