Grudge match: Junk food vs. fresh food

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

In the interest of full disclosure, having me write a column dealing with nutrition would be like asking Donald Trump to write a guidebook on humility.

As far as I'm concerned, the four food groups are pizza, powdered doughnuts, Mountain Dew and nachos.

However, in an abstract sort of way, I do realize that nutrition is important. At least in the sense that it is important to tell other people what is good for them, as opposed to actually doing something smart yourself.

At any rate, during the recent Hunger Discussion held in Storm Lake, conversation turned to the fact that a large part of the problem may not be that people aren't getting enough to eat, but that they are eating the wrong stuff.

I'm a died-in-the-wool cart peeker, and even lacking my own sensabilities in this area, I'm guessing that the gal with three 12-packs of beer, three cartons of cigarettes, and eight bags of Skittles is probably not training for the local triathlon.

Blame at the meeting was largely placed on the high cost of healthy foods. The feeling was that people can't afford to eat fresh food, so were opting for the cheap but empty calories of chips or frozen dinners to fill their bellies.

This sounded right to me, but then again, so did the announcement of Miss Universe. So I decided that I needed to investigate. Someone hand me my trench coat and Wayfarers, we're going undercover.

I spent the night Saturday in a local grocery store, surreptitiously calculating unit prices on the back of my checkbook.

Conclusion: healthier food is more expensive, and it's not.

For example, a banana is 51 cents a pound. A standard-size Snickers bar is 78 cents for 2 ounces.

A two-pound bag of fresh carrots is $1.48, while a 10-ounce bag of Chips Ahoy cookies is $2.

You can buy a lunch-size container of yogurt for $1, while a Lunchables packaged snack with 420 calories and all kinds of chemicals, will run you $2.74.

A carton of vanilla ice coffee (a particular vice of mine) is $3.98, when I could have had the same size container of Minute Maid orange juice for $2.88.

A six-pack of Bud Light is $6.47 - that would come to about 9 cents per ounce. A gallon of house brand skim milk works out to less than 2 cents per ounce. In fact, you could buy six gallons of super unleaded gas in Storm Lake for what one gallon of beer goes for.

Clearly, not all healthier food choices are expensive.

However, a 64-ounce jug of Welch's grape juice is $3.48, while a 96-ounce container of Kool-Aid is $1.98.

A pound of Planters mixed nuts is $9.98 - what do they make nuts out of, gold nuggets? - while a four-pack of pudding could be had right next to it in the aisle for $1.

A pound of green beans in a nifty little bag is $4.98. Grapes are $3.98 per pound. A family size bag of Lays chips, albeit mostly air (not unlike Trump), can be had for $2.50.

Part of the problem is clearly the cost of convenience. A little plastic container of sliced pineapple is a ridiculous $3.88. You can buy a fresh, whole pineapple in the same store for just over two bucks, and with two minutes of effort, have triple the food.

A pound of 90% lean hamburger is $4.98, while the fatty 73 percent burger is $3.58. Guess what people on a tight budget are going to grab. But, if you poke around a bit, you can find lean ground chicken for $3.94.

Sixteen ounces of spinach is a whopping $5.98. while Hamburger Helper is $1.47. Again, guess which one families in a crunch are going to choose to stretch their meal.

If you thought apples fell from trees, guess again. Honeycrisps, apparently the Cadillac Fleetwood of fruits, are $3.27 a pound! That's insane. A frozen pizza is $2.50, or a one-pound Hungry Man frozen dinner $2.67. Four and a half quarts of ice cream, in a plastic bucket that could double as a bathtub, is $6.48.

Break it down, and you'll find that apple costing you 20.4 cents per ounce, while Starburst fruit-flavored candy checks in at 14.6 cents.

Maybe we need some pressure on food-makers to make healthier choices more equitable. Ballpark "lean" Franks sell for $3.98, a full buck a package more than their regular version.

With some attention, we could eat a bit better without taking out a loan. I dined tonight at a local fast-food place, where I always choose the "#3" - because it's easy - with spicy deep-fat french fries that I will be regretting hours later. Because I was looking, I noticed that a side salad is the same price, $1.68. Admittedly, it is dubious iceberg lettuce with stiff hydroponic tomatoes, but still, my bowels and the next person to use the newspaper restroom will probably thank me.

Here's the thing. We have the world's most fertile soil here - it will grow most anything if you work at it, but almost all of it goes to commodities that people don't directly eat.

Where we plant back yard flowerbeds, we could garden food and have something fresh for ourselves and some extra to share or sell.

Farmer's Markets are a wonderful thing, we should help them to thrive. If Seattle and San Francisco have fish markets that are big events that draw people from all over, because they have rich fishing, we should have growing vegetable and fruit markets that are a social happening. Bring in a band, or an art fair. We could have a canned food market in the winter.

Our area is slowly starting to add some community garden spaces. People who depend on food pantries now could grow some of their own vittles, and again, a bit extra to help someone else. A few families bake bread or raise sweet corn to raise money for college - encourage them! The more competition when it comes to fresh foods, the lower those retail prices will get.

Make a little change this week, just a tiny one. Put the six-pack and the candy down and grab one fruit and a vegetable instead. It's a start. Maybe even I could do that. Maybe.