The Simple Dollar Morning Roundup: Personal Beliefs And Food Edition

A comment from a reader has left me thinking a lot lately:

I used to work for the web design company that did the Super Suppers website. I’ve read the recipes. What you’re buying isn’t food. They get everything in pre-packaged convenience packs from Sysco. It’s the worst, most overprocessed crap you can imagine. After reading what actually goes into the recipes you make at the store I would never in a million years eat there. It’s far healthier and quicker to poach a chicken breast and steam some veggies at home.

On one hand, this comment raises some valid concerns about how we get our food. On the other hand, it perpetuates a myth that some food is “safe” and others are not. Here’s how I see it: unless you’ve raised a particular vegetable, fruit, or animal yourself and then prepared it for eating, you can never be entirely sure how it was treated in the process. If you go down the road of being paranoid about one food source, you start down a slippery slope that leaves you in an agrarian community. Trust me – I’ve seen some food processing on those veggies that the commenter steamed above that scared me deeply – chemical treatments from start to finish, dye spraying to make them appear fresher, and I’ve even seen this stuff happen in places that are supposedly “organic.” I prefer to utilize places that minimize food processing and I do like to grow some of my own food, but I have to draw a line at some point in the sand, and for me, that’s at the line of FDA approval. I look forward to comments on this.

Jury Duty Is Costing Me Money! I lost money during my jury duty stint a while back as well – it cost more to get to the courthouse than my stipend covered. (@ money smart life)

How To Start A Family Without Breaking The Bank I think this article left out the most important thing: be absolutely sure you’re ready to dive into parenthood. If you’re not sure, wait. A child deserves all of the love and protection you can offer, and if you can offer that, then many of the other pieces fall into place. (@ get rich slowly)

Feeling Poor? Things I Forget About That Don’t Cost A Thing A nice reminder of the simpler things. (@ wise bread)

The Simple Dollar Retro: Twenty Places To Hide Money At Home Besides Under Your Mattress This was part of an ongoing discussion about having a cash reserve for serious emergencies, like a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, riots, etc.

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  1. samhallife says:

    I saw the same comment and all I could think was that this person must NEVER eat out. Most restaurants order their food from the same type of food distribution companies and they are all pre-packaged portions. It lets them control the portions and quality of what they are selling.

  2. Jury duty did end up costing me money, however, today I wrote about a guy that I met with a sad but encouraging life story. Meeting him made the day of jury duty worth while.

  3. mh1 says:

    Off-topic question:
    Should an emergency fund be accessed for voluntary car repairs. More generally, if one has a persisting car problem that doesn’t prevent the vehicle of doing its job and a repair isn’t immediately necessary, should funds be pulled from an emergency account or another, since it’s not an “emergency” per se?

    Thanks!

  4. MVP says:

    I don’t think most people are truly prepared for parenthood, even if they’ve been wanting kids for a long time. I think it’s wrong to advise them to wait until they’re “absolutely sure”. Many women (and couples) are doing that, waiting until their late 30s and 40s, and then finding out it ain’t so easy to get pregnant! Better to start thinking about it and preparing early if you don’t want to have to resort to medical intervention or the possibility of infertility.

  5. tehnyit says:

    The quality of food these days are certainly a lot better than it was many decades ago. However, in our busy lifestyles, we will have to depend on food that is processed in one way or another. Even if we grew the vegetable ourselves, how can we be sure that the seeds are process-free?
    This goes for meat as well. The CJK problems that was in the UK some years back really scared me. How can we be sure that our meat is of good quality?

  6. yipyip says:

    tehnyit, that’s highly debatable. Just consider the plethora of studies showing that an apple (or any other fruit or vegetable) today has 50-90% LESS nutrients than 30 years ago because of factory farming and soil depletion.

    We have more food by volume, yes, but each unit of food is worth so much less, health-wise, than before. We also have far less variety than we did, again thanks to factory farming (and McDonald’s etc.).

    The problem with setting the bar at FDA approval is that it’s an extremely low standard. Remember, this is the same outfit that approved Vioxx. Vioxx isn’t an isolated incident in terms of the FDA’s failure to protect the public interest, it’s just one of the best publicized.

