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The world of cheap produce and its consequences (the-tls.co.uk)
101 points by Petiver 37 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 121 comments

One of the points that debates about healthy vs processed miss is that processed food is selling convenience.

A bag of spinach lasts about a week, fresh meat a few days. Meanwhile a retort pouch of chili or curry lasts forever and doesn't even need to be refridgerated. There are unprocessed foods that last almost forever like dried lentils, rice and oats but most people don't want to eat those things (or at least not for every meal).

What do poor people tend to eat? Fast food burgers and other high calorie, low cost meals that are readily available. No prep/cook time, minimal cost (at least on the surface) and hot and palatable to most.

As someone who cooks all my food from raw ingrediants, that's absolutely a luxury but it's not a money expensive one, it's a time/management/availability luxury.

I live in a poor-ish part of Maryland. The difference between my african american and ghana immigrant neighbors is striking.

The african american neighbors are extremely obese and _constantly_ eating McDonalds (I can tell from the litter I clean up in the parking lot...). My ghana immigrant neighbors on the other hand are skinny as rails and can be seen hauling 10 pound bags of rice/beans/etc. into their house.

It's often overlooked, but there's more than just money that passes between generations. Simple knowledge like "how to cook with unprocessed foods" is extremely valuable information to pass on to offspring. We need to somehow tackle that if we ever plan to help people entrenched in inter-generational poverty.

I think you are really getting at a very American thing that happened. Fast Food implies that it is food, but it’s certainly not nutritious food. We didn’t eat a lot of fast food growing up because we were poor, so it was a lot of casseroles or other items that had a lot of whatever we had around mixed together. High processed items are very easy to get a hold of and keep long, but what people don’t realize is that rice and beans and other dry items keep for a long time and are not expensive. So I guess what I’m getting at is that with the move to Fast Food in the US people stopped cooking. Maybe we think it’s hard, maybe we’re just lazy. I’ve really taken a look at my diet and it saves a lot of money to just cook at home (something I’ve really noticed during this social distancing) and it’s not hard. But it’s not like my parents really showed me how, I had to learn on my own. I hope fast food is a casualty of pandemic but we need to find work for those people.

There is a distinct difference between people lived in real poverty and wanted a better life for themselves and more importantly their children than people simply being born into the poor area of their country. Surrounded by near instant gratification at a very good cost.

Compare the two and you will see their spending on all needs and wants is different. It won't just be the food they eat. One will plan long term for their gratification and the other will simply take what they can afford right now, that later comes from always having that option.

Go look back a hundred years or more when the Irish; my ancestors; got here. Many came here in debt to others working bare subsistence levels and they would have similar habits to your Ghanians, as in tomorrow isn't a guarantee so plan for the worst. I expect that the second generation after the move the attitudes will change but that is heavily influenced by culture

During the 2009 recession, a woman called into one of those financial advice shows on cable TV. She began to talk about how she was cutting back on her budget, and she was 'forced to eat beans and tortillas'.

My step-father, who is a Mexican immigrant, started laughing. He said that's all they ate growing up. He said it wasn't until high school when his dad got a job in a General Motors factory that they had enough money to eat hamburger and cheese along with their beans and rice.

Haha this is so funny, reminds me of the migrant caravans that passed through Mexico last year. At first people received them nicely but opinions quickly soured once they became very entitled in their attitudes. Particularly I remember a video of a woman complaining they "[We] are being fed beans, like if we were pigs or some animal!!" Needless to say, this was poorly received by us Mexicans.

This. It may sound super strange but when I lived in the states my roommate of 30 something years asked me these two question: how did you cook the lovely tea yesterday? And: I loved your scrambled eggs, how did you make them? No kidding. She was very nice and we got along quite well, but that lack of basic food preparation knowledge was puzzling to me. I wonder what these people have been doing during the lockdown

The distinctions between African-Americans and African Migrants are interesting. The migrant groups have higher incomes, lower use of welfare, better academic performance. There are some Black STEM programs in the US that are entirely filled with the children of African migrants.

Personally I think the African American community could use less BLM and more of the values and ideals of these migrant groups.

It's not quite that simple - you're comparing people from different socioeconomic classes, different environments of how they grew up, etc.

African migrants, unless they came as refugees, were usually upper middle or higher class - with college degrees and some degree of wealth in order to get here. They're typically not the average African, socioeconomically speaking.

Most Africans also haven't been weighed down by system racism their whole lives. For example, a Ghanaian friend told me that how never really understood racism until he moved to the US in his 20's as he had never experienced it in Ghana.

> What do poor people tend to eat? Fast food burgers and other high calorie, low cost meals that are readily available. No prep/cook time, minimal cost (at least on the surface) and hot and palatable to most.

I think it is a uniquely western problem. I know for a fact that for most of Asia and Africa, and even South America, cheap food doesn't include processed food. In fact, foods like lentils and rice tend to be a major parts of the diet. This is usually supplemented with some form of local crop (veggies or otherwise) or easily accessible wildlife (or farmed animals and birds).

