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Phil Covington headshot

Is Junk Food Really Cheaper? Maybe Sometimes

The Sunday New York Times Review section ran an interesting piece this week that posed the question, Is Junk Food Really Cheaper? The premise of Mark Bittman's article was to debunk the often repeated notion that the reason people are obese is because it is cheaper to fill up on calorie-dense junk food than it is to prepare healthy meals at home.

However, the author explains that this is not in fact the case. He illustrates the point by revealing that a variety of McDonald's meal options for a family of four will run you $27.89, whereas a healthy meal cooked at home from pinto beans, rice, green peppers, onion and finished off with bacon, can be had for just $9.26.

So, while it's certainly possible to eat healthily and cheaply at home,  I decided to head over to the golden arches myself to do some rapid field research.

Now, while I certainly take the point of the author, it is, however, still absolutely possible to eat really cheaply at McDonald's. I went for the bottom end of the menu and ordered myself a basic hamburger; no cheese, no fries, no drink and got out of there for 96 cents. That's cheap. It was also a modest 250 calories which I found neither particularly satisfying nor fattening. If I'd been hungry, I could have eaten two of them, but since I'd already had a $5 organic green salad at Whole Foods, I didn't really need to. But, I could have packed in a 500 calorie McDonald's meal for under two bucks...and that's unquestionably still cheap.

But of course, people tend to buy the meal bundles. That's what you'll see lit up in colorful over-counter displays - whereas you have to look hard for the basic burger. Further, as Michael Pollan pointed out in the Omnivore's dilemma, fast food places make the economics of ordering larger portions relatively better value than opting for their smaller sizes. So, while fast-food may not be relatively cheaper than healthy home cooked food in all cases, going bigger is - which is likely what many customers do - and therefore probably why they get fat.

Mr. Bittman acknowledges the problem of food-deserts: inner city areas where fast-food is plentiful, while healthy food options are not. Add to this the lack of time - another problem many suffer from, and the convenience of grabbing a meal and satisfying the quest for instant gratification becomes too overwhelming.

But the most important observation I think Mr. Bittman makes is the cultural one. The author points out that the fast food industry has created a culture where fast food is portable, on every street corner, and where it has become socially acceptable to eat anytime and anyplace. His solution is to find ways to make no-nonsense home cooking and eating popular again. This might be through restricting the number of fast food restaurants via zoning laws, or teaching young people how to farm and cook; skills that many families have ceased to pass along. Also, it should involve affordable groceries in low income areas, countering the food-desert effect. Political action is also suggested to limit the marketing of junk. Somehow, in a country where industry lobbying is rife and congressional anti-regulation sentiment is the order of the day, substantive reforms seem like a long shot right now.

Interestingly, Mr. Bittman does not feel the smart campaign is for McDonald's to serve better food - I imagine the reason is that an improved McDonalds does not fundamentally change the culture of convenience. But I would suggest it isn't a bad place to start, while you address the other structural issues. McDonald's does seem to be aware of the importance of their corporate social responsibility, a responsibility for their supply chains, and the quality of their food. Perhaps they are genuinely in transition too. At least if McDonald's and their fast food brethren make healthier food choices more available and more prominent, then in lieu of people fundamentally changing their behavioral patterns, they can at least gain better access to healthier foods. After all, as Mr. Bittman points out, people are willing to pay a premium to eat out.

Image Note: My lunch!

Phil Covington headshotPhil Covington

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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