  7. Amy says:

    I’m with the commenter. I try whenever possible to pick the least-processed alternative. I seldom eat at chain restaurants, I shop at a grocery store that processes its own meat and labels its produce with the place of origin, and buy from a farmer’s market as much as possible.

    To me it’s not an absolutist distinction. I don’t think I’ve become contaminated somehow if I eat processed food. Rather, it’s an issue of voting with my pocketbook as much as I can for food that’s local, organic, humanely raised, and minimally processed.

  8. Honestly, processing bothers me on a regular basis. I don’t eat fast food anymore and I cook nearly all my own meals, but I hate to think that even my “fresh” veggies are spray-painted with things that most certainly seem that they could contribute to cancer. What I’m doing is better than shoveling down fatty snacks bagged in plastic though; but if it were up to me I’d rather grow all my own stuff (not very feasible though).

    p.s. – FDA standard means diddly, to me personally. I wish I had faith in them, but alas I have very little-to-none.

  9. Trent Trent says:

    That’s the thing, though. Where do you draw the line that’s very clear and applicable everywhere? I eat lots of stuff from farmer’s markets (I’m actually heading to one later today, in fact) and I grow a lot of my own food, but I realize that in regular life you often are subjected to processed food.

  10. Debbie says:

    “…unless you’ve raised a particular vegetable, fruit, or animal yourself and then prepared it for eating, you can never be entirely sure how it was treated in the process.”

    Sadly, I think you still couldn’t know. A dog could have peed on your vegetables. A sick dog! Your chicken could eat something a neighbor threw over your fence (I admit this is probably worse in my yard that most people’s because my yard backs up to an apartment complex). There could be car oil in the run off during a rain. You could have just gotten the flu but not shown any symptoms when you prepared something. A fly could land on it when you weren’t looking.

    There’s no clear line. There are no guarantees, but you can play the odds. Some options are likelier to be healthy than other options. These options lie along a continuum, and you just go as far as you can in the good direction without making too many sacrifices in other areas of your life. The commenter has just given us additional information so we have better data on where that food choice lies on the continuum–closer to restaurant food or TV dinners than to home-cooked food. And that’s good to know.

  11. Jeremy says:

    I generally don’t purchase too much in the way of processed foods mainly because I almost never eat out and I prepare fresh meals daily. Even so, I really don’t give a rat’s ass about how my food is processed. There are more important things in life than to obsess about how my food was processed.

    If people want their food to be 100% pure then go live on a farm and produce it, but you can’t feed billions of people without making some sacrifices.

  12. Amy says:

    Why do you need a line that’s very clear and applicable everywhere? For me it’s pretty simple. Whenever I have a choice, I choose the least processed, most environmentally friendly option.

    Sure, processed food is safe, in that eating it is highly unlikely to kill you (and a local farm system carries its own dangers in terms of safety). But the values of the large agribusiness conglomerates and food suppliers – consistently choosing convenience, cheapness, and uniformity over quality and taste – don’t align at all with mine, and I want to make sure that as much of my money as possible goes to producers and restaurants that do share my values.

  13. js says:

    The sacrifices aren’t being made solely to feed billions of people. They are being made purely for profit.

  14. Jeremy says:

    js, that is ridiculous. Yes, food is big business but you simply can’t provide the entire country, let alone the world with 100% fresh food everyday. Food has to be transported hundreds if not thousands of miles in some instances where it then has to be stocked on shelves, where it might not be purchased for another few days. Then on top of that, not everyone can go shopping every other day to buy food required to cook a meal immediately before it spoils.

    Without some sort of preserving/processing this would result in a tremendous amount of waste, even more than there is currently.

    If you think food is expensive now, think about how much it would cost if everything you bought had to be delivered on a daily basis and had a shelf life of about a week at the most. You’d probably wind up on a diet that consisted of mostly grain since that is one of the few things you can store without any real processing or preservatives.

  15. Amanda says:

    I’m the original commenter, and you’re all right – I rarely eat out. I wasn’t always this way. I used to eat at McDonalds, which is worse than anything SuperSuppers could ever dream of being. After working in a commercial kitchen for a while though, I realized just what goes on in the back of restaurants.

