November 1, 2012

Whole Foods is Cheaper than Fast Food?


It started innocently enough. As my class sat thinking of topics to practice pre-writing on, someone suggested “fast food.” I wrote FAST FOOD on the board and the class began to suggest topics and sub-topics that describe fast food — the health issues, the obesity epidemic, the incessant advertising, the cheapness. The class did quite well, actually. After about ten minutes we had a white board size word web of the concept “fast food.”

At this point one of my students lamented, “This looks bad. It’s unhealthy. I just wish I could afford to eat healthier but I need to buy fast food to stay in my budget.”

Then I said it, “I bet I can come up with a menu for shopping at Whole Foods that comes out cheaper than eating fast food.”

Crickets. The facial expressions coming my way were more skeptical than ones I’ve seen when I say I love poetry.

Now, one could fault me for getting a bit off topic in a college writing class. This is health policy and economics territory. But it would be a good example for the class of research based writing. And more importantly, I had said, “I bet….” I needed to prove my mettle. Or I would die on my allegiance to healthy, sustainable, ethical food right in front of my class.

So, as Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace says, “Let’s do the numbers …”

For the sake of fairness, we’re going to eat at five different fast food places during our test week, so the numbers are more representative of fast food as a whole (if you want a McDonald’s only diet, watch Super Size Me): McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s and Subway.


Breakfast                                   ($2.78) [Breakfast Sausage Burrito + Orange Juice]

Lunch                                         ($4.38) [Big Mac, Small Fries, Small Drink]

Dinner                                        ($5.38) [Caesar Salad, Small Drink]

Total: $12.54

Burger King

Breakfast                                    ($2.38) [Breakfast Biscuit Sandwich + Orange Juice]

Lunch                                          ($4.27) [Whopper Jr., Small Fries, Small Drink]

Dinner                                         ($5.78) [Garden Salad with Fire-Grilled Shrimp, Small Iced Tea]

Total: $12.43


Breakfast                                    ($3.18) [Fresh Baked Biscuit Sandwich + Coffee]

Lunch                                          ($4.97) [Chicken Go Wrap, Small Fries, Small Drink]

Dinner                                         ($4.27) [Double Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, Baked Potato, Small Iced Tea]

Total: $12.42


Breakfast                                    ($3.19) [Breakfast Biscuit + Coffee]

Lunch                                         ($7.29) [Medium Roast Beef, Small Fries, Small Drink]

Dinner                                        ($6.64) [Farmhouse Salad, Small Drink]

Total: $17.12


Breakfast                                    ($2.50) [English Muffin Sandwich + Coffee]

Lunch                                          ($4.88) [Seafood & Crab Salad, Water]

Dinner                                         ($6.49) [Footlong Sub, Small Drink]

Total: $13.87

Grand Total: *($68.38)

*All lunch and dinner prices by except some breakfast prices, which were from online price ranges.

Sure, you could eat cheaper at all of these places. But fast food can be more expensive as well. Chipotle and Pret A Manger would qualify as fast food, and they would definitely bring the average price up (a burrito at Chipotle in NYC is $9, and in my opinion absolutely worth it). So the grand total is a pretty average price if you want to eat somewhere between dollar menu and fast food gourmet.

Now for the Whole Foods diet. Here is a five day menu I made up. It’s similar to one my family eats during a typical week. The prices, as above, are per person.


Breakfast                  ($0.76) [Organic Oatmeal (1.29/ bulk aisle) with organic Mixed Berry Conserve ($4.79/jar)]

Lunch                        ($3.40) [Salami Sandwich (salami $10/lb. + bread ($4/loaf) with organic apple ($1.79/lb.)]

Dinner                       ($3.50) [Organic Pasta ($1.99/lb.) with Marinara Sauce ($4/jar), Bread on the side (from loaf above)]

Total: $7.66


Breakfast                  ($0.76) [Organic Oatmeal (1.29/ bulk aisle) with organic Mixed Berry Conserve ($4.79/jar)]

Lunch                        ($3.40) [Pastrami Sandwich (pastrami $10/lb. + bread (from loaf above) with organic apple ($1.79/lb.)]

Dinner                       ($4.49) [Pork Chop ($6.99/lb.) with sauteed carrots ($2.00/lb.)]

Total: $8.65


Breakfast                  ($0.76) [Organic Oatmeal (1.29/ bulk aisle) with organic Mixed Berry Conserve ($4.79/jar)]

Lunch                        ($3.50) [Egg Salad Sandwich (CH Eggs $4.00/dz) + Mayo ($6/jar) + bread (from loaf above) with           organic pear ($1.99/lb.)]

Dinner                       ($7.00) [Mixed Salad (mustard greens with carrots, chickpeas, radishes and croutons)]

Total: $11.26


Breakfast                  ($0.76) [Organic Oatmeal (1.29/ bulk aisle) with organic Mixed Berry Conserve ($4.79/jar)]

Lunch                        ($5.40) [Tuna Salad Sandwich (tuna $3.00/can) + Mayo + bread ($4/loaf) with organic pear]

Dinner                       ($3.30) [Beans and Rice (black beans $1.99/lb.) with white rice ($1.49/lb.) and chicken stock ($3.99/container)]

Total: $9.46


Breakfast                  ($0.76) [Organic Oatmeal (1.29/ bulk aisle) with organic Mixed Berry Conserve ($4.79/jar)]

Lunch                        ($3.50) [Egg Salad Sandwich (CH Eggs $4.00/dz) + Mayo ($6/jar) + bread (from loaf above) with organic pear ($1.99/lb.)]

Dinner                       ($8.00) [Chicken Tacos ($1.99/lb. whole chicken; black beans + rice + stock), tortillas (2.99$/pack) plus onions, jalapenos, etc.]

Total: $12.26

Grand Total: $49.29

The end game comes out to $19 per person, per week. That can add up. If you ate fast food constantly for one year you would end up being an extra thousand dollars a year, versus prepare food yourself.

And I expect that’s the catch for most people: preparing the food yourself. It’s why people think Whole Food is so expensive, because often when they go there it’s not to buy food they’ll prepare for themselves as much as it is to buy food that is already prepared. And prepared food is de facto fast food.

So I think in the end, while I may be able to prove to my class that Whole Foods is cheaper than fast food, the value placed on instant gratification, ready-made food and the on-the-go lifestyle is what keeps more people from visiting farmers markets or buying healthy, sustainable food.

Eating is often divorced from cooking, or worse, cooking is considered a privilege that not everyone can afford. So the cooking, for better or worse, gets outsourced. In 2001, the Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI) “Trends in the United States: Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket, 2001” survey said that nearly three-fourths of Americans serve home-cooked meals three or more times a week, but less than half prepare these meals primarily from scratch.

Thankfully, in the past 10 years there has been some change in perspective. In 2011, an overwhelming 90 percent of Americans believe home-cooked meals are healthier and more affordable than eating out and, more importantly, Americans are showing strong support for locally grown products, with eight in 10 saying they purchase these products occasionally (FMI Grocery Shopper Trends 2011). Local food means, unprocessed, unprepared food. In other words, food that is better for the environment and better for you. And in the end, if you take the time to prepare it, it’s cheaper than fast food.

CC Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr

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