This week, a tweet from a young female nutrition educator went viral, one of the near-daily micro-controversies that increasingly animate a Twitter universe in which users sign on seemingly to find something to get mad at. This particular tweet admonished those who say eating healthy is an expensive privilege of the rich. “Hard to swallow pill,” the tweet reads, “eating healthy isn’t expensive, your idea of it is. You’ve never actually tried to make it work and you’re too comfortable eating your current diet and you have no immediate reason to change so you just make assumptions.”
The reaction was, predictably, swift and furious: What about food deserts? Healthy food is expensive. Only the privileged can afford organic produce.
The truth is that the original tweet was right, in its way: Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive. You can rely on foods like bulk dehydrated beans, brown rice, and frozen vegetables. But eating healthy is, no matter how you slice it, costly: If you’re not spending money, you’re probably spending time. And spending time on food can mean losing it elsewhere. This is what’s too often missing in simplistic debates about the ease and affordability of a nutritious diet.
Americans are indeed particularly unhealthy eaters. More than half of the calories Americans take in come from ultra-processed foods, those that are made up of a variety of manufactured and artificial substances – think soft drinks, microwave meals, sugar cereal, and ramen noodles. Less than a third of us meet recommended dietary guidelines. We continue to consume a ton of soda, although that’s (slowly) shifting as more Americans switch to bottled water. To suggest that roughly 65% of the country just has the wrong idea about what it means to eat healthily is misguided at best, more likely it’s willfully obtuse.
People who think that way often fall into two camps: Those who think poor eating habits are all the result of bad individual choices or sheer laziness, and those who think poor eating habits are almost entirely externally constructed, the results of food deserts and bad policy. The truth is that it’s a lot of both.
Too-stingy food stamps don’t allow poor families the luxury of fresh fruits and vegetables; poor neighborhoods, and particularly African-American and Latino areas, are underserved by grocery stores, leaving residents with fewer options than those in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. Food deserts may not be the biggest driver of unhealthy diets, but they sure don’t help. Of course some of this is a choice: An individual grabbing a Mountain Dew instead of a can of seltzer isn’t something easily solvable by public policy.
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But the circumstances that push us toward convenience foods are more complicated. One of the big ones is time, especially for parents (and among parents, especially for single moms, who are also more likely to be low-income). Wage workers often find that their hours are unpredictable as schedules change weekly, making it hard to plan anything, including childcare, meals, and even how much money is coming in that month.
Imagine you’re a single mom for whom a grocery store visit means two bus rides, three hours, and a budget stretched to the penny. How can you plan your week when Sunday is your only day off and you won’t know your schedule until Monday — but you do know that it may very well be that you’re working through a few dinners, so if you buy too much meat or produce it will go bad?
Food also doesn’t just magically appear on the dinner table: it requires washing, chopping, cooking, and cleaning up. The time crunch so many Americans face means that a parent may be choosing between feeding her kids a healthy dinner and actually spending time talking to them, or helping with homework, or tucking them in with a story.
I’m not a parent, nor am I low-income, but I often find myself making such a calculus in my own life when I’ve been traveling and barely seeing my partner. Those are the nights we’re more likely to spend money eating out or ordering in so we can focus on enjoying each other’s company and reconnecting. Maybe the meals we have in those moments are less healthful than something we would’ve made from scratch. In fact, they almost definitely are. We know what healthy food is. We sometimes cannot spare the time to pull it together. For some people it’s money that can’t be pooled. Or a combination of the two.
Eating is also emotional and comforting. When I’m stressed or overwhelmed, I tend to make less-healthy food choices, and instead indulge in what I find soothing and what I think will make me feel better in the moment. If you are chronically stressed — and poverty and racism are stressful for those who endure them — that can both short-circuit long-term thinking and lead you to find pleasure and comfort where you can.
Convenience food, like fast food or sugary cereal or candy, can also be a way for low-income parents to say yes to a child’s request and offer a small indulgence when bigger ones are out of reach. As Priya Fielding-Singh wrote in the L.A. Times, if you can’t afford the vacations other families enjoy or the name-brand sneakers your kids request, you can at least say yes to a Happy Meal or a Snickers.
Part of how Americans eat is about culture and knowledge. Nutrition isn’t taught in many schools, and moneyed food companies take pains to market their processed products as “healthy” or “natural” when they aren’t delivering on those promises. And we’re a consumptive society: Just as we amass large houses, big cars, giant TVs, and generally more stuff than our European counterparts, we also eat more, and many of us were never taught how to recognize the fullness cues to stop (myself included). Food is treated as either indulgence or enemy. Neither is a healthy view.
But a large part of how we eat is also about money, how we work, and how American companies are permitted to treat workers. It is not a reflection of intelligence, dedication, or inherent virtuousness that wealthier, professional-class Americans eat healthier than poorer, working-class Americans. It’s a reflection of who has not only money to spend, but time — and can supplement one for the other when necessary. So, yes: It actually costs quite a lot to eat well.