The popularity and purchase of fast food are growing at a very steady rate in countries like China.


A more recent assessment would give a similar growth rate to the one cited in the paper (~13% annually), but for the last six months, COVID 19 has put a damper on things.

> This is usually supplemented with some form of local crop (veggies or otherwise) or easily accessible wildlife (or farmed animals and birds).

Since you're talking about "easily accessible wildlife," please keep in mind that urbanization in Asia and Africa is a big thing.

> Since you're talking about "easily accessible wildlife," please keep in mind that urbanization in Asia and Africa is a big thing.

Yes, but unlike cities in the west, a lot of cities across the world aren't that far from where wildlife is accessible. And this means, people from neighboring villages commute daily to the cities with the fresh catch of the day and make it available in urban markets. And in most countries, a huge population is still rural/semi urban, and this population tends to be more likely to be "poor". For e.g. 65% of India's population is rural and that still amounts to 700 million or twice the population of the United States. Also, although I used the term "wildlife", but I also said "(or farmed animals and birds)" which isn't that difficult to access in urban environments, especially considering lax zoning and unplanned development of cities still allows people to have those in the middle of an urban sprawl.

> And in most countries, a huge population is still rural/semi urban

China is 60% urban now, and that's another number that's only going to increase.

I'm sure it's true enough that India and China, for example, are quite different, but your description that the issues surrounding fast food are a "uniquely western problem" strikes me as pretty obviously not true. The rise in worldwide obesity rates has to do largely with this change in diet, for example.

Right, but China isn't everything. 55% of the world population is Urban. But if you look at the distribution [1], you will see that my statement still holds true. Most countries in Asia and Africa still have a large rural population. And besides, I don't know if you've lived outside of the US, especially in parts of Asia or Africa, but processed food, even in big urban centers is not as big portion of people's diet as is in Western Countries.

[1] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS

You said this was a "uniquely western problem." Uniquely.

Yeah. Fast food is. Not urban population %.

The poor in western nations would still qualify as rich by world standards. However it is still the case that they are barely getting by, often with many objectively worse parts of life compared to the middle class elsewhere who live on less.

As long as I can go to Wendy's and for $4 get a double stack, frys, 4 nuggets, and a soda I feel rich!

That is absolutely correct.

Why don't people want to eat lentils? I'm pretty lazy, and I make lentils with chorizo, potatoes, onion, carrot and a mix of vegetables and some condiments all the time. It's very easy to make, cheap and tastes fantastic with very little effort.

Same with rice. It takes a little bit more to master rice, but lentils man it's the lazy meal for me. I also buy frozen vegetables that lasts who knows how much, and it tastes as good as with fresh ones.

Most of spanish cuisine is cheap and more or less easy to make. I'm not really sure that processed food is cheaper. A pot of (again) lentils can last a bunch of days and costs nothing.

Anecdotally, it's an association problem.

I'm well off, and eat lentils and rice on the regular. So do all my equally comfortable friends, whether it's from a healthy "whole foods" kind of mentality or just an enjoyment of tasty food.

When I talk about food with my family who is lower income, they often dismiss those kinds of foods as being "poor people food" even to the extent of throwing a bit of shade when I send photos of lentil dishes I've prepared. They feel that because they can afford fast food and eating out, that they should almost like a weird wealth display. Their idea of treating someone to a good meal is a trip to a slightly nicer fast food restaurant.

Obviously, this is a small sample size and is tied to my family so this is likely not a comprehensive answer but it's at least my observation on the matter.

Being of low status, avoiding markers of low status is extremely important.

You're not low status, so you can freely display such markers with no fear that anyone would conclude that you're lower class.

It's an amazing privilege you have to be able to do such things in public, and a little empathy towards the little people would be greatly appreciated.

>Being of low status, avoiding markers of low status is extremely important.

It doesn't seem that many see it as important. I see lots of loud attention seeking behaviour, vulgar displays of material goods etc.

This is them displaying high status among their peer group.

YOU see it as a low status marker because you're higher than them. Being able to look down on people is a sure sign of being higher relative status. It's one reason why we humans heartily enjoy it so much.

> Being of low status, avoiding markers of low status is extremely important.

Can you expand on this some more?

OK, we humans don't know each other, so visible status markers are very important. Status is super important to us, even if we deny it is (anyone who says so already has high status).

When you display low status markers like lentils, one of two things must be true: you're high status enough to display low status symbols and obviously nobody would think less of you for it, or you're actually low status. If you're actually low status, you're displaying your low status to the world. This is humiliating. It feels horrible and we humans avoid it like we avoid being burned to death in fires.

My grandmother would never eat beans & rice because she was born Cajun, and she was taught that to be Cajun was shameful and low status. Due to their cultural backwardness, lack of education, their cuisine was things they found in the swamp. They were somewhat rehabilitated by the food revival in the 90s, but when she was a girl it was bad and she avoided displaying those status markers in public.

