Grocery shopping itself is a convenience. At least we don’t have to grow our own food and slaughter our own animals, as our ancestors did. We don’t even have to bake bread, which can take all day.
Now we can buy prepared foods that almost eliminate time for food preparation.
Some people have decided to opt out. I heard of a woman who decided she would start cooking at home. That changed her grocery shopping habits. And so her teenage son complained that she didn’t buy food anymore, only ingredients.
What he meant by “food,” his mother considered a costly convenience she was no longer willing to pay for.
On the other hand, some people apparently think cutting up fruits and vegetables is too much work. So our grocery stores sell a variety of cut fruit in the kind of plastic containers that are difficult to recycle.
The cost of convenience in food recalls
These recalls are not so much a cost of convenience as a cost of industrial economies of scale. Carelessness at one farm introduces some kind of bacteria into its crop of, say, spinach. It gets mixed together with spinach from other farms and distributed all over the country.
The same company has several facilities for processing it. And it might sell bagged spinach under multiple brand names. So it sends out lots of bags of tainted spinach, but a lot more bags of spinach that’s good to eat. We have no way to determine which few bags aren’t fit to sell, so it all has to be recalled. Thrown out.
It contributes to the scandal of food waste.
When these recalls are in progress, you can still probably find wholesome spinach at a farmer’s market if it’s in season.
The cost of convenience in a sample meal
Say you want to serve lasagna, special bread, and a salad. When you go grocery shopping, you can purchase ingredients. Some dedicated people even make their own bread and pasta and grind their own meat and cheese. But you’re going to buy what that teenager would recognize as food.
You pick up a lasagna from the freezer section of the grocery store, bread from the deli section, and a bag or two of salad. It can provide a meal for your family with practically no effort. And as a percentage of your income, it probably costs less than our great grandparents paid for one of their meals.
At the very least, the lasagna comes in a plastic tray covered with a plastic film and put in a cardboard box. All the products arrive at the grocery in cartons piled on a wooden pallet and wrapped in plastic film.
But what is the real cost of this convenience? Here are just three aspects.
It takes energy to operate the factory, not to mention energy to make the packaging. Then, for lasagna, it takes energy to freeze it.
Of course, your own refrigerator, freezer, stove, and oven use energy that you directly pay for. And since you directly pay for it, you stay mindful of it. You have some control.
You probably have electric gadgets—mixers, blenders, etc.—that save you some time and effort. You also have knives, cutting boards, and other manual tools that don’t add to your electric bill. Again, you have a choice. And even if you own and use every imaginable gadget, your energy cost might not equal your share of the energy costs of that prepared lasagna meal.
“Ingredients” go from the farm to one or more warehouses to the grocery store. The farm might be hundreds or thousands of miles away from anything else. Again, the transportation costs of “ingredients” can be considerable. You have some control, though. You can be very mindful and look for locally grown produce.
Your grocery store probably makes a big deal of whatever it gets locally. If you go to a farmer’s market, everything is grown or produced within a certain distance.
“Food” travels even more. The ingredients have to go to the factory, which transports the finished product to you via warehouses and the grocery. Some of it must travel in refrigerated or frozen compartments.
Not only that, but the packaging has its own transportation chain. It starts as some kind of raw material—or more. Then it travels through various production processes before it gets delivered to the factory that makes the food.
Not only that, but all the people who work at any process along the way have to commute to work.
After you’ve eaten it, have to put the packaging out to the curb. A truck hauls it away. And by the way, either the landfill or recycling facility adds to the energy cost.
Manufacturers spend a lot of money to figure out how to make the tastiest product at the lowest cost. David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner, has examined the food industry. He determined that, deliberately or inadvertently, our processed food has become addictive by layering salt, sugar, and fat. It has led to an epidemic of obesity.
And have you noticed that you don’t have to chew a lot of prepared foods as much as you do what you cook yourself? You can eat more food in less time that way.
I’m certainly not saying that we all have to give up all of our conveniences. Or even any particular ones. As far as lasagna is concerned, now you don’t even have to cook the noodles before assembling it. You can buy some that you use dry, add extra water, and cover it while baking. It saves a messy step, and I don’t see any environmental downside. You can make lasagna seasoned the way you like it and choose all the other ingredients. Try to do that from the grocery freezer section!
As much as I enjoy cooking, sometimes I don’t feel like it. But mindfulness of the cost of conveniences shows us the choices we make in our grocery shopping. And enables us to make different ones.
Be sure to read all my other posts about the cost of convenience!
Suggested reading: The end of overeating: taking control of the insatiable American appetite / David A. Kessler. Rodale, 2009