Grease’s Financial Crisis: Why You Can’t Blame It On Wendy’s

Greg McFarlane is an advertising copywriter who lives in Las Vegas and Lahaina – testament to the power of entrepreneurship.  He runs Control Your Cash and recently wrote Control Your Cash: Making Money Make Sense, a financial primer for people in their 20s and 30s who know nothing about money. Buy the book here (physical) or here (Kindle) and reach Greg at greg@ControlYourCash.com.

“Poor people eat fast food and get fat because they have no choice.”

Is that the Center for Science in the Public Interest blathering about that this week?  Maybe the Centers for Disease Control?  That sanctimonious Canadian harpy Naomi Klein probably has something earnest and humorless to say about it, too.

That opening statement is taken as Scripture by a lot of people, largely because critical thinking has gone the way of whittling and bootblackery on the list of rudimentary American skills. That poor people eat badly because they can’t afford to do otherwise is a bigger myth than the one about women getting beaten up on Super Bowl Sunday.  The debunking starts now.

Your humble blogger eats the same meals almost every day, at the same times. Here’s how it breaks down:

7 a.m. Calories Price Protein (g) Fat (g)
1 pint nonfat milk 100 0.26 16 0
2/3 cup instant oatmeal 200 0.30 7 4
1 pint coffee 0 0.44 0 0
1 bagel 104 0.23 12 1
10 a.m.
3/4 cup egg whites 130 0.76 22 0
1 pint orange juice 220 0.43 0 0
4 slices, Louis Rich turkey bacon 140 0.31 8 9
1 p.m.
1 grilled chicken breast 165 0.89 30 4
1 cup broccoli 30 0.16 1 0
1 pint water 0 0.00 0 0
1 red Delicious apple 40 0.00 (backyard tree) 1 0
4 p.m.
1 blended drink (1.5 cups grapefruit juice, 1 banana, 1 cup Wawona Festival Blend frozen strawberries, mango and pineapple, ice) 660 0.79 5 0
7 p.m.
1 ground turkey sandwich (1 patty, 1 bun, tomato slice, condiments including chipotle sauce and maybe ketchup) 270 0.70 25 7
1/2 pint Coke Zero 0 0.38 0 0
1 cup spinach 20 0.40 2 0
10 p.m.
19 oz. Progresso chicken noodle soup 100 1.50 7 2.5
TOTAL 2259 7.65 136 27.5

Can per-serving prices be that low? If the prices sound less than reasonable, it’s because you’ve never shopped at Costco or Sam’s Club. And/or maybe you’ve never cooked. Still; $7.65 a day, and that’s for a fairly carnivorous man who thinks bison and elk are as delicious as they are majestic. Remove the meat, add some lentils and rice, and watch that total fall even lower.

Let’s contrast that with what the American underclass presumably eats. To hear the members of the nation’s health NKVD commissariat, you’d have to believe that the following is a typical day’s diet for a slovenly American who would be supping on almond blancmange and roast lobster on cauliflower at Chez Joël Robuchon if we could only do a better job collectively of distributing income and educating the masses on the finer points of gastronomy.

Calories Price Protein (g) Fat (g)
McDonald’s Sausage McMuffin with egg, 1 pint orange juice, 1% milk 870 4.87 32 37
Burger King medium Double Whopper value meal (including medium Coke) 1650 6.89 53 24
Taco Bell Bacon Club Chalupa 490 1.99 23 32
TOTAL 3010 13.74 108 93

The Control Your Cash Diet (note to self: market this? After all, people will apparently buy anything) is far healthier and 44% cheaper than a relatively modest fast-food diet.

Okay, what’s your excuse now? Poor people don’t know how to turn an oven on? Advertising makes it too hard to resist fast food? People tried to smoke the leafy green things instead of eating them? The Elders of Zion and the Rand Corporation have a hand in this? A true consumer advocate is in a quandary if she’s forced to say something positive about big-box retailers?