But how is exactly junk food a marker of higher status than lentils and beans? I get the US is different culture, but here in Spain eating junk food is frowned upon and I'd say in most of Europe. I'm asking because when I read americans in the internet I get mixed signals, and I don't really know what to think.

It's frowned on in a lot of the US too.

While many in this thread appear to be assigning the behavior to status seeking, I suggest it has far more to do with convenience seeking. We have the sad truth of poor, honest, hard working families keeping down up to four jobs and still needing to rely on food banks to make ends meet. There are too many factors to say how prevalent but this is a thing that exists in at least some cases.

The number of McDonald's in Europe makes me doubt your words.

In fact, here we are at visible status markers again. "My ingroup does this high status display, but your ingroup (my outgroup) has low status and we would never do that (despite the fact that we secretly do that when you think we can't be seen)."

There are quite a few reasons to go into McDownald's in Europe that have nothing to do with status (in fact, as a parisian, and this has been echoed by several other europeans, it tends to get associated with lower status too):

- mostly because of convenience: a (arguably) tasty meal, ready to eat, for cheap

- like all junk food places, you can grab a meal whenever, which is not usual in most of Europe: restaurants don't serve meals outside of lunch and dinner times, in a roughly 3/4 hours window. If you are outside those windows, though luck getting a full hot meal outside of fast foods.

- toilets, wifi and a place to sit, no questions asked is very enticing for a category of people.

I would be willing to bet money. In the countries I know, going to McDonalds is something you do once in a while, you don't use McDonalds as part of your diet.

I worked surveying consumer habits for a fish supplier in Spain and we saw how people demands more easy-to-eat stuff, but in supermarkets.

Eating out or ordering food is still viewed as leisure time or something you do in a hurry. Younger people has bad eating habits, but they still go to the supermarket and "cook" at their homes.

From what I’ve seen they’re primarily in tourist centers, for the Americans.

Free bathrooms is a good selling point.

Parisian friends said during their first push into France, they appreciated that they could buy something and do homework there for a few hours without getting pressured to leave.

You can eat lentils, and no one will suspect that you eat them because they are the only thing you can afford.

Now imagine a community of people where half of them are so poor that the only thing they can eat are lentils, and the other half is 10% richer. By not eating lentils you demonstrate your (relative) wealth within the community. By eating lentils, you show that you are poor even among the poor.

People hate being at the very bottom of the society.

I would love to be able to eat more beans and lentils because they are cheap, store well, relatively nutritious, and a fairly good alternative to meat. However, they don't sit well with my GI tract. Maybe I have a bad gut biome but the bloat keeps me from using them much

Have you looked into low-FODMAP diets? The "full Monty" is way too restrictive, but, after a while on it, my wife tried a reduced-FODMAP diet that made a huge difference for her.


I had not heard of this, thank you for sharing!

Also enzymes can help Aka “prebiotics”

You might be preparing them incorrectly. Try rinsing very thoroughly and flushing the water, and/or boiling them for longer.

Are you soaking them for 24 hours first? See instructions here, for example.


I typically just put them into a pressure cooker but will definitely give this a try

It could be you're not used to the fiber content. I've found swapping breakfast out for some raw oats in milk or plain yogurt helped my general digestion (but of course, everyone is different).

Seconding the suggestion that you might just be unused to the amount of fiber. I had to go on a high fiber diet for medical reasons a while back. I definitely had some side effects for a while, but I had no choice but to stick with it. Eventually they went away, but the benefits stayed.

I had similar problems when I moved out to university and had to cook for myself on a tight budget. After a few months your gut gets used to an all-lentil diet.

Most of the cheaper spanish-food staples (corn, rice, quinoa, beans, plantains) are also very high in carbohydrates which can lead to spikes in blood-sugar. And most "healthy-eating" plans advise limiting carb intake.

I didn't realize how sensitive I was to the blood-sugar spikes until I went on keto which strictly limits your carb intake. I no longer get the "sugar crash" 2-3 hours after eating. My grocery bills have gone up, primarily due to no longer being able to add filers like bread, rice, and grains which TFA calls "cheapened" food.

Ordering spanish (or really any) food without these fillers reveals how little "real" food most restaurants actually serve.

Presumably the advice is to limit refined carbohydrates rather than the natural ones in fruit and vegetables.

You're the exception. Most other people who won't eat beans will gladly eat bread etc.

I don’t think it’s that simple. I’d say it depends a lot on how much fiber you pack with the carbs.

So quick sugar like carbs like highly processed wheat flour will not give you the same spike as say some whole grain rice that has been re-heated a few times (just as an example of how different carbs can be in composition, not saying you should always prepare food like this)

Can you expand on "very little effort".

I think we may have very very different ideas of what that means.

If you're super lazy, you just put everything in the pot, and wait.


