Bonnie Modugno, MS, RDHealth Blog - Nutrition

Is Cheap Food Really Cheap?

Published on 2010-08-19 by Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD

An email from my husband first hinted at the problem. Millions of eggs recalled, and his business is food distribution. Another very difficult day at the office.

He has lived in parallel universes for awhile now. Most of the food he sells is conventional, directed to the restaurant, hotel and institutional market. Price point is the paramount concern. Quality is a close second, but often price trumps quality. How food is raised and how the crops, animals and the workers are treated isn’t even on the table (pun intended).

Then he comes home. I buy pastured eggs and chickens from Healthy Family Farms. Organic raw milk from Organic Pastures. I buy grass fed lamb and beef from a variety of sources, including my husband’s food supply company. Fish is mostly purchased wild caught or from species that are sustainably and responsibly farmed. Sometimes I can find it fresh, but Trader Joe’s does a nice job with flash frozen product that is reasonably priced. I don’t always want to pay $20 and more a pound for wild caught salmon.

Ninety percent of our produce comes from local Farmer’s Markets. I am blessed, living in Southern California with a 52 week growing season. Years ago I would run in for flowers and rush off to work. Today, I visit one of five different markets depending on the day and in which direction I am headed. All of them are within walking distance or a short 10-15 minute bike ride from my home or office. I fill both bike panniers and peddle home with $60-80 dollars worth of fruits and vegetables that won’t last the week at my house.

A year ago an experiment with grass fed, pastured and organic foods bloomed into my way of life. (See my earliest blog entries for a day to day accounting of the experience.) I know I prefer eating “closer to the earth”, but I am not rigid. I still buy jicama and pineapple this is not exactly locally grown and often not organic. I enjoy a meal away from home less than I used to, but still a few times a week. Even in Southern California it is not easy to order food prepared with the ingredients I use myself without spending an amount I would allocate for a special occasion. These ingredients cost all of us more.


I find traveling to be especially challenging. I get a wake up call almost every time I venture out of my community. A two week excursion to the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest earlier this month left me with few options. The wild caught salmon was easy. But organic produce was non-existent in the liquor store-hardware store-bait and tackle shop-markets that dotted our route through the Olympic Peninsula. Grass fed meat and milk products were not to be found.

To be fair, I am sure there were sources along the way that I didn’t take advantage of. But, I didn’t realize that once I left Aberdeen it would be another four days and 95 miles until I stepped into another supermarket with more than three varieties of fruit. At the end of the trip, I did source raw milk at one dairy in Sequim, Washington, but didn’t stop. By that time we were just hours away from Seattle and pressed to make the next ferry. We had plans in the city.


Over the year, my husband has often balked at the cost of our new food supply. He has a unique perspective. He knows exactly what he pays wholesale for conventional product at his company. He experiences shock every time he manages to pick up a few items even at a conventional local market. It makes him shake his head to hear I am paying 2-3 times and sometimes more for our own food at the array of places I now shop.

But I feel better and I am leaner, my HDL (good) cholesterol is up 20 points, my CRP level measuring inflammation is less than 0.5 and I have less than a 1% chance of cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years. For someone whose dad died at 44 of heart failure that means a lot.

It doesn’t help that too many of my cousins currently take medications for hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes and the like. All of our parents struggled with these diseases at very young ages and most were diagnosed, some even had their heart attacks or died in their 30’s. The higher risk is in our genes, but the costs are borne by us all.

Sure, we pay more for health insurance–there is always a hrummph when the consultant sees cause and age of my dad’s demise. I am followed more closely by my physician and have even visited the ER to check out a few incidences of indigestion–just to be sure. But everyone pays more for health insurance and all kinds of costs with so many sick people in our population taking so many drugs for what could be significantly improved with better attention to food choices, food production, and basic decisions about how we raise crops and animals.


In this context just how expensive is my food? Cheap enough.

Ironically, as the price of my food purchases has increased, there is not really much increase in overall food costs. I realize I have become more thoughtful when planning meals. I purchase what we need, and cook smaller portions. There is far less waste when I pay a premium. I am surprised since I never thought of myself as wasteful.

The benefits have been accumulating over time and are also immediate. We have become accustomed to the most delicious fruits and vegetables, the sweet creamy freshness of raw, grass fed milk, and the leaner and tastier grass fed meats. I find myself anticipating the peak season for corn and tomatoes in summer, the upcoming favorite Fuji apples in October and I will mourn when the best of stone fruit leaves the market next month.

The season’s impact on the food supply has added dimension and variety to my own plate. Paradoxically I enjoy my food more when it is not available year round. I enjoy what is in season, at the peak of flavor and freshness. I am truly eating closer to the earth and happily paying more—and paying less.

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