If you're going to lecture me on my lifestyle, you could at least use facts.

There is this image set that makes its way around tumblr every so often, generally being thoroughly debunked (which may not speak to tumblerites as a whole, but simply that I follow some very quality people), comparing the price of a fast-food meal for four people to how many! groceries! you! could! buy! for the same amount.  The prices they cite are unrealistic to the point of ridiculous, and the whole thing has that finger-wagging, paternalistic tone to it, as if poor people are just children who don't understand how to food and need to be taught so they can Make Proper Choices.  So it annoys the crap out of me every time it goes around, but I usually just reblog it with ranting of my own appended and let it go.  But this time, I saw the whole set go by - I'd only ever seen one or sometimes two of the fast-food meal ones before.  The whole series, I discovered, also includes shamey comparisons between types of grocery-store food, frozen/processed versus fresh ingredients, produce, and meat.  And that pushed me over the edge.  It's not enough that they misrepresent fast food eating on a budget (because no, nobody buys the fucking whopper meals when you're eating cheap, okay?  You buy four burgers off the dollar menu.  Or you go to Taco Hell and get a dozen tacos for $10.  When the point is to eat cheap, you eat fucking cheap, not the overpriced meals.), vastly underprice a basket of groceries, and say SEE YOU SHOULD DO THIS INSTEAD.  Now, even if you're shopping at the grocery store instead of getting fast food, you will still be judged, this time on exactly *what* you're getting!

So I decided on a whim to see what their grocery lists would actually cost if I tried to live by them.  I wrote down what all was on these lists, and today I went to the store and pretend-shopped for all of it.

For context:  I live in a smallish town on the outskirts of the Bay Area, California.  This is widely (and correctly) regarded as a really fucking expensive place to live.  The particular town I live in is a middle-to-upper-middle-class old-white-people town that sits cheek-to-jowl beside one of the poorest primarily-PoC towns in the area.  I don't shop at expensive grocery stores, however.  This is not Whole Foods or something.  I do my grocery shopping at Raley's, which is a midrange grocery chain common in this region.  (I might have done this experiment at the Safeway that's also nearby, as Safeway is generally considered to be the more bargain grocery store, but I have found over time that I spend about the same at both for the same amount of food, and often actually save better at Raley's, so.  Also I know the Raley's better and it would have taken me much longer to do this at Safeway.  What?  My time is valuable, y'all.)  So we are looking at prices at a mid-range grocery store in a middle-class area of a region that has a very high cost of living.  These grocery lists may actually cost closer to what the graphics quote them at in other regions - they feel less inaccurate to me when I consider what that would have cost when I was living and buying groceries in Tennessee, although I still think they're vastly underpricing the meat and produce.

With all that said, here are the comparisons; in the lists, their price is listed first, with my price following in parentheses; when my price includes a range, it encompasses the cheapest store-brand price or sale price, up to the brand name or non-sale price:

Image 1: Four Burger King Whopper meals ($21.76) versus this grocery list:
  • 1 box Morningstar Farms meatless burgers, $2.98 ($5.29)
  • 1 lb 96% lean ground beef, $2.98 ($5.49)
  • 16 oz cashews, $4.18 ($7.99-11.96)
  • 1 lb strawberries, $1.67 ($2.50-4.99)
  • 10 lbs potatoes, $2.97 ($5)
  • 1 gallon 100% orange juice, $3.26 ($3.88)
  • 1 lb bag frozen vegetables mix, $0.98 ($2.00)
  • 1 bunch broccoli, $1.58 ($1.99)
  • 1 lb bag dry pinto beans, $1.08 ($1.69)
Their total, $21.68.  My total, $37.83-42.29.  Literally as much as two times as much as they're claiming!  It's not a perfect one-to-one comparison: my grocery store doesn't carry Morningstar, so I used the price for an equivalent box of Gardenburgers; the highest lean percentage beef they had was 93%, not 96%; and there were no 16-oz jars of cashews - my price range reflects, at the low end, a 16-oz bag of almonds (which tend to be cheaper than cashews, judging by equivalent packages of the two at other sizes), and at the high end, 2 8-oz jars of store-brand cashews.  Strawberries were on sale today, 2 for $5, but are normally $5 per one-pound package.

Image 2: A large pepperoni pizza from Domino's with an order of breadsticks ($19.98) versus this grocery list:
  • 1.25 lbs sweet Italian turkey sausage, $3.82 ($5.49)
  • 1 lb frozen tilapia filets, $3.98 ($4.99)
  • 1 lb 93% lean ground turkey, $1.98 ($3.98-5.49)
  • 1 16-oz jar Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter, $2.38 ($3.89)
  • 1 box (40 bags) green tea, $2.58 ($3.79)
  • 1 lb bag dry lentils, $0.94 ($1.59)
  • 1 box Kashi Heart to Heart crackers, $2.98 ($2.99-3.79)
Their total, $18.66.  My total, $26.72-29.03.  Not as dramatic as the first one, but still definitely not in the under-$20 range.  My store didn't have frozen tilapia filets, so I substituted a 10-oz bag of frozen flounder, which was the cheapest of the frozen fish filets.  The Kashi crackers were on sale this week.