Vegetables of your choosing

Maybe two potatoes

One or two average sized chorizos

A bit of salt

A bit of olive oil (something else if olive oil is expensive in your area)

A bit of cooking wine

Little bit of curry

If you don't have soup from previous stuff, you put one of this chicken soup pills, IDK how to translate to english, this how it looks: https://pepekitchen.com/articulo/nueva-presentacion-de-las-p...

Fill with water, fire and forget until it's done.

You can make it way tastier and more elaborated but this is the most lazy and basic plate, and still tastes good. Well, you still have to cut stuff for a few minutes, if that's any effort.

Bullion. In the US (and I think UK) there's also a dense liquid version (local brand name is "Better Than Bullion") which is quite a bit tastier imo.

*Bouillon - personally I'd prefer some bullion! :)

And I don't think I've ever seen that here in the UK, although I have come across it on the internet beforehand, during a bit of a seach on OTS meat stock and such a few years back.

My go-tos are the Knorr Stock Pots and Concentrated Meat stocks, which seem to have similar ingredient lists to yours.

OXO cubes or Bisto would be the UK equivalent? Or they were when I was a kid..

UK here. Oxo cubes are still a big thing, for those of us who cook. You can get them in Beef, Chicken, Lamb and Veg flavours. Perhaps others.

If I'm cooking a vegetarian meal that needs stock I use Miso paste.

Sorry, yes - I meant in relation to the person I was responding to, not OP - the bouillon gloop, rather than the cubes.

I'd still suggest that Oxo cubes are different beasts to the cubes up there - again, i think Knorr would be an equivalent, as un-British a brand as it is.

Not a fan of Oxo - weird composition and not very nice or meaty taste, to me anyway.

Good recipe. For the vegans out there, the chorizo in your recipe can be replaced with store bought one or homemade as below: https://tasty.co/recipe/vegan-chorizo

Also below are few more varieties of vegan lentil recipes: https://www.rainbowplantlife.com/blog/how-to-cook-lentils-in...

A can of crushed tomatoes instead of the cooking wine also yields a good stew. :)

They sell actual chicken stock, too. E.g.: https://smile.amazon.com/365-Everyday-Value-Organic-Chicken/...

Not as good as home made by a long shot but it is a LOT better than those bouillon cubes (what you refer to as "pills")! Please don't use those ever again, lol

IDK, the ones I use are enough for that recipe, there's plenty stuff to give taste. You can get that in Spain too but it's just much more volume and weight and I walk my groceries to home.

There's one broth brand, Aneto, that actually tastes quite good. I see they even have an english website: https://www.caldoaneto.com/en/caldos/caldos-basicos-en/

Pressure cookers are amazing for this. I make lentil stews with 5-10 min of prep and 10 min unsupervised cook time (using Instant Pot).

You put lentils in salted water and simmer for ~30 minutes, is the basic recipe. Unclear how this could be lower effort, its similar to boiling dried pasta.

Even seasoning doesn't have to require chopping, smash a piece of garlic, don't even dice, throw it in, delish.

I only ever make a full 1 lb bag of dried lentils or beans at a time, what you don't eat immediately stores well in a 1 gallon zip lock bag and keeps for longer than a week. Dish out half cup at a time and hit briefly in microwave.

Lentils (and split peas) are the easiest legumes since they don't even require thinking ahead. But beans with a $60 slow cooker are arguably even lower effort.

My problem is that cooking requires you to wait between 30-70 minutes for the food, disregarding any actual work you have to put in.

I don't even eat oven-cooked premade meals because pre-heating the oven and cooking it takes so long by the time it finishes I could have driven somewhere and bought + ate food already.

This might sound terrible, but since I was 16 and living on my own I've never eaten food that required cooking. Came up with entire mealplans of stuff you can buy that's pretty much ready to eat.

Okay, ready to get grossed out?


Breakfast (~$3.00, 600kcal, 50g protein)


- Eggs, cracked on a plate/bowl and put in the microwave to cook over-medium, with salsa and cheese

- Greek yogurt/Cottage cheese

- Oats with milk and some sort of fake sugar and flavor extract (vanilla, almond, pumpkin)/cinnamon, etc, sometimes with whey

- Fresh cucumber with no/lowfat italian vinagrette


Lunch/Dinner ($4.00, 500-800kcal, 60-80g protein):


- 12oz Canned chicken breast + turkey chili + cheese + tortilla chips


- 12oz Canned chicken breast + canned field peas & snaps + green beans

For years I also only owned a single plate/bowl and spoon and eat every meal with it, then washed it and put it back when I was done to avoid having to do dishes.

Well that is a bit impatient :) But you can get close to this by picking one day a week to make a bunch of meals ahead of time. Since there's not much to do while waiting for lentils to cook, you can prep and cook other things in parallel. Should take about an hour once you get the hang of it. Stash the meals in the fridge and then you just have to warm them up when you want to eat.

Yeah meal prep is great, for a while I did that by making utterly obscene quantities of the dirt cheap ground turkey and rice + beans you can buy in bulk.