Cheap food doesn’t necessarily mean unhealthy food. Wendy’s doesn’t have anyone’s blood on their hands, except for a few hundred thousand cows. Regardless of the strength of the overall economy, your nutrition should be the last thing to suffer.

32 comments to Grease’s Financial Crisis: Why You Can’t Blame It On Wendy’s

  • I LOVE THIS ARTICLE! First off, someone else admitting eating 5 meals a day!!! Secondly, you are trumpeting healthy, low cost, & easy to prepare eating. This article should go on the fron page of YAHOO, AOL, & on every TV show!!!!!

  • Brad

    Clearly, good food *can* be cheap (grains, high impact Veg.) but your argument to debunk the myth stated is pretty thin. How many less fortunate people eat apples grown on their backyard tree, know enough to realize tap water is almost always better than bottled (in N.A.), have the time to prepare all of this food, have the knowledge of high-return foods (spinach, broccoli, oatmeal -albeit instant), have the cash-flow management and planning ability to be able to gather all of this at once at a Sam’s club or otherwise. Hell, how many affluent individuals in their 20-30s have all of the above? Those are my “excuses”, or counter-arguments. Someone who wasn’t educated well enough or had the proper surrounding support system in place (these are the “poor people” that eat, well, poorly) will likely not know how to eat well, let alone do it on the cheap.

    I do, however, think you’re eating fairly healthily and I also share the belief that “Regardless of the strength of the overall economy, your nutrition should be the last thing to suffer.”

    I recommend for yourself that you steer clear of $0.89 bulk-priced chicken breasts. The reasons are length, but also fairly obvious, so I won’t mention them here. That is a discussion for another time, another blog.

  • I agree, Barb! Who knew healthy eating could be so tasty. But Greg, do you really eat the same menu almost EVERY single day? For example, do you ever substitute turkey sausage for turkey bacon? Or Progresso minestrone for chicken noodle?

  • I think something that is often unrecognized is that poorer people may have less time to spend shopping for and cooking healthy food. Maybe they have 2 jobs or work longer hours to keep the family afloat and so it is easier to just stop by Wendy’s on the way home.

    Not saying that’s a GOOD reason, just something to think about.

  • @Barb: Thanks for the kind words. But my system doesn’t have an easy corporate scapegoat, so it’s probably of little interest to the mainstream media.

    @Len: Sure, I mix it up a little. And Progresso minestrone is good stuff. Healthy Choice, too. Stay away from tasteless and uninspired Campbell’s though: it’s inexpensive, but it’s the most overrated brand name in the food industry.

    @Brad/Mike: You’re right, a free backyard apple is a luxury item compared to the exorbitant 19¢ ones a poor person has to go to a supermarket to buy.

    I think you’re confusing poor people with autistic people. If a person is mentally developed enough to ride a bus, sign an apartment lease, and put on his socks first and his shoes after that, then presumably he’s visited a supermarket once or twice and noticed that the numbers on the price tags are lower than the ones on the Arby’s menu.

    Everyone has an hour a week to buy groceries. Otherwise, they’d be working 167 hours a week and wouldn’t be poor.

    • Re: Campbell’s soup. It is also loaded with tons of sodium.

      Not to get too far off topic, but I am a big fan of soup. We usually have it once per week in the winter and once per month in the spring and fall. Most of the time I make it myself at home from scratch. If I had my way, I’d eat it once or twice per week. Even in the summer. :-)

  • I’d also like to point out that even if someone is on a super frugal budget, they can usually find a less expensive grocery store like Food for Less. Even the 99-cent store sells groceries now. As for having limited options, there are tons of great recipes online (and anyone can visit a local library and get online!) describing how to make meals at a very low cost. So what’s the problem? Why don’t people do this instead? L-A-Z-Y. Even if time is an issue, then making a larger portion and freezing the rest is the solution.

  • Changing to a healthier diet has been one of the best things I have done for myself and my family. It’s difficult to avoid all of the hydrogenated oils and artificial ingredients, but it’s well worth it.

