The Shopping Cart Index: What Our Grocery Bills Reveal About the Food Economy

Posted by Tracie McMillian and Always With Honor

Last summer, for the first time in decades, I made a box of Hamburger Helper in the spirit of journalistic investigation. I was researching what it takes to eat well in America on a budget, and had come across the distressing information that three-quarters of our salt intake comes from processed food. What my Hamburger Helper lacked in health appeal, I assumed it would make up for in convenience and price. This is a compromise Americans have long accepted as fact: You can have food that is nutritious or food that is affordable, but you cannot have both. I resolved to see how things played out in the kitchen.

When I undertook this experiment, I was living in Detroit—a city notorious for having few supermarkets and limited access to healthy food. Buying a box of Hamburger Helper would cost $2.68 at the small local grocery, or I could drive to Walmart and find it for $1.68. Back in the kitchen, I added the required ground beef, milk, and oil to the shelf-stable ingredients, and 22 minutes later, my high-sodium, low-nutrient dinner was ready.
In the service of scientific inquiry, I tried a different method, preparing an equivalent dish from scratch. Turns out the boxed meal from my childhood didn't win on price and barely squeaked by on convenience. My homemade version cost just 83 cents and took one minute longer to make. The trade-off I’d resigned myself to—nutritious and expensive versus affordable and crappy—turned out to be an illusion.
When we dig into the data about eating and spending, a lot of our assumptions about why people do what they do don’t hold up to close scrutiny.