But getting into pre-cooked food is like a bad habit, so easy to fall out of the practice, because "just tonight I'll go grab some pre-made stuff instead, and tomorrow I'll make more meals."

Friendship over with other appliances, microwave is my new best friend again ;^)

Dude, cook one day and use tuppers. I don't cook meals every day. Lentils, by the way, with enough water, are still tasty after fridge and microwave. It's pretty convenient.

I also do a salad with lettuce, tomato, boiled chicken dices, onion cut in small pieces, vinegar, olive oil and soy sauce (Kikkoman is good and cheap enough). You mix everything very well so that the sauce impregnates everything. After it's been in the fridge it tastes even better.

It's just a little imagination, you can make tasty dishes with very little money. And if you're a lazy guy in the kitchen like me, tupperware's a given.

I dig the salad ingredients, huge fan of chicken-related salads.

And yeah haha, it's just sheer laziness and lack of discipline. I've eaten what my coworkers often affectionately refer to as "cat food" (bowl of canned meats and peas/carrots or chili) for most of my adult life so my bar for taste is pretty low lmao.

I would say it's a "price I pay for the convenience" but I know damn well I could buy an Instantpot and throw a bunch of food in it + push a button and have meals for days, in the heat of the moment it always just seems easier to go "welp, I'm hungry _now_, and this garbage food is r-e-a-d-y-t-o-e-a-t so we've got ourselves a plan." haha.

Unless you are determined to scientifically answer the question "is it possible to never cook and still survive," I have to ask -- why? Canned chicken breast, I mean come on. You can buy fresh chicken breasts already sliced in thin strips; all you have to do with these is throw them in a hot pan, add some salt, and flip once. They will be ready in 5 minutes, not 30-70.

I agree with how absurd it probably sounds. An honest response to your question though:

- The pre-sliced chicken breasts are more expensive than the canned by weight

- You have to get out a pan, do the whole process, and then clean the pan and put it back, plus clean whatever mess you made during.

- And then the chicken will go bad if you don't end up eating it after a few days, unless you freeze it

- At which point, if you want to un-freeze it, now you have to wait for the damn thing to thaw again =/

Canned chicken breast also isn't that bad to be honest. If you've never tried it, it goes really well with burritos, tacos, salads, chilis, etc. (Just don't try to eat it by itself, with no condiments. Really bland.)

It's low effort if you have something like a crockpot. If you don't then you get a lot longer series of steps.

Crock pots are $20 in stores targeting poor people.

Just a pot, cheapest one may be what, 5€, I mean I bet you can find something around that price in the US.

> processed food is selling convenience

Yes. I've noticed a tendency for people to buy 'meals' rather than ingredients. I have relatives who look in my well-stocked larder and say "But there's nothing to eat!". They buy wholly prepared meals that just need reheating, and their idea of a complex meal is to put some diced chicken in a casserole with a jar of curry sauce bought in a supermarket.

I'm not sure I totally agree about time expense being greater.

Consider most fresh produce is Cheaper than processed food. And it can be eaten raw (or steamed easily in a microwave)

I think education is the major factor here. Commercials will tell you that fast food is cheap, despite it not being cheap. And most people aren't aware how fast you can cook potatoes in a microwave or that kale tastes fine with dressing.

Edit: Potatoes are high calorie. Top with oil.

Calorie density is also mentioned. You have to eat an prodigious amount of kale and celery to get the same number of calories.

When I worked lower paying manual labor jobs (dishwasher, landscaper etc.), fast food was much more alluring than the idea of a salad. I suspect it's largely because I was craving a huge influx of calories, not to mention the food is engineered to hijack our taste buds.

> that kale tastes fine with dressing.

I'm going to have to strongly disagree with you here. I've eaten kale raw, cooked, dressed, spiced, dehydrated, blended, and it still tastes foul. YMMV

When did kale become a thing? I worked in a kitchen two decades ago and its only use was what we put the chicken wings on. I have no idea how grumpy lettuce caught on.

A person needs about 2000 calories a day. It is extremely hard to get that much from fresh produce. You will need to cook something, and that takes may more tine than microwaving a hot pocket.

It is actually easy to get 2000 calories a day on cheap ingredients from fresh produce. It has to do more with dietary habits and convenience than anything else. A cup of beans and a cup of rice can cost less than a hamburger and provide you more than 800 calories while not creating long term problems for your body. A $50 instapot, and you don't even have to actively cook. But well, hamburgers are tasty because of all that salt and sugar, while rice and beans aren't.

Rice is not produce. Beans can be, but typically you are referring to dried beans (or canned) which are not fresh produce.

Right, but you never eat only "Fresh Produce", and you shouldn't either. If you look at Macro nutrients, fresh produce usually isn't the biggest part of your calorie intake unless you include potatoes (they last pretty long tbh). Fresh produce usually provides you other nutrients. I was simply suggesting that there are alternatives to processed food that is equally cheap and accessible, but we just don't want it.