    Regarding the over-processing of grocery store foods, I get around that partially by participating in Community-Supported agriculture, or CSA. That means I give a certain amount of money to a single farmer at the beginning of a season along with a number of other like-minded people, and throughout the season I receive dividends of fresh, organic produce (that hasn’t been sprayed or overbred to look “pretty” to your average supermarket shopper) straight from the farmer, whose farm is less than 100 miles away. Through CSA I also get meat, milk, and eggs directly from neighbor farms that produce them and don’t sell them through an intermediary.

    I don’t think it comes down to an issue of paranoia. Do I go out to dinner with friends? Sure. Would I eat at McDonalds if I was hungry and there was nothing else to eat? Sure. Do I avoid supermarkets like the plague? No – in fact tonight is my shopping night, and I’ll be hitting Whole Foods for some things I want that I didn’t get in my CSA share this week. For me it’s not a paranoia issue – it’s an issue of doing what I can to give myself and the community around me the best that I can. For me, it’s a morality issue. I don’t like supporting huge agribusiness conglomerations, so I support a single farmer. (I find it weird… this makes me sound like a left-coast liberal, but I’m actually a conservative who grew up in Texas. Go fig.)

    I didn’t think when I made the comment that it would elicit this sort of reaction (I haven’t even read any of the other comments on that post yet) but in a way I’m happy that this might make one or two people think about supporting CSA or even just thinking about what they choose to feed themselves and their families.

    It just comes down to the old saw. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. :)

  16. Vincent says:

    Transportation and processing are two different things. Besides, there are natural ways to preserve foods without using harmful chemical preservatives. The food industry in its current state serves solely to line shareholders’ pockets with dollars. Not to “feed billions”. Don’t kid yourself—they don’t care if they’ve fed you or made your life more convenient with chemical preservatives or other processes. Corporations, both chemical and agricultural ones, have one purpose: to turn a profit.

    Anyway, instead of buying processed foods that have been sprayed with harmful chemicals and traveled from God-knows-where, buy local. Eliminates the problem from the get-go.

  17. Amanda says:

    Vincent brings up another good point. It’s relatively easy (though I wouldn’t call it quick) to can/preserve your own fruits. If I can do it myself in my miserably small kitchen in Brooklyn (seriously, it has a Nixon-era stove, a fridge, and about a foot of counter space) you can do it too!

    Therefore, it’s also possible to eat local and organic all year if that sort of thing is important to you. Tastes better, too. :)

  18. Amy says:

    Jeremy,

    There are many ways to preserve food that don’t involve the use of artificial additive to make it look like something it’s not. Salting, smoking, curing, canning, drying, freezing, fermenting, pickling…

    I don’t mean to say that there are no redeeming qualities to industrial-style food production. The poorest American families spend a much smaller percentage of their incomes on food than they did thirty years ago, and convenience foods and inexpensive restaurants have helped support women’s opportunities to work outside the home, to pick two examples.

    However, there are significant downsides to the move to turn the farm into a factory, and some are very serious: pollution from wasteful fertilization and intensive processing plants, the vulnerability of monoculture crops, and safety and cruelty issues with factory-farmed animals all come to mind.

    If you care at all about these things, the strongest message you can send is buying the least processed foods you can as much as you can. Trent’s attitude – that because he can’t avoid processed foods entirely it’s not worth worrying about – strikes me as the equivalent to saying that since even a Prius burns gasoline, you might as well buy a Hummer. Incremental differences matter, not just absolutes.

  19. Jay says:

    We try to go with 2 things – eat local and eat what is in season. I am glad that Amanda brought up CSA’s. We have been trying out a CSA this year and it has been wonderful. Between the CSA and farmer’s market, we get a lot of what we need. If you want tropical fruits in Dec, they will most probably be processed food. We try to do as much as we can to avoid processed food without going overboard.

  20. Jeremy says:

    Amy, I understand that there are plenty of ways to preserve food without artificial additives. My point was simply that there are a lot of people to feed and to provide the quantities of food required we have to rely on mass production to some extent.

    While some of this can still be done through conventional means we have to realize that not every type of food can be pickeled, salted, smoked or fermented and still retain the properties you’re looking for in a particular type of food.

