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Does healthy food have to be expensive?

That nasty Bourdain vs. Deen debate raised a question: Does 'healthy' mean it costs too much for many people?

By MSN Money Partner Sep 26, 2011 11:03AM

This post comes from April Dykman at partner blog Get Rich Slowly.


Last month a food fight erupted when Anthony Bourdain, chef, author, and host of the Travel Channel's "No Reservations," was asked by TV Guide to give his opinion of a handful of celebrity chefs and cooks. Of cooking show host Paula Deen, he criticized how unhealthy her food is, saying, "If I were on at 7 at night and loved by millions of people at every age, I would think twice before telling an already obese nation that it's OK to eat food that is killing us."


Deen responded, saying, "... not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. ... I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills. ... It wasn't that long ago that I was struggling to feed my family, too."


Food for the working class
You can click the links to read their accusations about "unholy connections with evil corporations," food that sucks, and lack of charity, but what interested me was what was being said about the affordability of good food. Deen didn't claim her food is healthy, she countered that it's for the working class. Bourdain, for his part, was accused of "culinary elitism" in The New York Times. Post continues after video.

Columnist Frank Bruni writes that Deen is the champion "of downscale cooking that's usually more affordable and easier to master" and that his own personal preferences, "... don't entitle me, Bourdain or anyone else who trots the globe and visits ambitious restaurants -- the most casual of which can cost $50 a person and entail hour-long waits -- to look down on food lovers without the resources, opportunity or inclination for that."


TV Guide knew what it would get when it asked Bourdain to weigh in on celebrity cooks from the Food Network -- that's no surprise. What is surprising to me is the accusation of elitism and the notion that poor people can't afford to cook healthier food.


Full disclosure: I'm a fan of Tony Bourdain. I've never seen Paula Deen's show, though I've read some (but haven't cooked any) of her recipes.


Of the former, I have to wonder if Deen or Bruni has ever seen Bourdain's show. He rarely goes to fancy restaurants in "No Reservations," preferring the following kinds of eateries:

  • Street vendors.
  • Markets.
  • Pubs.
  • Diners.
  • Cafes.
  • Meals cooked by his local guide's grandma. (As an independent traveler without a personal guide, those family meals make me green with envy.)

Of the latter, I wondered if it's really a matter of affording the ingredients. To be clear, I'm notarguing that poor people can afford organic food from Whole Foods or spend hours in the kitchen making a gourmet meal. But if you're planning to cook one of Deen's recipes, you have to purchase ingredients. Preparing them in an unhealthy way (fried, tons of sugar, unnecessary gobs of butter) doesn't save money over grilling, broiling or steaming.


Bruni also argued that "when Deen fries a chicken, many of us balk. When the Manhattan chefs David Chang or Andrew Carmellini do, we grovel for reservations and swoon over the homey exhilaration of it all." But Bourdain's point was that millions tune in to Deen and buy her books, while most people have never heard of David Chang. She has a massive audience, and if her audience is the working poor, as she implies, who are more likely to be obese, his statement seems all the more valid.


Working with what you've got
While everyone was weighing in on the Tony vs. Paula debate, Bourdain was on vacation with his family. Later he addressed the topic in a post on his blog:

... the best cooks and often the best chefs come from the poorest or most challenging regions. And it is without doubt that the greatest, most beloved and iconic dishes in the pantheon of gastronomy in any of the world's mother cuisines -- French, Italian, or Chinese -- originated with poor, hard-pressed, hard-working farmers and laborers with no time, little money, and no refrigeration.
... French cooking, we tend to forget now, was rarely (for the majority of Frenchmen) about the best or the priciest or even the freshest ingredients. It was about taking what little you had or could afford and turning it into something delicious without interfering with the grim necessities of work and survival. The people I'm talking about here didn't have money or time to cook. ... the notion that hard-working, hard-pressed families with little time and slim budgets have to eat crappy, processed food or that unspeakably, proudly unhealthy "novelty dishes" that come from nowhere but the fevered imaginations of marketing departments are -- or should be -- the lot of the working poor is nonsense.