Image 3: An 8-piece KFC fried chicken meal bucket, with four biscuits and two sides ($19.61) versus this grocery list:
  • 2 lbs chicken breasts (fresh, not frozen), $1.96 ($6.49-9)
  • 10 lbs potatoes, $2.97 ($5)
  • 8 ears of corn, $2.00 ($4-12)
  • 1 lb of peaches, $0.98 ($2.99)
  • 1 gallon skim milk, $2.00 ($2.79-3.29)
  • 1 lb 96% lean ground beef, $2.98 ($5.49)
  • 32 oz tub Yoplait fat-free yogurt, $2.27 ($3.59)
  • 18 oz rolled oats, $1.18 ($1.98)
  • 2 lbs frozen sweet peas, $1.98 ($5)
  • 1 lb dry kidney beans, $1.22 ($1.99)
Their total, $19.54.  My total, $40.92-47.82.  More than twice as much, this time.  There are a few interesting disparities in this list, too.  The chicken breasts at my grocery store were available either in 1-lb packages for $6.49 per pound (ouch), or in a "family size" package for $1.88 per pound, but with a total price ranging from $8-10.  The corn was even worse, because the options were prepackaged four-ear-packs for $6 per pack, or the pick-and-choose selection, which was only $0.99 (per pound or per ear, it wasn't clear), but which was really gross-looking and meager (I'm not even sure there were eight ears available, total, and most of them were off-color and had chunks of corn missing from them) because it's very much not in season.

Image 4: A box of TGI Friday's jalapeno poppers and a bag of breaded cheese sticks ($10.76), versus the following grocery list:
  • 1 box Morningstar meatless burgers, $2.98 ($5.29)
  • 1 lb dry pinto beans, $1.08 ($1.69)
  • 1 lb dry kidney beans, $1.22 ($1.99)
  • 1 lb brown rice, $0.72 ($1.35
  • 2 cans Hunt's no-salt diced tomatoes, $1.84 ($3.90)
  • 18 oz jar Jif Natural Peanut Butter, $2.18 ($3.89)
  • 4 ears of corn, $1 ($2-6)
Their total, $11.02.  My total, $20.11-24.11.  I also discovered that their price estimate for the two frozen food items was about a dollar higher than I'd have paid for those same things here.  Which is...interesting, given that everything else has been more expensive for me than their graphics claim.

Image 5: A box of Delimex frozen chicken taquitos ($6.87), versus the following grocery list:
  • 1 loaf Brownberry (Oroweat) 100% whole wheat bread, $2.50 ($3-4.99)
  • 1 lb chicken breasts, $0.98 ($6.49)
  • 1 lb baby carrots, $1.44 ($1.58)
  • 1 lb bananas, $0.47 ($0.68)
  • 4 ears of corn, $1 ($2-6)
Their price, $6.39.  My price, $19.74.  I substituted Oroweat bread for Brownberry, because I recognized the packaging as it's the brand I normally buy; Brownberry must be the brand name in another region (why do companies do that, anyway? Dreyer's ice cream here has another name I've forgotten out in TN, Carls Jr. is Hardee's.  I've never understood why).  It's definitely not the budget bread, anyway - it's usually $5 a loaf, but you can catch it on sale for $3 or sometimes 2-for-$5.  Again, I found that their price for the "bad" food was actually higher than what I found; at my grocery store, Delimex brand taquitos were only $4.99, and the off-brand was $3.99.

Image 6:  A bag of Ore-Ida brand "golden crinkle" frozen french fries ($5.44), versus the following grocery list:

  • 1 lb frozen mixed vegetables, $0.98 ($2)
  • 10 lbs potatoes, $2.97 ($5)
  • 1 lb bananas, $0.47 ($0.68)
  • 1 box whole-wheat spaghetti, $0.88 ($1.69)
Their price, $5.30.  My price, $9.37.  Again, their price for the "bad" food was higher than what I found; I could buy a bag of Ore-Ida fries, same size as the one pictured, for only $3.50.

Image 7:  A 1-lb bag of Twizzlers ($1.68) versus a 6-oz bag of dried cranberries ($1.68).  I found the Twizzlers for $2.69, and the dried cranberries were either $2.59 for a 5-oz package of Ocean Spray, or $2.87 for a 6-oz bag of store-brand.  So they were still pretty close to equivalent, although I'll point out that you're getting less than half the total amount of product for the same price if you go with the "healthy" equivalent (which speaks to the sad state of food politics in this country), so if you're looking to get a tasty snack that will last you the whole week without running out, fuck it, Twizzlers it is.