Make sure you soak beans before you put them in the slow cooker. Or else you're poisoning yourself! Uncooked beans contain bad proteins because they are legumes. You either need high heat or to do soak them and pour off the water.


Fresh produce is only cheaper than processed food if you consistently use it before it goes bad, which requires a pretty high level of meal planning ability. I consider myself a good cook and still regularly end up having to throw away spoiled food.

> Consider most fresh produce is Cheaper than processed food.

I think it depends on what produce you want. It's easy to get cheap, reasonable quality fresh veggies, and cheap, low-quality fresh fruit, but good fresh fruit is expensive for me.

> Potatoes are high calorie

They’re about 300 calories per pound. You’d have to eat 7lbs/day to scrape by.

The high calories come from the prep: oil/frying/butter/sauces.


My current housemates are vegetarian, they make great food from scratch. But the only reason they can do that is because they shop every other day for fresh produce. And they have a shit tonne of experience in the kitchen. I do OK in the kitchen, but I have no idea what to put with artichoke or how to make soup from scratch without a receipie. Unless you have been taught both skills and how tk mix ingredients, it's just easier to pick up a packet of something and microwave it.

> What do poor people tend to eat? Fast food burgers and other high calorie, low cost meals that are readily available. No prep/cook time, minimal cost (at least on the surface) and hot and palatable to most.

Poor people in urban America eat vegetables, pasta, meat sauce, rice, beans, chicken. That's why grocery stores targeting poor people (ethnic markets) make whole foods selection of actual food look like a store in the USSR.

Junk food is what people who are not poor enough to cook and not rich enough to buy everything in wholefoods eat.

So, it's a fine article, with lots of interesting details about Victorian food supply....but you could write more or less the exact same article replacing "cheap food" with "cheap clothes" or "cheap mobile phones" or "cheap any consumer good" and the stories about Victorian costermongers with Vietnamese sweatshop workers, or Chinese electronics factory workers, or Honduran coffee pickers, etc., and the end of the article seems to be arguing for just paying more for food?

I don't think talking about poverty in modern societies in terms of economic sectors instead of trying to address it at a societal level is particularly useful. The point of the article should not be "let's all pay more for food" it should be "give everyone a UBI and if that means food costs more because you have to pay people more to work as cooks or strawberry pickers, that's a _good thing_.

My takeaway is that is exactly what this article is about - food is one category along with clothing, phones, material culture - and he is not arguing about what we pay. Rather, he is describing a facet of the structure of Western Civilization that requires a de-humanized constantly replenished underclass to provide us with the cheap good food we want. The fact is we cannot have this infinite growth within a finite biosphere and his article explores the relationship between the West and the so-called developing world and how, though we seem opposite we are the same now, because the neocropolitics we practice is now burgeoning within the West and the shape of starvation just has a different mask depending upon context. The book and the article use a genealogical methodology, which is what is the norm now is this work. (I am a Critical Theorist).


If anything, centralized food production in the modern, western world is extremely efficient.

The blood of animals is turned into high-grade fertilizer. The bones into soup stock. Every portion of the animal is shipped off to a country that finds it tasty (ie: China eats the ears and feet, we Americans eat the belly).

I think we should continuously think about how to optimize our system. But simultaneously, we need to understand how our system is far, far more efficient than the historical norms.


Today's machines make the processing and harvesting of food incredibly efficient.



Some plants are still processed by hand (IIRC: Strawberries still need to be done by hand). But for the most part, we're moving towards highly automated, highly efficient, food producing machines.

The progress of farming and agriculture continues forward today. I think there's issues in our system that need to be discussed, but the modern day is clearly far better than the past.


EDIT: The issues of today's era, is the production, distribution, and investment of these expensive machines. Who owns the machines? Can small farms afford these machines? Or will farms centralize into monopolies (who can afford the machines, pushing the smaller farms out of business?).

"Who owns the machine" becomes copyright and patent law rather quickly. Right to repair, right to reverse-engineer. Etc. etc.

A major problem with our relentless optimization of food production is that we don't price in the externalities, like large scale destruction of ecosystems or the exploitation of workers. Few people argue that we should go back to pre-modern agriculture (billions would starve!), but I think it's fairly obvious that our current system is not optimizing a good cost function.

That's why they're called externalities. Laissez Faire capitalism cannot handle externalities.

Regulation and laws that run counter to pure capitalism are needed. I'm not talking about going 100% communist here, but anti-trust laws, cap-and-trade, taxes, and other such regulations can help factor the externality problem into an otherwise capitalist marketplace.

> de-humanized constantly replenished underclass

This is not unique to "Western Civilization".

> requires a de-humanized constantly replenished underclass to provide us with the cheap good food we want

You're going to get further convincing people to care about human suffering (the goal of the article) here by pointing out what a failure Soylent was. Why?

First you'd have to anticipate that all people are going to talk about here is, "Economics. Costs. Pricing. What about if robots made the food instead? Then there is no underclass." Those people aren't even transhumanists i.e. inhabiting some far-off possibly impossible future.

