26 September 2011

Mark Bittman wrote an interesting piece about the price of junk food in the Times this weekend.  He went to the McDonald's near his office and found:
a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28.
He further writes, and I don't doubt he's correct:
You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9.
He acknowledges that if you don't have access to a supermarket, this becomes more difficult:
There are, of course, the so-called food deserts, places where it’s hard to find food: the Department of Agriculture says that more than two million Americans in low-income rural areas live 10 miles or more from a supermarket, and more than five million households without access to cars live more than a half mile from a supermarket.
When we lived in Washington Heights, we lived four-tenths of a mile from a supermarket, in a fifth-floor walk-up.  I'm in good shape.  I've run a marathon, I've done triathlons, I've done a lot of backpacking.  While I didn't maintain that level of conditioning after my son was born, I did continue hiking regularly, walking a lot, biking, and jogging.

But going to the supermarket to do a week's worth of shopping was impossible.  I can carry two bags of groceries reasonably comfortably nearly half a mile and up four flights of stairs.

That's enough food for a couple days, maybe three.  So somebody in the household has to go shopping two or three times a week.

Now add a toddler.  Does the toddler walk?  Too far.  Does the toddler ride in a backpack?  Probably; add two bags of groceries and it becomes quite a strain.  Does the toddler ride in a stroller?  Sounds like a great idea: walk efficiently to the store, load up the stroller, roll it all home.... and how do I get everything up the stairs?

And the quality of the produce at that supermarket was terrible, by the way.  We occasionally paid the premium to shop from FreshDirect, we joined Urban Organic and had a box of good fresh produce delivered once a week, we shopped in other neighborhoods whenever we had the chance.

But still we ordered in or ate out regularly.

Before that apartment, we lived in a ground-floor apartment around the corner from a supermarket. Shopping regularly and carrying home enough for a few days was feasible, and we ate our meals at home.  Now we live in an elevator building around the corner from a supermarket. We shop, we eat in.

How many families living in the lowest income quartile live in apartment buildings without elevators?  How many of those buildings are even a quarter of a mile away from a decent supermarket? 

Mr. Bittman needs to try carrying enough groceries for a week even a quarter of a mile and up several flights of stairs and then revisit his analysis.