Conclusion:  Their price comparisons may be accurate, if you are shopping at Walmart for all your groceries (Great Value is Walmart's store brand), and if all produce is magically always in season, and if you live in a region where the cost of living is this low.  But when you have to tack that many conditions on to make your admonition, which is addressed to the general public without any of these qualifiers, halfway believable, maybe you shouldn't be trying to generalize quite that far.

This is especially true when you're making a comparison between the price of fast food, which remains relatively constant across regions (those prices for BK and KFC ring pretty true to what I'd be paying if I bought the same stuff - maybe a few dollars cheaper, but not much), to the price of grocery store food, which is much more variable.  Under one particular set of circumstances, buying the listed groceries might actually be cheaper than buying the listed fast food meals.  But what about everyone else?  And it's in especially poor taste to chirp "No excuses!" when you put these images on your blog, without taking into account the variation in human circumstance that may make this completely implausible for a huge chunk of your audience.

And then there are all the other criticisms to be made of this approach...

1:  There are no cooking necessities included in these lists.  Not at all.  No butter, no oils, no spices, no vinegars, no cornstarch or dressings or heavy cream or flour or any of the things people use to make raw food taste *good* when it's done cooking.  Even if someone does shop off these lists, unless your kitchen is pre-stocked with accessories (which are fucking expensive to get started with, those little bottles of spices are at least $5 a pop, which adds up fast when you want a basic variety of things like garlic powder, onion powder, italian seasoning, thyme, rosemary, seasoned salt, etc.), anything you make from these ingredients is going to taste like shit because you had no way of adding flavor to them or enhancing their natural flavor.

2:  Can we talk about how much more time and effort is involved in cooking?  Especially when you're talking about things like dry beans and lentils and raw whole potatoes!  Beans and lentils have to be soaked, often overnight, and then cooked for hours on end to make them soft enough to eat.  Potatoes have to be washed, peeled, cut up, boiled, and then mashed (for mashed potatoes), washed and cut up and coated with spices and oil and roasted (for roasted, and the kind of bulk potatoes you can get cheaply don't really turn out well that way), or put in the oven for like a fucking hour to make baked potatoes.  Take those frozen crinkle fries, for example - they are the same price or less than a big-ass bag of potatoes, and you can pop them in the oven for fifteen minutes and have hot food ready to eat, where raw potatoes will take you *at least* half an hour to render suitable for consumption - and that's half an hour of actively working on them, peeling and cutting and such, while the fries you can just spread on a cookie sheet and pop in the oven to bake while you work on making your main dish.  If you are a person with a busy life - like, say, someone who works multiple jobs or has children to care for or both, and who would be the kind of person who would need to shop most cheaply in the first place - time and effort are major factors in what kinds of food are viable for you.  Sometimes you just need to throw food at your family and fall into bed, which is a situation which does not lend itself to peeling potatoes and soaking beans and cutting up chicken (and then doing all the resulting dishes, which I've always found to be the more time-consuming, exhausting, and annoying part of "real" cooking).

3:  Produce goes bad quickly.  If you use a lot of produce in your cooking, you will need to go to the store several times a week to get fresh stuff.  If you work multiple jobs, or have to take public transit to go shopping, for example, that would be a gigantic pain in the ass and frankly not worth it when combined with the amount of extra effort raw ingredients require before being able to eat.

4:  I want to know on what planet the maker of these graphics is buying their meat.  Because I have NEVER, not even on the best sales in the cheapest area I've ever lived, seen fresh chicken breasts for under a dollar a pound.  Thighs, maybe.  Not breasts.

5:  What about people with food aversions?  Either for sensory reasons (many autistic people, for example, have strong sensory aversions to certain foods, to the point where trying to eat or even handle them will make them throw up) or simply because a certain food tastes gross to you.  Bananas make several appearances here, because they're reliably the cheapest fruit you can get, and they're reasonably good for you.  However, I hate bananas with a flaming passion.  I bought some this week, actually, because Ozz has been having muscle cramps and bananas are high in potassium, which helps with that.  I forced myself to eat one on the logic that I could probably use the vitamins too, and the other three of the bunch of four are turning brown on my counter as I type this, because neither of us likes them.  Peppers and onions often appear on "healthy on a budget" types of grocery/meal lists, because they're very flavorful and can be used to impart that flavor into a wide variety of dishes.  Problem being, I can't eat anything that's got peppers in it, because the taste disgusts me so badly.  I would never buy baby carrots or nuts if I were trying to stock my mom's house with snacks, because she's allergic.

People are different, is what I'm trying to say here, and many "cheap and healthy" foods are not an option for a lot of people.  Finger-wagging graphics pitting "good" food choices versus "bad" food choices are ridiculous for about eight billion reasons, but they all pretty much begin and end with "You have completely failed to take into account the lived realities of people who are not you."

Of course, this is not something the makers of these graphics want to consider, because having to consider the actual facts would mean that there is no pithy oversimplification that looks good on a poster that they can use to shame people into doing what they think is Right and Good.  And where would the diet/food-policing industry be without their pithy oversimplifications?*

*In the dust bin of history where they belong, that's where, and good riddance.


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