The kinds of foods you could conceive are harvested and processed entirely by robots, end to end, and thus involves no explicit human suffering, are actually really crappy, and no one wants, even when they were made by humans first. That's what Soylent was, it was one guy's algal flour product that probably, truthfully, could be totally automated. It sucked, let's be real.

It's this sort of capitalistic argument, "if it fails in the marketplace it must be bad," that just gets through to people simpler, and clearer. That's the starting fact that gets people to listen. Not de-humanization. Not that there isn't a place for critical theory.

But that you can just discuss facts, like yes, there is a dehumanized replenished underclass, and yet, here we are buying berries from Costco. Their brains turn off. And I wouldn't just brush that off as ignorance, or claim some conspiracy that people are conditioned to first ask if something does or does not make money, because capitalism.

It's just tough to know which things to pay attention to, so if there's a simple framework that helps you, on average, pay attention to the right things and get through life, buying berries, you'll use it.

Unless you're unfortunately born to pick berries instead. So personally, I believe the reason rich people actually frame regulators literally and John Rawls philosophically as the enemy, unequivocally, is that the veil of ignorance much more clearly threatens capitalism than perpetual human suffering through wage slavery (a factual thing!) ever did.

Agree, the point is not "let's all pay more for food" frankly because that doesn't work. Even if you wanted to get more money to cooks and strawberry pickers (or to the animals which suffer as more humane conditions), it is just impossible to achieve because any money spend by the end customer is just siphoned off by value chain. Spend double on organic meat to get maybe 1% to 5% more money spend on the actual product and the employees. The rest is profit.

> Eggs were no longer a luxury and as the price of imported fruit fell, many in the cities started eating oranges and bananas for the first time. They could only afford to buy these foods because the costers who sold them kept the prices too low to allow themselves a decent life. By the same token, big shopkeepers kept food prices down by forcing employees to work long hours for low pay.

This seems to turn cause and effect completely upside down. What shopkeeper would not have preferred higher prices? What "coster" was putting forth any effort individually to "keep prices too low"?

Both of those parties were undoubtedly striving to sell for the maximum possible profit. And cheap labor in the large had nothing to do with the actions or power of any individual shopkeeper. There were just a lot of hungry people willing to work for next to nothing because next to nothing to eat is slightly better than nothing to eat.

This wasn't the clearest argument I've heard but I agree with the conclusion: "In the end, cheap food is a symptom of a bigger problem: an economic system in which some lives are treated as less valuable than others."

Now what I'd really like to see are more serious discussions of solutions.

I disagree with the conclusion. Fast food is not actually cheap. If you go to a supermarket and get a bag of rice / lentils, it will be an order of magnitude cheaper, if not more. The problem is 1) culture and 2) taste. Burgers do taste better than lentils.

Yes - the technical term for this is Necropolitics. It really describes the system of power we are in.



Big agriculture could learn something from lowly modern homesteads.

I'm constantly surprised at the modern science (and old, forgotten science!) being deployed by regular homesteaders. In particular, employing the beneficial symbiosis of animals and plants. The pigs till and root up the soil and manure the land, the root crops go in next year, then grazing and rest.

Digest plants as animal manure are healthier for the soil than simply composting them, according to many people. Sounds crazy but we have remember that animals and plants evolved together in the same space.

The whole system becomes a closed loop where the inputs and outputs of the farm are closely monitored. Pest and disease are kept at by with careful rotation. Nothing is wasted, and the fertility of the soil and health of the animals (and humans) improve over time from this relationship.

If you're interested in watching this first hand, I recommend "100 days of growing food" playlist by youtube homesteader Justin Rhodes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpDm5OA-TZE

Small farms have a lot to learn from big ag. No till and cover crops increase soil organic matter. Modern Chemicals and genetics kill weeds without needed massive amounts of CO2 (fuel or human labor, either way the energy goes to CO2) emissions.

Agreed! I actually think the entire industry is moving forward in really amazing ways, and it's entirely science based. The amazing of science that goes into improving the soil on a modern farm is amazing.

Related reading, on the social cost of cheap goods today: "The True Cost of Dollar Stores", in the current New Yorker [0].

What is the underlying system? In my interpretation, these low price vendors have succeeded in a market that is foremost cost-sensitive, both in terms of price and time. Eventually competition was priced out and now "dollar deserts" exist in poor neighborhoods. These vendors ignore "externality" accountabilities, in the Dollar cases in particular spending for customer and employee safety, in keeping with minimizing cost. The resulting situation, as illustrated in the article, I'll say is one of immoral public jeopardy. In these locales consumers and employees have no alternatives. It gets worse, because the vendors extract wealth from the communities without reinvestment. The margins, from a community perspective, are exploitative.

What are the characteristics of this system? A subsistence market cannot price safety and dignity into the cost of its goods. Margin-maximizing vendors can ignore it. Regulation and policy processes act slowly and undervalue safety, not to mention dignity. And returns for new entrant competitors are too low to make these markets a priority. I think this illustrates an systems cycle with a very few "winners" and many, many more losers.