    Looking back to when I ate lunch at Taco Bell or Jack in the Box every day, it was partly because I was poor and partly because I wasn’t coginizant of good nutrician. A number of small events woke me up, including a friend who lent me his Dr. Weil CDs.

    To be fair to fast foodies, many of them haven’t been shown healthy, cheap and practical alternatives, they can eat on the run. Others, simply don’t care about their health and no amount of convincing will make a difference. It’s like someone who smokes cigarettes; they have to want to change on their own.

    Nothing is sadder than watching someone my age driving around Walmart in a rascal fillng up their cart with potato chips. I just smile and thank God it isn’t me.

  • Great Article Man!

    When I first started shopping (lol last year) I learned quickly that junk food was EXPENSIVE. Fruit costs next to nothing and chicken for a couple days is less than one big mac meal

  • Jenna

    Have any of you seen Food,Inc? There is a documentary about this epidemic in the US, I believe you all would enjoy it. Seems to me it’s an education issue, teaching people how to eat healthy and budget for healthier food options. I’d also like to point out some families, don’t have permanent homes to store food. Or money for electricity / running water, which makes preparing food at home tricky.

  • Sarah

    I agree that it is more expensive to eat at fast food restaurants than at home. I saw a television program that followed a family with serious weight problems as they cast aside fresh fruit in favor of fast food, claiming that was what they could afford. I happened to be cooking dinner at the time so I grabbed my grocery receipt and figured out what each serving of dinner cost compared to the prices the TV family paid. My dinner was cheaper. Ironically, I’m a bit of a foodie. I like whole wheat pasta, fresh local cheeses, and organic produce. My gourmet dinner was still cheaper than the TV family’s fast food dinner. That said, there are definitely start up costs to eating at home. I have pots and pans, knives, a food processor, a microwave oven, dishes, a toaster, etc. Those things didn’t come with my apartment. I either received them as gifts or saved up my money for them. If a person is always living paycheck to paycheck, they may never have in their hands enough money to buy a microwave, or a set of pots and pans, but a night at the fast food joint doesn’t seem so far out of reach. They’ll buy what is expedient and not think about the future. That’s why learning to budget is so important. It wasn’t taught to me in school-I learned it from my parents. And they learned it from their parents. I got lucky when I was born into a family with budgeting skills. We should all be so lucky.

  • I am well educated and still chose to eat fast food regularly until this year…funnily enough, I only switched to save money.

    By simply shopping in bulk and supplementing with the grocery store, my husband and I cut our food budget down from $600 a month to $425 a month without giving up anything that makes us smile. I have no idea if my calories have gone down too since I only ate dollar menu items that were small, but I love the money saved.

  • Jesse

    I find this argument thin and weak. Typically poorer people live in poorer neighborhoods which are frequently ‘food deserts’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_desert. They don’t have access to the supermarket. They don’t have reliable or fast transportation – the bus takes hours out of their day – and they have to work two jobs just to heat their house.

    This article is a condescending and narrow response to health disparities in American cities.

    HOWEVER – as a middle-class educated 20-something, I find the menu you’ve set out to be inspiring! I’ve been meaning to find examples of better diets and have been trying to make a change lately. Thanks for the pointer.

    • Jesse, I’m glad I inspired you (albeit while simultaneously being condescending to you.)
      The Wikipedia article doesn’t define the locations of any particular “food deserts”, but an external link refers to a food desert centered on 101st Street and Princeton Avenue in Chicago. There’s a Shop Wise Foods 2 blocks from there. Meanwhile, the nearest fast food joint is a White Castle that’s almost twice as far away.

      If someone can show me a densely packed urban area with no access to either a) supermarkets or b) bus routes that stop by supermarkets, I’m listening.

