All right. So since I've lived here, I've had the idea that healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, and lean meats) are much cheaper in Brazil than in the US. I've explained the price difference as the reason why Americans eat so badly. So today, I decided to do some research to prove just how much cheaper everything healthy is in Brazil.
I went to our local non-chain grocery store. Most of the fruits and veggies are organic by default, but that doesn't necessarily reflect a stronger economy or healthier-minded people (it instead reflects a small family farming economy). I bought all of our fruits and veggies for the week, plus a couple of cleaning supplies (laundry detergent, dish soap, toilet paper). I didn't buy meat because we didn't need any. My total was 70 reais.
To be realistic, this food is going to cover all of our breakfasts and lunches (because we never eat out for those), and about 4 dinners (we eat out a few times a week, and when we do, it's always for dinner). It also includes our snacks (fruits, crackers, cookies, and top ramen (miojo)). I also bought some oranges, a pineapple, and fresh mint to make 2 juices this week (gotta counteract the top ramen, right?).
It's really hard to calculate average grocery store purchases, because some weeks you need expensive things (like olive oil) and some weeks you don't. But our purchases average about 70 reais a week for the two of us.
So then I came home and tried to make a spreadsheet to compare the prices of the products I bought today to the prices of these same products in the US. This proved to be pretty much impossible. This comparison was hard to calculate because...
1. Pounds vs. Kilos. I'm terrible at math.
2. Dollars vs. Reais. It's not enough to just say "oh, right now, 1 dollar is 1.80 reais." It's a little more complicated than that.
3. Price per unit vs. price per pound/kilo. Lots of fruits and vegetables are sold by unit, not by weight. And we all know that produce in the US is super mutant-sized. So it's hard to get an accurate comparison with those.
4. Online prices vs. in-store prices. I tried to use Safeway's online shopping site to do a fake shopping trip, but they have this arbitrary "units" system for the prices of their products and the units don't correspond to like, one piece of fruit or one vegetable (but even if they did, it wouldn't be of much help because of the aforementioned mutant produce). I also don't know if online prices are higher than in-store prices.
So you can imagine that I got frustrated pretty quickly, and it's not even something that I need to do for money or a grade or something. So then I decided to just do some Google searches for average prices of veggies in the US.
I found this very informative site from the USDA that showed me something very surprising. The price per pound for fruits and veggies on this site are almost equal to what I pay here in the Sao Paulo countryside. (For example, 1 paid R$1.25 per pound for carrots, and the price on this site was US$1.28 per pound.)
As I said above, the dollars vs reais thing is kind of complicated. But I can tell you that an English teacher at a private school in a big city in California earns almost the same salary as an English teacher at a private school in a relatively small town in Sao Paulo. (i.e. my salary was the same in dollars and reais, but that's not true for all jobs and between all cities, and other cost of living factors, like rent prices, are very relevant).
So basically, according to the numbers on this site, it seems to me that prices of produce aren't that different between the US and Brazil.
Shocked? I was, too. Of course, this won't be true for every Brazilian compared to every American. Both countries have regions with higher costs of living, regions that are closer to the sources of different produce, different prices in different seasons, etc. But the American site shows national averages, and I live
So Alexandre and I got to talking. If fruits and veggies are about the same price between the two countries, why do Americans eat so badly? When I was living there, I ate terribly, too. Here's what we decided:
1. Even if produce is the same price, junk food is still cheaper. The alternative to cooking well at home is eating out. In the US, that can be a cheaper alternative if you stick to fast food chains. In Brazil, the same American fast food chains are very expensive. We just got a Burger King in town (BIG NEWS), and Alexandre's burger combo (with small fries and a small drink) was 18 reais. So basically, in Brazil, it's cheaper to eat at home than to eat fast food. In the US, the opposite is true. It's also faster, more convenient, and delicious.
2. When do Americans have time to learn how to cook, let alone to cook? We tend to move out of our parents' homes much earlier than Brazilian twentysomethings. We don't spend our twenties watching our mother cook and learning from her. We also don't get 2-hour lunch breaks (try 30 minutes), which is not uncommon for Brazilian jobs. So if you're Brazilian, you live at home, and your mother is a housewife, you can get a home-cooked meal for lunch and dinner if you want. I'm not saying Americans are victims. We have set up our economy and formed our values and priorities in such a way that food and healthy eating is just NOT important. Independence is. Competitiveness at work is.
3. Eating at restaurants is the social default in the US. Ok. Imagine it's your 28th birthday. You want to celebrate with a bunch of friends. What do you do?
(a) invite everyone to a party-oriented restaurant for dinner
(b) invite everyone to your parents' house for a lunchtime barbecue and ask your friends to bring fresh bread and/or fresh salsa, while you and your parents cook fresh meat. (You might ask your friends to chip in a few bucks each for the meat if there are a lot of people.)
If you're American, you'll likely choose (a). If you're Brazilian, you'll likely choose (b). For American twentysomethings, the first idea of where to celebrate something is in a bar or restaurant (anyone disagree?). Bars and restaurants = much more fattening food.
All of this isn't to say that Brazilians have perfect diets. Low-income people in Brazil also have health problems as a result of poor diets-- they're just different problems (i.e. they eat only beans and rice instead of eating only Mc Donald's). I've also had a couple of students that married young and moved out of their parents' houses early, and so they also have the problem of having to work more to pay their own bills and not having the time or skills to cook. The Brazilian equivalent of eating out on the cheap is lanches - super greasy street-corner sandwiches.
That's all we've come up with so far. I'd love to hear everyone else's thoughts. I know my calculations and my statistical logic isn't flawless. What other factors are affecting the prices between the two countries? If you're not an economist, tell us about your life! If you've lived in both countries, what was your diet like? How did prices/your schedule/your social life affect your eating habits? I know that some of you went from small town to big city, instead of my opposite situation. How do the prices compare?
I don't know about you guys, but all this food talk has made me hungry. I'm gonna go make a cake. Old habits die hard!