Spend more for food


When I lived in New York City, money was a big concern, and food was a big part of that.

I never went out to restaurants, and in fact the once-monthly trip to the grocery store was a big event. I would go to the lowest-cost grocery store, where I would fill up a cart with the cheapest food possible that I thought I could get the most mileage out of. (Large packs of store-brand frozen hamburger patties and chicken nuggets were definitely staples.)

The ingredients in the food were not important; the only thing that mattered was price (with certain allowances for taste, of course).

Fast forward about a decade, and I have flipped almost entirely on this. I now check the ingredients of everything I buy, and avoid it if it contains too much that I don’t recognize or understand. I try to buy pesticide-free foods, preferably food that was grown and processed as locally and humanely as possible. Within reason, price is not a concern.

Why this change? Part of it was making a little bit more money, part of it was reading Michael Pollan, but a lot of it was adjusting my priorities, understanding for the first time that most mundane of food cliches, and finally taking it to heart.

Less is more

Food can be a budget-buster. I’d argue that food is the easiest way for your monthly expenses to spiral out of control.

But there are other competing concerns in addition to just balancing your budget. And food is one of those things which I believe is worth spending money on. While I’m sure you can find some unnecessary food expenditures that you can adjust, I don’t recommend buying cheaper food. I recommend buying better food.

Food is too cheap

McDonald’s introduced the Dollar Menu in 2002. Today, the Dollar Menu still exists (though it’s being phased out). Some of the same items that were on the menu then are still on it today.

And yet, at the same time, prices of most things, as they do in an inflationary economy, have risen. A single dollar in 2002 is worth about $1.30 in 2013 dollars. So for something to cost the same “number” today as a dozen years ago, it means that the price has gone down. (This why you’re not getting a raise.)

How is it possible that something already so cheap has gotten cheaper?

The way I see it, it’s because it’s made of non-food products, is generated without regard to any environmental considerations, harms living creatures (both human and non-human) and is not designed with quality in mind, only cost.


Even real food is too cheap

But it’s not just fast food, which is all too easy to throw stones at. I was in a Target recently and I picked up a small package of strawberries. It cost $2.49 for a pound. That’s $2.49:

  • to grow the strawberries in some field far away (including all the chemical inputs)
  • to employ some likely poor serf worker to pick them
  • package them
  • ship them hundreds or thousands of miles

Just to pay the worker a living wage alone should cause the price of strawberries to double, in my estimation.

Food is not too expensive; instead, it’s our expectations of the price of food that are unrealistic. I guess the reason for this is partly how we’re totally divorced from how food is actually produced, but also the effect of globalization and how we’re accustomed to everything being artificially cheap. (Including, alas, wages.)

It hasn’t always been this way. In the 1950’s America, households spent 30% of our wages on food. Today it’s more like 13%. And it’s not just because we’ve become richer.

Via The Atlantic
Via The Atlantic

All this can make us think that there’s nothing at all ridiculous about a hamburger that costs a dollar. To say nothing of it seeming reasonable to buy and eat it.

You are worth it

I was in a restaurant recently, a very conscientious place, with 100% plant-based food, and very aware of the connection between food and emotion. (And it was probably one of the most spectacular culinary experiences I’ve had this year, which is why I don’t mind linking to the restaurant here.)

As I was by myself, I was thumbing through a book that was put out by the owner. In the book, the author/chef responded to claims that the food is expensive. Which, by “normal” standards, it is. Her response to the haters?

“You are worth it.”

Wow. No apology for being expensive. It was like the answer to a different question. I was impressed.

It was a much more eloquent way of saying what I’ve believed for years: namely, that eating high-quality food is beneficial to our lives. Or, the way I’ve phrased it in the past: “plastic food leads to plastic people“. Or, with less fanfare: you really are what you eat.

Food becomes you

And make no mistake, high-quality food is expensive. The strawberries from Target, sprayed with chemicals and shipped in from who-knows-where are much cheaper than the organic strawberries grown the next town over.

(Though strawberries are the least of our concerns. It’s all to easy to find “food” with a list of ingredients in a font so small it requires a magnifying glass. What is all that and why would I want to eat it?)

But food isn’t just something that passes through our system. Our body takes the food and turns it into the fuel we need for our cells, our organs, our bones. It literally becomes us.

Another investment tip

I believe we focus on the wrong things in many ways in our society. We complain about how expensive food is, without understanding the implications of our complaint.

High-quality food is a blessing, and can be one of the great pleasures in life. And I believe that the better quality the food, the better it makes us feel. Imagine a drug that could increase your mood, keep you feeling more fit, and give you more energy. Luckily there is: it’s called good food.

So while there are many places to cut corners in your budget (and as a reminder, you could probably be less extravagant with the restaurants, I’d wager), you may wish to think about food as an investment as much as an expense. An investment in you. Because you are worth it.

But enough about me. How do you determine how to spend money on food?


  1. cd

    I disagree with the idea that paying more for Organic is a good choice, or that avoiding pesticides is a reasonable goal. Organic does not mean pesticide-free, and in many cases the pesticides they use are tens if not hundreds of times more toxic than the much-maligned Roundup (which has remarkably low toxicity, less than table salt or caffeine).

    Organic Certified allows the use of “natural” pesticides which have only an imaginary advantage against synthetic ones. It’s a pretty huge industry in itself, and I’ve come to believe that a lot of their success rests on the lie that conventional produce is unsafe to eat. The movement’s implication that, say, you’re not a good parent if you don’t feed your kids the more expensive produce comes off as elitist to say the least.

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Hi there. Thanks for your comment; you raise some good points. I think we can agree that we shouldn’t rely solely on labels when dealing with food. It’s a good start, but can’t confer the whole story.

      There are a few different considerations here: personal health, environmental cost, economic benefits. Sometimes these conflict; it’s an open question whether an organic product shipped from farther away has more of an environmental cost than a non-organic product from around the corner.

      One could argue that some organic foods might not be any better for you than their non-organic equivalents. Furthermore, one could argue that it is possible to come up with an organic pesticide that is ounce-for-ounce more harmful than a synthetic equivalent.

      But I think to suggest that the chemicals used in producing organic foods on the whole are many times more toxic than Roundup is a bit too strong a stance for me to agree with.

      I hear you on the elitist thing, though. It’s hard enough to figure out what’s right for yourself without people judging and looking down on you from all sides. As always, the best we can do is the best we can do.

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