      • Jesse

        Hi Greg, I didn’t find it condescending to me. I thought it was a glib response to a complex and very important issue. You make it seem like these people are lazy and stupid. I sometimes with nonprofits in poor neighborhoods and most of the families I have worked with do not eat fast food at all. As you point out, it’s expensive; they can’t afford it! $7.65/day per person is too expensive for many!

        Your assumption of what the ‘American underclass’ eats is entirely incorrect. One family I encountered doesn’t have a food budget at all. They rely on donated bags of beans and rice and whatever they can get in canned form at local food donation centers. Normally these foods will get you by, but they are not a staple of nutrition.

        Vegetables and fruits are much more expensive than processed bread and rice. Additionally they do not keep for very long which requires more frequent trips. Time is an issue when you have children, indigent elderly parents, and two low-paying jobs.

        The Safeway in Chaffee Park here in Denver recently closed leaving the closest supermarket for many residents about 3 miles away. There are nearby small ethnic markets that have food for sale, but it’s often very weak in nutrition and comes at a premium.

        Your article is prime advice for those of us with time, transportation, and choices. But you make some very uninformed assumptions about are large swath of Americans.

    • I’m calling B.S. on this Food Desert argument. I grew up in a tough ‘hood, so I know this is a crock. This is like saying all of the liquor stores cause people to drink, smoke and buy lottery tickets. Let’s skip the P.C. and get real.

      Even in the poorest neighbohoords, there are minority-owned markets that carry whole foods. The reason there are a bunch of McDonalds is because they serve a popular demand and are therefore profitable. If everyone stopped eating at McDonalds, they would close down and be replaced by healthier food outlets. If the chain stores could profitably expand into poorer neighborhoods, they would be all over it.

      People are choosing to be Dollar Menunaires, because it’s fast and convenient. Millions of young adults have grown up without being taught how to cook basic food items. And, most aren’t interested in learning. This isn’t a race or a poverty issue. It has nothing to do with the scarcity of healthy food. It’s a conscious choice some people are making.

  • I am not averse to a Hardee’s thickburger, but we seldom eat fast food. This being said, my beautiful spouse tells me that eating healthy at home is costly compared to eating not so healthy at home. Examples: whole grain bread costs more than white bread, grass fed beef costs more than cows fattened with chemicals and organic vegetables cost more than non-organic.

  • I agree that cheap food doesn’t have to be unhealthy food. Buying a membership at Costco can be well worth it because you can stock up on healthy foods at a low cost. Eating at fast food restaurants is not a good way to save money, because you usually end up buying more in a fast food meal than you would eat in a home cooked meal.

  • While I agree you can eat definitely healthy food for less than it costs to eat unhealthy/fast food, there’s one big problem with this argument. When I made very little money, I could not afford a membership to Costco.

    The membership alone is a HUGE amount of money when you’re trying to make it on $10-$20 per week in groceries. Even if someone gives you the membership (which someone did for me) there’s very little you can actually buy at Costco that doesn’t wipe out all of your grocery money in one shot.

    But you can eat Burger King, ramen, spaghetti, and toast on that kind of money.

    However, I think that poor, middle class, and rich people all eat fast food because it’s easy. (And kind of addicting with all the additives.)

  • At the beginning of each week I make a large pot of brown rice (because it takes so long to cook) and a large pot of pinto beans. These then supplement almost every meal, except for our breakfasts of oatmeal (not instant, we package our own). We do this because it does cut down on food costs, and is healthy, and fairly versatile.

    You don’t need to eat poorly if you’re poor. It’s time that’s the issue I find. I think being time-poor has a bigger effect on your eating than anything else.

    Although I do love me some McDonalds Egg McMuffins…. :) Delicious!

  • People eat fast food because they are lazy and don’t want to put out the effort to cook, or they’ve bought the advertising hook line and sinker, not because it is all they can afford. The cheapest foods are things like oatmeal, apples, bananas, carrots, etc. (fill in almost any vegetable or fruit or grain), all healthier than big macs.

