Sunday, February 16, 2014

Premise #7: Convenience, Carryout and Fast Foods

Premise #7: Convenience, Carryout and Fast Foods

This week's premise is dedicated to the Anonymous commenter who challenged me on the issue of taxing prepared foods. The popular idea is that people who are on restricted budgets can't afford to eat well because "good" food is expensive, and since low-income people may work more than one job or live in a food desert, they have little alternative to reliance on prepared foods. This would unfairly levy a Prepared Food tax on lower income folk who are least able to afford the increased expense.

I have no desire to see lower income people paying more for their food. This blog is all about investigating the possibility of eating well for less.

The problem with 'convenience' foods is that they are expensive, offer mediocre nourishment and often leave the consumer still feeling hungry.

I'd like to suggest that eating 'real' food doesn't need to require a huge investment of time. I mean, I think I've made it pretty clear that cooking is one of my least favorite activities. I therefore spend as little time doing it as I can get away with while still feeding the family.

The other night, after I taught a theater class downtown, I washed some sweet potatoes, put them in the microwave, opened a couple of cans and had dinner ready to eat in 15 minutes. This includes washing, can opening and spooning things out onto plates. We had black beans, corn and sweet potatoes with lots of butter. I have no idea about the caloric value of this meal, the amount of fiber or fat or, really, anything other than that it's nutritionally sound, delicious and filling. It's also colorful on a plate.

A frozen pizza takes 7 to 12 minutes in the oven, not counting the 9 1/2 minutes it takes me to wrestle the plastic packaging off of the stupid thing. An hour later, everyone is looking for something else to eat.

The food advertising industry has conditioned us into a state of 'learned helplessness'. We have grown, as a community, to believe that cooking for our family is time-consuming, costly and for gourmet cooks only. I call bullshit. Eating is something so simple any idiot can, and through the centuries, has, managed to do it for himself and often his family.

Rice doesn't take very long to cook and is dead cheap. Even the Uncle Ben's boxed rice isn't terribly pricey,  but Wal-Mart sells brown rice for about 77 cents for a one-pound bag. Frozen veggies aren't expensive, though they're sometimes harder to find in food deserts. Cans are heavier to carry, but three cans of veggies at under a dollar each, plus a can of beef or chicken broth, with or without rice, is a nourishing soup, much cheaper than prepared tinned soup ($1.79/can? what the hell, man?) feeds several people, and doesn't take much longer than the canned version. I mean, yeah, you're operating the can opener four times instead of one, but the actual heating in a pot on the stove is about the same. Slice up some cheese and open a package of crackers- or toast some bread, whatever- and you've got yourself a meal.

The food advertising industry has conned us into believing that your meatloaf NEEDS two veggies and a starch, plus a sauce on top, to be a 'real' meal. This is not true. One veg with that meatloaf is FINE, and if it comes from a can or a package, there is nothing wrong with that. Tomato soup and grilled cheese for dinner? Go for it. Actually takes about twice the time of YamN-BeansN-Corn, but is still quick. Boxed mac and cheese is WAY more expensive than it needs to be, but in a pinch, it's quick and cheaper than drive-through.

I can't imagine ever being convinced that soda, marshmallows or Doritos qualify as food ("food" = nutritive substance, all others being, in my opinion, "edible matter") and so I'm okay with those things being taxed. If people wish to eat those items, they, like smokers, should be prepared to admit to the non-health-enhancing nature of their personal preferences.

Okay. I will step down from my soap-box now.
(Probably not really.)


  1. I'm the same anonymous as before. I wasn't commenting on marshmallows and the like. I was commenting on prepared foods that are some sort of meal. The two big things that I have a problem with the idea of a tax for that are 1) some people are not able to prepare their own meals due to disabilities (either regularly or occasionally) and those people are more likely to be poor, and 2) in the past year, I have been poor and also not had access to a kitchen while being poor. I figured out how to get food on less than a dollar each day, but as you can guess from those conditions, it wasn't healthy, and it wasn't very much. And some people have access to some cooking supplies, but they might only have a hot plate, or a kettle. All of these things are symptomatic of larger societal issues, but I think a tax on "prepared food" is too broad. If you want to tax things like marshmallows, fine, but when you start raising taxes on unhealthy but cheap meal-type food without other plans in place, it hurts the people who need the cheap food the most.

    One thing that I worked on, that was very good, was, shortly before I lost kitchen access but was already in that super poor state, I volunteered at a student-run pop-up shop that bought ethically sourced food in bulk and sold it for just enough to keep restocking. There were some things that had the same potential preparation problems, but there were also lots of snacks and potential ingredients that didn't need to be cooked. Also, in exchange for volunteering, I got a "coupon" for free food, which, to be honest, was why I started.

    And, I see where you're going with taxes in terms of government regulation in order to have healthy food available, but I feel like there needs to be stronger action taken, action that doesn't depend on companies who don't care about health paying attention to which taxes their customers are upset about. If you're going to tax anyone, those companies can afford it. But I think what I would most like to see is a list of foods that are required in every grocery store, and an effort made to get more grocery stores, stores that are *specifically* grocery stores put in food deserts.

    1. I had not thought about lack of access to a kitchen. That makes a difference, maybe. But really, I'm not talking about taxing frozen burritos, ramen noodles or Lunchables, even though I think most people can do better most of the time. I really AM talking about soda, cheezy poufs, snack cakes and so on. Things that would never qualify as WIC items, that actually have negative nutritive value. But where to draw the line between 'food' and 'luxury edibles'? It is tricky. I think it's a conversation worth continuing in the US, if only to get people to begin to admit to themselves that much of what they're putting in their mouths is horrible for their health. It took awhile with cigarettes. I don't expect this to be instant, either.