Mac and cheese is a good dish, he says, and deep-frying it doesn't make it better or more affordable.


KFC and the $10 challenge
This debate reminded me of a 2008 KFC commercial about the "KFC $10 Challenge." A family goes into a grocery store to recreate a KFC meal, and when the grocery bill winds up being more than $10, the cost of the seven-piece meal from KFC, the mom announces that they're going to KFC instead.


Grist writer Kurt Michael Friese took KFC's challenge. He went to a local supermarket and bought hormone-free chicken and the ingredients for biscuits, mashed potatoes, and gravy. His results:

  • The KFC meal was $10.58, which included Iowa state taxes.
  • He made the same meal at home for $7.94.
  • When he used more organic ingredients, the home-cooked meal cost $10.62.

Friese notes that while it may take more time than a fast-food drive-thru, it certainly costs less. (For those pressed for time, see J.D.'s review of Mark Bittmans "101 minimalist meals" article.)


I want to reiterate that I'm not talking about people so poor that they can't afford a $7.94 meal. I'm more curious about why cooking at home is given the rep of being more expensive (clearly it's not) and why cooking healthier food is considered out of reach for the working poor. Obviously KFC has a good reason to mislead American families, but how can those in the culinary world argue that people without means are "consigned to overloads of animal fat" (as opposed to those who simply choose to eat it), as Bruni wrote?


What do you think? Is it a matter of time, convenience, know-how, or availability of good ingredients? I'd especially love to hear from those of you who manage to eat well on a strict budget.


More on Get Rich Slowly and MSN Money:

Dec 9, 2011 5:10PM

It's always cheaper to eat when you don't spend on meat,dairy, and processed foods.  I spend less than 150.00/mo on groceries even off-season;during the summer a small apt.sized veggie/herb bed cuts that at least 35.00.  I've been part of the working poor most of my life and have lived on my own for over 30 years.  BEANS, GREENS, POTATOES, AND BREAD ARE THE MOST AFFORDABLE FOODS VIRTUALLY ANYWHERE.  They are healthy and as delicious as you care to make them.  Spend your meat budget on fresh herbs, fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, a few fancy vinegars,mustards, and hot sauces.  Then try out freestyle cooking--whatever you're in the mood to make.  Bean dishes get even better as leftovers so you save prep time as well as money.  Along with cost-per-ounce/serving/etc. I also factor in crap-per ounce/serving/etc.  How much I pay for added salt, sweetners, fats and various chemical additives.  Then, is it something that will require me to purchase & use antiacids and other meds to assist with the after affects?  Bigger pants? >>>>>What's really expensive is eating lots of unhealthy foods.  THINK before you buy into the ads and conventional wisdom of affordable food.


Nov 8, 2011 1:43AM

Holy s**t Paula, your "Big Mike" burger has three pounds of ground beef and an entire stick of butter, which is just wrong.  Beef and butter are bloody expensive.  I don't eat that much beef in a month much less in one sitting.  You have another burger named after you where the bun is a Krispy Kreme donut (which probably costs as much as an entire package of regular buns).  Is that necessary to make ends meet?  Absolutely not.


Is the idea that if you have to be blue collar, it's best to die young?

Sep 27, 2011 12:26AM
I live in New York State and there is no way I could buy chicken, ingredients for biscuits, mashed potatoesand gravy for less than $10.  I don't think the Iowa example is representative of the bulk of the country, maybe in Iowa its less than $8 but its no where near that in NYS. 
Dec 20, 2011 11:46AM

I do not believe that writer Kurt Michael Friese made a home made organic fried chicken meal for under $11, unless he bought just one leg of chicken.

I don't feed my family chicken because organic chicken, even straight from the farmer at the farmers market, is ridiculously expensive, and I wont feed my family any grocery store (feed lot) meat.

Yes, it is way more expensive to eat healthy organic foods, regardless of the cooking methods.  Compare the cost of any organic fruit/veggie to conventional grown.

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