  • Chanda Glover

    If you have ever read the book Skinny B!tch, they would argue that your meals weren’t health. They are vegan organic. So I want to point out that “eating healthy” is defined different by different people.

    If one is to eat the Skinny B!tch diet, I can attest that it does increase the grocery bill, is inconvenient, and does consume more time.

    Also, what about the fact that many poor people live in an area where a real grocery store is miles away?

    As Brad mentioned, the poor eating unhealthy is multifactorial. It is not just lack of money, it is lack of education and example.

    • Chanda, you’re not going to believe this, but I’ve never read Skinny Bitch.

      But I guess its authors know better, and my diet isn’t “health”. Also, from where you put the pronoun “they”, I assume you mean my meals are vegan organic, which someone should have told the turkeys and the chickens before they got slaughtered.

      If you read the previous comments, you’ll see a rebuttal to the “food desert” hypothesis, with no evidence supporting the other side.

      • Chanda Glover

        “They are vegan organic.” = The authors of the book Skinny B!tch are vegan organic.

        As I said, the poor eating unhealthy (although our definitions of health may be different) is multifactorial. I happen to be educated on wellness AND budgeting. So a change in my in my income doesn’t change my eating habits because I know that food is the first thing on the budget priority list. I don’t want to put milk pumped with hormones in my body, I don’t want to wake up at 50 and have to loss 50 pounds, and I understand that when it comes to health you either pay for it now or you pay for it later. None of these things change, even if my income changes.

        A person born in poverty doesn’t have the advantages of education (formal or otherwise) as I have. So I will concede that the poor CAN eat healthy on a budget. I wonder if they have ever been TAUGHT how to eat healthy on a budget.

        • @Chanda: I completely agree when you say that there are varying definitions of “healthy eating.” As such, I think many folks set the health bar a bit too high, and as a result, end up with higher grocery bills than necessary. That’s just my heartfelt opinion. I have to disagree with your assertion that a person born in poverty (at least here in the US) is disadvantaged about how to eat healthy because of a lack of education, formal or otherwise. Basic nutritional education (like the food pyramid) is taught in public elementary schools. It’s also taught, if you’ll pardon the expression, ad nauseum on PBS and other kids channels like Disney. ;-)

          I guess my point is, armed with that basic info, everybody in the USA should have the tools necessary to ensure they can eat a healthy diet (relatively speaking) on a budget – certainly much cheaper than eating at a fast food joint! :-)

  • Awesome, awesome blog! Thanks for posting this-I absolutely hate that argument. Whatever happened to personal responsibility?

  • I know dozens of Asian immigrants (many of whom are in my family) who arrive in the U.S. with pennies to their name. They’re working low-wage jobs, spending all their money on education, and they’re ultra poor. But they maintain their health by eating rice and lentils. Tons and tons of rice and lentils.

    Granted, white rice isn’t the #1 healthiest choice (compared with quinoa), but it’s pretty healthy, especially when its combined with a low-fat, high-fiber, high-protein item such as dried lentils (which are cooked in bulk on a Sunday and re-heated throughout the week).

    I also know a fair number of low-income Hispanic families that do this same thing, except they cook rice and dried beans (pinto or black beans) instead of rice and lentils. It’s virtually the same idea: Cheap, healthy, delicious.

    Fast food is EXPENSIVE. It’s really freakin’ expensive. $5 for a McDonalds meal? That’s a $20 lunch for a family of 4. That’s a lot of money.

  • Libby

    I was checking your figures, sir, and even if you eat from the “dollar” menu it will still cost you $10 a day for food. The fat content goes WAY up too – a whopping 77g of fat!! (I made a chart much like yours.) It doesn’t pay to eat fast food!!

  • How about the the actual state of our own economic climate how do you feel this may impact everyone?

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Greg McFarlane, Control Your Cash. Control Your Cash said: Control Your Cash makes a road appearance! Guest post at LenPenzo.com: http://bit.ly/djbW6H [...]

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