    And times have simply changed. People are busier than ever and not everyone lives close to where food is produced. With dual income families, 60 hour work weeks it is difficult to reasonably expect everyone to be able to keep all fresh food on hand to make a meal all the time. This isn’t like 60 years ago when most families had homemaker who could put something fresh on the table that was grown by themselves or locally everyday.

    I agree that the downsides you mentioned are unpleasant byproducts of mass producing food but unfortunately that is the reality of our situation. Land is a limited resource (especially areas that are suitable for growing crops or raising livestock) and Americans as a whole are constantly demanding the lowest price possible. To satisfy our needs that is what has to be done.

    Right or wrong, doesn’t matter. Everyone can choose their own beliefs and act on them, and there are many choices available for consumers. That is the great part about this country. But for every person who demands the highest quality there are dozens who simply need a hot meal on the table to provide for their family.

  21. Lisa says:

    Trent, you might want to read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” if you’re interested in a good discussion of the economics and ethics of the food industry. If you read it, you might have a better understanding of where people like Amanda are coming from. It certainly changed my perspective on food, to the point where I’m considering joining a CSA too.

  22. Amanda says:

    Jeremy, I would disagree that our busy lifestyles necessitate a dependence on enormous agribusinesses. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of obligation, but of priorities. I, for example, work 65 hours a week, go to school part-time, and still participate in CSA and make 95% of my own meals. I can do this because it is a priority for me. Similarly, my best friend is a single mother of 3 and works, and she is also able to prepare organic and local meals from scratch using the once a month cooking method. Again, she can do this because it is a matter of priorities. If her priority was watching television or playing golf or something equally as time-consuming she could not make this choice.

    We live in the middle of New York City, the eat-out capital of the world. It would be much easier and quicker for me to eat processed foods from a deli every night rather than cooking. To be sure there are farms within 100 miles of us, but we’re not exactly “back to the land” people and cannot grow our own food, with the exception of particularly hardy and low-maintenance plants like tomatoes. I do not believe there is anyone (excepting perhaps Antarctic researchers) who do not live a reasonable distance from where food is produced. Eating seasonally, locally, and organically _does_ reduce one’s choices of available food (one cannot get local citrus in New York, for example) but I have never felt deprived, because the local produce that I can get is of so much higher quality than whatever grapefruits I can get flown in from Chile or Florida or Texas. I’d rather have a few Jersey blueberries (or peaches, or cherries – which are all in season now) than a navel orange which has burnt up its weight in airplane fuel getting to me. Then again, that’s my choice.

    As you said, this is a free country and everyone can make their own decisions, but I do not believe as you do that it is impossible to eat locally and organically and still maintain a full-time job.

  23. Jeremy says:

    Amanda, I’m not implying that it is impossible, only that due to this shift in lifestyle people’s priorities have changed. Not everyone cares to prepare a meal from scratch after a long day at work so they choose to either eat out or prepare some sort of quick meal in a box.

    Like I mentioned earlier, if you go back just 50 or so years we lived in a much slower paced society where it was common to have the focus around a family meal made from locally grown items. Things have changed and people’s priorities have shifted, that’s all. But with the shift in priorities comes a need for quick fix meals, food that has a long shelf life and mass-produced products.

    Again, I’m not saying one method is right or wrong, just that as a whole there are people who don’t have the time, resources or even desire to focus on obtaining local/organic/fresh food thanks to a change in lifestyle.

    I’m with you though, I work a full time job yet I still make time to grow my own vegetables, never eat out and prepare fresh meals everyday. I’m not disputing that it can’t be done, just that the mainstream population doesn’t put an emphasis on these values and are content with whipping together a 99 cent box of mac and cheese or hamburger helper. And as always, where there is a need, a business will show up to fulfill this need in order to make money.

  24. Debora says:

    “Just consider the plethora of studies showing that an apple (or any other fruit or vegetable) today has 50-90% LESS nutrients than 30 years ago because of factory farming and soil depletion.”

    yipyip – Could you share where you got this information from?

