What does “value” mean when it comes to food?

I watched a TLC show called “Extreme Couponing” today. Yes, sounds like a pretty unexciting show, regardless of the word “extreme”. Maybe next they will air “Extreme Toenail Clipping” or “Extreme Vacuuming”! The show features several “couponers” who fill multiple shopping carts with goods from places like Wal-Mart, have their total without coupons rung-up (usually several hundred dollars) and then hand over a huge stack of coupons and rewards cards and end up paying a ridiculously small amount like $4.32. That is pretty exciting, right?

But here’s the part that I found rant-inspiring. The majority of these heavily-discounted goods were food products. Most highly processed (think instant soups, pancake mixes, packs of snack-sized bagged chips, sodas and sports drinks), most low in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and high in things like hydrogenated oils and corn syrup. Basically more “product” than “food”. I completely get that when you and your family need to eat and times are tough, getting five carts of these items for a few dollars seems like a gift from heaven. I know my frustration with the reality of this type of food consumption must be tempered by the recognition of my immense privilege when it comes to buying high-quality food. But the thing is, the folks eating these cheap food products WILL pay back every cent they saved clipping those stacks of coupons and wheeling their five full carts up to the Wal-Mart checker. They will pay it to Kaiser, they will pay it to AstraZeneca, they will pay for it with time lost from their work, their children’s lives, their personal enjoyment of the precious little time we all have in this world.

Before I dive further down into this pit of despair, I just want to pose the question that is the whole point of this post: What does food “value” really mean? I admit I am food bourgeoisie. My favorite grocery store is Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck) and I feed my son milk that comes in a glass bottle with cream on top and costs twice as much as a regular gallon at Safeway. But by cooking meals at home from pretty basic ingredients I have managed to keep our food costs pretty manageable (under $450 a month for a family of 3 with frequent five person meals when grandparents are in town), and sick medical visits are practically non-existent for me. Not to mention the “valuable” experience of cooking and eating with my family, something that a microwaveable soup or bag of chips can surely not provide. So if you ask me, the real “value” of food is so much bigger than the total at the bottom of a receipt.

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