Dollars, Calories, and Nutrition

In yesterday’s reader mailbag, a thoughtful reader asked about balancing food costs and nutrition costs. My response to him was a straightforward one: if you have dietary restrictions, then you start with those dietary restrictions as a foundation and use frugal grocery tactics within them. For example, if you wish to only eat organic produce, that’s fine – just ignore non-organic items in the grocery flyer and in comparisons between stores. Comparison shopping and meal planning and grocery list writing still work.

Later that day, I listened to this story on Marketplace in which Stephen Dubner, one of the authors of Freakanomics, made the case that the McDonalds double cheeseburger is a nutrition marvel: “It has been my gut-level (sorry, pun) feeling for a while now that the McDonald’s McDouble, at 390 calories, 23g (half a daily serving) of protein, 7 percent of daily fiber, 20 percent of daily calcium and iron, etc., is the cheapest, most nutritious, and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history.” That burger costs between $1 and $2, depending on where you buy it.

This brings us to a sensible question: if nutrition is so plentiful and cheap, why buy expensive foods?

There are a host of reasons for this, but it ends up boiling down to one statement: foods that meet a person’s basic nutritional demands may not meet a person’s ethical, moral, or specific nutritional desires.

The problem here is that food that meets rigorous ethical, moral, or specific nutritional needs has a premium cost associated with it. That premium cost is unavoidable in the world we live in today.

To grow organic crops and certified non-GMO crops, you’re going to have to pay more because the work is more labor-intensive and often has a lower output per acre.

In other words, an organic tomato requires more work to produce than a non-organic tomato, plus a given acre generally cannot produce as many organic tomatoes as non-organic tomatoes (there are other issues, too, such as the time that it takes for a vegetable to become unusable after being picked and so on). Since both labor and land have costs, the organic tomato is going to pass along more costs to the buyer, meaning you’re simply going to have to pay more at the store (or in taxes) for an organic tomato versus a non-organic tomato.

Some people have the financial resources to be able to afford such moral and ethical decisions when they eat. Many cannot afford to make that choice. When you have only $20 in your pocket and you see a $12 sandwich made out of organic and non-GMO ingredients versus a $2 sandwich made with whatever is low cost and both sandwiches provide the same calories and (roughly) the same nutrients, the choice for many people is going to be a simple one.

I’ll admit it: I get extremely frustrated when I get emails from readers who make statements about how they will “never” eat GMOs and that a person has to be “evil” for ever suggesting someone else eats them. While there may be grand economic changes that makes it possible for everyone to eventually have organic and ethically-produced foods, none of those plans or grand statements solve the problem of the person at the grocery store with only $20 in their pocket today, and that’s the problem The Simple Dollar is primarily interested in.

If you have enough financial resources to make moral and ethical choices about what food you eat, that’s wonderful. I do the same thing myself. Most of the produce my family eats is organic produce. We are able to afford to make that ethical choice because we’re careful with our money in many different ways.

However, to simply imply that everyone else should be making the same choice as you is the wrong move. For one, others may or may not have the same ethical and moral views on food as you do. For another, many others do not have the same financial resources that you do. They can’t afford to buy organic bananas every week. When you criticize someone for making that choice, you’re often criticizing them for not having money.

So, what’s the solution?

As I said earlier, there may be great widespread economic and social plans that could provide everyone with healthier options for their food at a low cost, but those plans don’t help people at the grocery store right now.

If you’re in a situation where you wish you could afford organic and local food options but you’re barely keeping a roof over your head, use that as a motivator. If you’re considering food from an ethical and moral perspective, then that means you have a thinking mind, one that you can easily apply to your financial and professional situation to raise your income.

At the same time, if you’re a person who blames socioeconomic forces for the inability of everyone to have access to these foods, be the change you want to see in the world. Start an organic garden for yourself and give the extras to the local food pantry. Get involved with charitable groups that are actually putting foods with higher ethical and moral standards into the hands of people that need it. Be active in promoting them, but also remember that judging others for making different choices than you is often a biased judgment, since you often can’t see that person’s full economic situation or their connection to those particular ethical issues you care about.

A person isn’t “evil” when they choose the cheap produce in order to make other parts of their budget work – instead, they’re making a tough choice between the option you can see and quite a lot of options you don’t see. Be glad that you have enough personal financial security to be able to make these kind of choices for yourself.

In a world where a lot of people struggle to have food at all, making ethical and moral choices about what you eat is a wonderful privilege. If your finances enable you to make these choices, you’re incredibly lucky. If your finances keep you from making those choices, be aware of them anyway and use them as a motivator to get yourself in better financial shape so that you can make those choices for yourself.

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