  25. Trent, indeed it’s tough to draw that line and have it apply everywhere. We live in exciting times but I admit I grow increasingly interested and concerned about the way food is treated from growth-to-consumer. I can’t wait to be in an area where I can take full advantage of farmer’s markets again! :-)

  26. Vincent says:

    Jeremy—you’re raising the issue of societal change bred into us over the last fifty or sixty years. We’ve been raised to rely on giant agribusinesses for just those reasons: most of society thinks they don’t have the time or money to do the things suggested (growing and preserving your own foods, buying locally, etc.), and that processed foods are a quicker, more convenient alternative.

    I should say that it was once an alternative. Now, it’s how most of America eats, and it shows in our bulging waistline.

    Hopefully the paradigm will shift back to one where small farmers and hardened arteries matter. Relying on agribusiness conglomerates is hurting our health and endangering our food supply, as Amy said.

  27. Brad says:

    If modern food is so unhealthy, why are we living so much longer than ever before? I would take even today’s processed foods over the “natural foods” most ate even a couple of hundred years ago any day.

    I do think the idea of avoiding lots of processed foods (especially carb-related stuff), but “natural” is usually much more hazardous than is readily acknowledged.

    On the issue of waiting for parenthood, I would agree with the early poster that waiting is not always good. Many older couples are finding that it isn’t quite as easy to just turn things on “when they are ready.” Biology has a way of making up its own mind. :)

    Brad

  28. Elaine says:

    So if you can’t do something 100% perfectly, don’t really bother so much about it? Forget that. I do the best I can. If processed food makes up 10% of my diet where it used to be 50%, I don’t sit around fretting about it. I feel good about the fact that I’ve reduced it that much. I might look for more ways to avoid it, but if I find I’m doing as much as I can, then I’m fine with that.

  29. Elden says:

    “You’d probably wind up on a diet that consisted of mostly grain since that is one of the few things you can store without any real processing or preservatives.” This sounds like a great way to eat healthy and feed billions of people in the world. We all could use more grains, beans, etc. in our diet.

  30. Trent Trent says:

    That was actually my point, Elaine. If you’re making mostly healthy choices, it’s not worth the strain to overcome that final 10-20% and go to an entirely agrarian diet. By saying that the person wouldn’t eat at a place serviced by a large scale food processor, though, the commenter was basically saying that they’ll never eat out again and will never purchase anything from a grocery store, either. If you actually draw that line, then you’re either a hypocrite or Amish.

    I’ve decided to read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and discuss it on here in the future – this turned out more interesting than I expected.

  31. Amanda says:

    By saying that the person wouldn’t eat at a place serviced by a large scale food processor, though, the commenter was basically saying that they’ll never eat out again and will never purchase anything from a grocery store, either.

    Not so, but then again it’s quite possible that you don’t have the food options open to you that I do here. When I do eat out, it’s usually at a raw, vegan restaurant that sources their products directly through farmers, not Sysco. Similarly, when I shop at a grocery store, I shop at one that displays the provenance of the food they sell, pays its employees a fair wage, and gives back to the community through charitable donations. I’m not saying it’s as easy as picking up a Big Mac at the drive-thru, but it’s not really that much harder than what most people are doing now. In the 2 hours of active prep time that it takes you at Super Suppers, for example, I can bulk prepare enough healthy, organic, local food for 24 meals. Everything that I prepare at home tastes great, which is not something that you can say for Super Suppers – and yes, I have actually eaten their food.

    At the end of the day it truly is possible to put one’s principles where one’s mouth is (literally in this case) and avoid either religious conversion or hypocrisy. One just has to make it a priority to do so. If that’s not your priority, no big deal, but the “it’s too hard” excuse is just that – an excuse – from my point of view. :)

  32. Sense says:

    This only vaguely relates–I have been thinking about an article you wrote talking about the foods you eat during the work day to keep you productive–I believe you mentioned in the article that you were able to keep your energy up and tackle projects when everyone else was lethargic and in a food coma–could you post that again in a Retro or provide the link? I can’t seem to find it in the tags on your site…it was quite a few months ago. I’d also like to link to your site from my pf blog if that’s all right. Thanks!

  33. janewilk says:

    Trent,
    Another book you might want to investigate on the eating locally/seasonally theme is Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” I really enjoyed “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” too, but the BK book shows a real family making real choices for an entire year – and how other people might be able to do it, too.
    Just weighing in here as another person who works 65+ hours per week, with a husband who works 50 hours per week, and a 10-year-old – we participate in a CSA, buy almost everything from the farmers’ market, and freeze and can foods in the growing season so we can make good (and yummy!) food choices all year long.

