Dinner for $5 elicits support and controversy

It seems like the idea of challenging people to cook a homemade dinner for less than $5 per person is popping up on a lot of people’s lips these days.  The basic idea is simple enough:  to encourage people to discover for themselves that, for the price one would pay at a fast food restaurant serving industrial  food and empty calories, it is possible to make a fresh, healthy home-cooked meal.

First, as I noted in a post last month, Slow Foods USA invited the nation to “Take Back the Value Meal” by accepting its $5 Challenge.  Slow foods challenged members and non-members alike to  honer the following pledge on September 17, 2011:

“I pledge to share a fresh, healthy meal that costs less than $5 — because slow food shouldn’t have to cost more than fast food.”

Slow Foods USA reports that over 30,000 Americans signed the pledge and participated in the event.

Next, the Partnership for a Healthier America, the foundation created by Michelle Obama’s Lets Move campaign, announced its Great American Family Dinner Challenge.  Like the Slow Foods USA challenge, the Great American Family Dinner Challenge is intended to encourage families and friends to cook together so that children (and adults!) learn skills for preparing fresh, healthy, nutritional food on a budget.  In support of this goal, the PHA has announce an event on November 29 in Washington DC which will feature celebrity chefs competing to prepare a healthy 3-course gourmet meal for less than $4.50 per person.

Mark Bittman picked up on the idea as well in a September 24, 2011 article in the New York Times.   Bittman answers the question he poses in the article’s  title, “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper” with a resounding no.  As he notes, the  US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also know as food stamps) provides $5 per person per day, and, although it is not easy to get by on this amount, it is possible.  In fact, he goes on to propose several menus, with recipes, that provide healthy, home-made food and checkout at  considerably cheaper than $5 per person (eg. Roasted chicken with vegetables, salad, milk:  $14 to feed 4).  His article went well beyond the basic question of which is cheaper to explore the issue of why so many people continue to eat factory produced fast food even though pretty much every one understands its not good for their health.  Obviously the answer is manifold, but two he cited are the overwhelming advertizing assault by massive fast food chains and the fact that fast food menus are engineered to be addictive in the same way that tobacco companies engineered addictive products, with similar success.

Bethany Jean Clement of the Stranger, a Seattle-based weekly, made note of Mark Bittman’s article in a Slog post on September 27, 2011, and distilled one of its  most important points in her comments:  When it comes to eating healthy and battling the epidemic of obesity in America, the best thing that most people could  do is to cook meals from scratch at home as often as possible.  Regardless of whether one uses organic food from the Farmer’s  Market or fresh products from big grocery stores, freshly made, home cooked food will almost always be better for you than fast food.

I was surprised to read the long list of vitriolic comments from readers of  Bethany’s post, most of them (very) upset with Mark Bittman.  Although opinions varied among people who posted comments, one point that seemed common to many of the most sharply worded comments was the belief that Bittman’s article reflected an attitude of elitist, Manhattan-ite condescension.  Many heard in his calls for better eating a paternalistic, “gosh these poor people can’t feed themselves and need the help of wealthy East Coasters to figure it all out” message to which they took umbrage.

As I said, I was surprised by many of these comments and their level of animosity.  Although I sometimes think Mark Bittman comes off as bit of a wide eyed innocent,  suggesting with a straight face courses of action that wiser heads might have concluded are patently impossible, he doesn’t seems to me to be paternalistic or condescending (everyone, of course, sees things through there own lens).  It occurs to me that a fresh view of what is possible in America today might come in handy, given gridlock that seems to have paralyzed our policy makers.

In addition, the points he makes are self evident.  Eating fast food is bad for health and causes obesity.  Cooking at home is better for you and not any more expensive than fast food.  People continue to eat fast food knowing these things for many reasons, including lack of time to cook and the fact that they have been trained to the taste of fast food see it as a treat, as more desirable to home cooked food.  Advertizing plays a big role in this.  Fast food is addictive by design.

These things can be changed.  None of this should be controversial.







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