In Praise of Cheap Food


Okay, I mostly agree with this:

Which brings us to the powerful person: Oprah. Ms. Winfrey, who has been on more diets than the rest of us combined, challenged her staff to "go vegan" for a week. Intriguing, except her idea of surviving without meat and dairy -- no explanation given for why we should go from too much to none -- is to fill your shopping cart with fake versions of both, like meatless chicken breasts and dairy-less cheese.
But the goal is not universal veganism, which is pie-in-the-sky; it's health and sustainability. And we get there by preparing real food, vegan or not. (Remember: Coke, Tostitos and Reese's Peanut Butter Puffs -- yum! -- are all vegan.) The answer is not fake animal products, whose advocates argue that they're transitional to a kinder-to-animal diet. Indeed, that's good, but a real food diet is better.
. . . The truly healthy alternative to that chip is not a fake chip; it's a carrot. Likewise, the alternative to sausage is not vegan sausage; it's less sausage. This is really all pretty simple, and pretty clear. But the messages we've heard recently are as clear as . . . well, a SOFA.
I never understood the appeal of things like fat-free muffins; I'd rather have a delicious apple than a rubbery, off-tasting muffin-substitute.  But I must stand up for vegan or vegetarian "chicken" nuggets.  They are delicious.  Even though I now eat meat again, I still prefer the vegetarian version to the "real" thing, especially after seeing what chicken nuggets are made from.  I know it's not as good for me as whipping up one of Bittman's meals from scratch, but sometimes at 8 pm, I just want something I can dip in ketchup or barbeque sauce while I watch a movie.

And I must take strong objection to Bittman's characterization of Wal-Mart's push for cheaper produce: 

Finally, our powerful corporation -- Wal-Mart -- whose alliance with Michelle Obama looks pretty good, at least at first. We are promised more affordable produce, which undoubtedly means that Wal-Mart will beat the living daylights out of produce suppliers, crushing a few thousand more small farmers. (In fact, what we need is higher-quality and probably more expensive produce, that which is less damaging to the environment, laborers, and consumers, but that gets into the "how do we afford it?" argument, which must wait for another day. Let's leave it that we like Wal-Mart's goal of selling more produce.)
If we are worried about the effects of industrial farming in terms of animal cruelty and the environment--and I am!--then the solution is to pass laws which raise the price of animal cruelty and damaging the environment.  It is not to make the price of produce artificially high.  If we do pass such laws, then it would still be a good thing for Wal-Mart to be in there, getting producers to make produce as cheap as possible within the limits set by the law.

Mind you, I'm not really convinced that this is going to make much difference in our produce intake; I am skeptical that price is an important factor driving decisions to buy (or eat) Tostitos rather than carrots.  But it certainly can't hurt, and at the very least, it will help stretch the budgets of people who do eat produce.

Cheap food, as PJ O'Rourke once noted, is the foundation of civilization; without it, all of us would still spend most of our waking hours trying to get enough to eat.  That doesn't mean that every road to cheap food should be acceptable; the government should step in to limit harmful externalities such as environmental damage.  But cheapness is not itself inherently suspicous; it's glorious.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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