The New Yorker article is an argument that the very least, Family Dollar and Dollar General, as businesses, should be ashamed of their conduct. That's a starting point. When you move onto interventions and incentives, to say specifically "what should the new policies be?", I don't know.

[0] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/06/the-true-cost-...

> At least the new cheap foods of Victorian times – such as fish and chips and imported oranges – added more protein and nourishment to the working-class diet. The cheap foods of today add mostly an excess of refined starches, oils and sugars.

Anyone who visits the grocery store knows that the cheapest item is a can of corn.

I just visited my grocery store yesterday. A 101 Oz. can of corn was on sale for $5. 101 Oz. of peas was $5. Etc. etc. The cheapest foods are canned vegetables, by far. 16 Oz cans are 60 cents (store brand) to $1 (brand-name)

People eat refined starches, oils, and sugars, because its tasty. But if you actually were buying the cheapest thing in the supermarket, you'd be buying corn, peas, potatoes, green beans, kidney beans, tomato paste.

By weight, corn and peas are cheaper than bread ($2 per pound of bread, $1 per pound of corn / peas / carrots). You can create a very sustainable, and healthy, diet off of $2 or cheaper food items.

People like to say the poor eat fast food because it's all they can afford, but the truly poor don't eat McDonald's, You're still spending $3-4 a meal at the least, if not $7-8.

They have to do $0.50/meal, so they eat potatoes, rice, beans, etc.

I was thinking this was going to be about mass produced fruits and vegetables and how they actually have less nutrients (vitamins, minerals) than generations past.

We get cheap food thanks to tractors, combine harvesters, selective breeding, insecticides, herbicides and fertiliser.

Low wages are a problem but they aren't really related to how cheap our food is. The cheapest supermarket near me is Aldi but their pay is quite generous compared to their competitors.

You forgot govt subsidies.

I wonder if there is a resource that classifies most foodstuffs (raw and processed) by nutrient content, cost, degree of processing, growing condition etc. Something that is essentially the wiki of food but arranged in a way that makes SQL like queries possible across a range of variables.

The usda has one, though I'm not sure what format it is in. Several projects source it.

It's really a spirit, way of life, most people are consumerists sadly, if they own money, they 'need' to spend it

On my side, I rarely think about money, I just buy what I need, that's not much (about 100€/month in total for everything)

If you want to see an example of the opposite approach, look at Norway. It is infamous for how expensive its food is, but that has meant, among other things, small farms are profitable.

Tl;dr: Food consumers care about price. That’s been true since at least Victorian times. Selling items in a competitive market can be tough for vendors but good for consumers.

Price matters.

Quality matters as well, but not for everybody so yes, price prevails for the majority. I choose to get better produce from an Amish market. The price is a bit higher but so is the quality. I don't find it more expensive in reference to the quality. One gets what they pay for excluding other factors such as an expensive neighborhood that adds to the price of everything.

The final point is a little more subtle: low prices for commodities are especially bad for producers in developing countries - farmers in those countries have a hard time making a profit competing with mechanized agriculture in developed countries. So it's good for consumers only if the overall development level is high.

I'd argue it's not mechanized agriculture that they have a hard time competing with but rather Western practices around agriculture subsidies. If agriculture subsidies weren't in place, much of food sales would be considered dumping as most prices reflect said subsidies and would be massive selling at a loss without them.

And the lesson there seems to be protectionist policies make sense for developing nations.

It's very complicated, some of the greatest successes in catching up to 'developed nations' have relied on open markets and others have been far more protectionist. Protectionism has huge negatives in exchange for the benefit of being able to have a local industry in an area that's not disrupted by global markets. With a few exceptions, said industry is unlikely to become globally competitive and mostly competes for the market of the country it's in which may be a tiny portion of the global market. In contrast, industries honed by competition may be able to compete in the global marketplace, but are largely restricted by the practices that make them competitive there which tend to involve cheap labour for lower prices. If there were very clear answers here we would have seen far more countries following them to develop. Unfortunately, the truth is it's an extremely complicated case by case decision where it's very hard to know the right answer in general. We tend to see a strong bias for open markets on the right and protectionism on the left, which further complicates things as neither solution seems to capture the whole problem.

So they need to retrain for another job. Technological unemployment is here to stay. If people in another country can make food that is better and cheaper, well that's globalism.

What do you say to people who respond to stories about exploited labor with, "But they have a better life now than they did before!"?

Well do they or not? If their life is better rejoice for them. Help their kids take the next step better.

Someone who grows up in a mud hut with no education and no idea where the next meal comes from cannot be made into an engineer easily. But if you can get them enough to eat they can take their kids out of the child labor market and send them to school to learn. It might be a few generations, but that is normal. Me and my sister are the first to finish college in my family on either side, more cousins have since followed. We started on farms generations back, but have moved on as technology advanced.

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