  34. Sarah says:

    @Brad: I think people are living longer because nutrition has definitely increased over the last hundred years– diets have become more varied and people aren’t limited to what’s in season and what they’ve canned or salted from last season. There’s also technology like freezing that make strawberries possible at relatively low cost, even locally. And as much as I don’t like eating fruit from Chile or something, I definitely have my share of rice and lentils, foods that weren’t available worldwide hundreds of years ago. These are both cheap sources of nutrition.

    Also, medicine has helped out a lot with people living longer. Diseases and conditions that would have otherwise been fatal are now treatable and in some cases, curable.

    I’m not saying that I would pick the diet of two hundred years ago over this one, but there are definite things that can be improved over eating much of the processed food that people subsist on today. The choice isn’t just “natural” (whatever the heck that means– loaded word of the decade?) or “processed.”

    @janewilk: Thanks for the book suggestion (even though it was directed toward Trent). I also loved Omnivore’s Dilemma and I’ve been looking for things to read that are kind of “the next step.” I know CSAs (though I wasn’t able to join one this summer because I knew I’d be moving) and local markets and stuff, but I’d like to go a little more in depth. I’ll be checking that out at the library:)

  35. jc says:

    I agree – I think advances in our healthcare and knowledge about preventive methods is what is making our average lifespans increase.

    I agree with all the CSA supporters. Joining a CSA is one of the best things I’ve done and a lot of the stuff can be eaten raw with minimal prep as well. It’s vegetables – not meat – you don’t get sick if you don’t cook it: greens, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, etc.

    When I am not eating stuff from the CSA-deliveries, I shop at my food co-op where they label what is LOCAL/organic and what isn’t. There was even a situation recently where a party/tappas mix was found to have MSG in it – the shelf was labeled with an index card asking us if we still wanted to bother ordering it since it was laden with MSG.

    I also agree that it’s tiring to be vigilant 100% of the time but if you think about it and make some life changes, it’s very easy to eat org/local.

    GRUB is also another great book about the food industry – even the healthfood industry.

    http://www.eatgrub.org/about.cfm

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1585424595/102-0361124-6117751?v=glance&n=283155&n=507846&s=books&v=glance

  36. Elaine says:

    Trent – I think you misunderstood my point a bit. If I’m eating 10% crappy processed food, then on one hand I don’t fret that it’s STILL 10%, but I also don’t sit there and go “ah, now I don’t have to improve anymore.” Say I find that I can reduce it again just as easily to 2% – of course I’ll do it.

  37. Ellen says:

    I sort of feel like there’s a bit of a debate on processed foods going on here that has people feeling defensive.

    I appreciated the commenter’s point about the Super Supper’s foods being mostly pre-processed, because I had assumed otherwise: not that these were super-high-grade organic/locally grown foods, but that it was at least fresh and minimally-processed. Which made it sound ideal for busy working people!

    Hearing that it’s mostly processed would certainly cause me to think twice.

    I really disagree with the attitude that preferring minimally-processed foods and occasionally eating stuff I know came from the Giant Can In The Sky makes me a hypocrite: people do the best they can, right? I know whole foods (as in foods my great-grandma the farmgirl would have recognized, not the store) are better for me, but mostly, I just prefer how they taste. So when possible, those are my choices. I’m not going to eat all-Twinkies all the time just because I don’t eat organic arugula for every meal!

    That’s why a place like Super Suppers would not be for me. That’s all. No judgment on anyone who likes their food!

  38. Vincent says:

    Our increased lifespan has less to do with diet than it does with medical advances and sanitation.

    Two hundred years ago, people were just learning about microbes and the importance of keeping fastidiously clean. The invention of antibacterial soap was a great one.

  39. steve says:

    Ummm–bacteria are not the enemy. Antibacterial soap for mass use is just about the worst idea ever floated, except for maybe lead paint and leaded gasoline. Antibacterial soap helps create antibacteria-resistant genes in all kinds of bacteria, which then get transferred to the disease-causing ones.

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