Math and Grocery Shopping, Part 2: a Follow-Up for Stupid People, or, Why This Relates to Classism

I was catching up on John Scalzi’s blog today, and he linked to a story on CNN that referenced his enduring “Being Poor” piece (it’s an excellent and sobering read; go take a look if you haven’t seen it).

Of course, then I made the mistake of looking at the comments on the CNN article.

It’s generally axiomatic that Internet comment threads are the home of some completely moronic fuckwads. So I don’t know why I looked. But one piece of asshattery stuck out at me as being particularly odious, namely, that some of the commenters began castigating the people pictured in the photo for daring to be overweight while simultaneously being poor.  Here’s a (incredibly gross) sampling of the commentary:

I love how almost all of these “poor” people in the photo are OVERWEIGHT! What a JOKE.

Even if they eat unhealthy, if they eat less they won’t be fat. It is a fact.

Seems like every “poor people” line I see are FILLED with overweight and usually obese people.

Every single person in that picture is fat and overweight. Doesn’t look like they are starving that is for sure.

If people would just take time to cook and not stuff themselves and their children with fast food, it would cost less and be way healthier. “Healthy foods are expensive” is a myth perpetrated by lazy people.

One might eat cheaply from the dollar menu, but you won’t get fat or stay fat by eating reasonable amounts of food, whether it’s a burger or a salad. They are still consuming too much food. If they ate less from the dollar menu, they’d lose weight and have more money to spend on other things […].

Okay, let’s set aside the raging snobbery of privilege going on here. I’m going to step away from the emotional response of “BWUH YOU IGNORANT IDIOTS!!” that I want to shout at these commenters, and address this coldly and logically instead, with:


Now, as mentioned before, I know almost nothing about economics. But I do know about the basic concept of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the cost associated with some option as measured according to the value of an alternative use of that time (or other resources).

A very standard example of using opportunity cost in daily life is with gas prices. If you drive out of your way to obtain a cheaper gas price, you not only have to take into account the fuel you burn getting to the farther gas station, but the opportunity cost of the extra 15 minutes or so out of your way that you drove—a 15 minutes during which you could have been doing something else that would earn you more money, or would otherwise be more valuable to you, than the $1 you’re saving on gas.

So how does this relate to it being complete stupidity to deride poor people for being overweight? Well, coincidentally, I wrote just in my last post about grocery shopping (slightly tongue-in-cheek, though I honestly do do all that) and how, by shopping healthier, I am paying for the privilege of not being hungry and miserable (as well as for the privilege of being healthier). Health benefits can feel nebulous; being hungry and miserable, on the other hand, is urgent and compelling, and, more importantly, makes it very difficult to live a productive life. This includes helping oneself out of poverty—all that bootstrap-pulling some people are so fond of talking about incessantly takes, you know, energy; earning a living often requires some level of mental focus that being hungry and miserable makes orders of magnitude more difficult. In other words, being hungry and miserable has an opportunity cost in the amount of productive job-doing and bootstrap-pulling work any person can do. I defy anyone to tell me that this is not true, that you can declare being painfully hungry to be Not Ever Distracting, or, oh pish tosh, You Can Be Just As Productive Given the Same Variables Even If Your Stomach Feels Like It’s Eating a Hole Through You. There is an opportunity cost to being uncomfortably hungry all the time.

Okay. So what? Well, let’s demonstrate by example. Let’s say that Alice needs 1,500 calories per day for her metabolism; if she eats less than this she’ll dwindle away and eventually starve; if she eats more than this she’ll gain weight until her caloric intake equals what is needed to maintain her new heavier weight.

Let’s say an over-processed, corn syrup-infused sticky bun costs $1. Let’s say this sticky bun is 800 calories.

Let’s say buying 1,500 calories in the form of three meals—not even necessarily three healthier meals, but three meals that would allow her to eat throughout the day so she doesn’t feel horribly starved—costs $4 (which is eating QUITE cheaply). Note that this would probably involve home cooking, which also has an opportunity cost. Even if we rate Alice’s time as worth only the federal minimum wage ($7.25), spending only 24 minutes of her day cooking means a further cost of $2.90.

So, to the commenters on CNN spouting, “It doesn’t matter what people eat! They just have to eat less of it, and if they’re spending ANY MORE money than that, then THEY’RE NOT REALLY POOR!!1”—to you marvelously cretinous people, I say to consider the following. Sure, Alice could spend her entire day eating less than two sticky buns. She’d feel so hungry that she’d feel horribly unproductive and wouldn’t get anything done. It’s hard to estimate what the opportunity cost would be for her feeling unproductive, but let’s shoot low and say it’s about $2 over the entire day (this does seem low; if Alice is a good enough employee to manage eventually to move up to just 5 percent above the minimum wage, she’d be making almost $3/day more already, and if she’s too lethargic or irritable from starvation it could cost her such promotions, not to mention all sorts of other things Alice could be doing to engage in that bootstrap-pulling everyone’s so fond of). Alice therefore has three options:

  1. She could buy three horribly over-processed sticky buns and eat them over the course of the day, for a total cost of $3. This exceeds her daily caloric limit by 900 calories, but she won’t be hungry and therefore won’t cost herself at work, and she also won’t need to debit the opportunity cost of cooking from her day. However, she will gain weight.
  2. She could eat less than two horribly over-processed sticky buns for a cost of less than $2. However, she’ll be miserably hungry eating that little volume of food (not to mention not having enough proper nutrients, but I won’t even go there), and we’ll therefore give her an opportunity cost of $2 for the day (which again, I think is very low). She won’t gain weight, but this is a total cost of $4/day.
  3. She could buy less processed, not-as-cheap foods that would keep her from feeling hungry without gaining weight. We’re estimating that this would cost her $4 per day, plus, let’s say, an opportunity cost for food preparation at $1-2 per day. She won’t gain weight, but it costs her $5-6 per day.

Number 1 is the cheapest option. It also means Alice gains quite a bit of weight.

Now, obviously, these are fake numbers, but this example isn’t meant to be definitive; it’s meant to be illustrative. It’s meant to show that living in a way that encourages weight gain can in fact be the least bad option economically. In fact, you could think about predisposing oneself to weight gain as a sacrifice one undertakes in order to save money.

Of course, I don’t think that most people who are in difficult economic straits are thinking about their food choices in terms of economics and opportunity cost, but they probably are thinking, “I’m hungry, and I need to eat something to keep going. What’s fast and cheap?” which is essentially English for what I’ve said in economic terms above.

So, CNN commenters, next time you feel like slamming other people who have lived a different experience from you, maybe you should take two minutes, rub three brain cells together, and think about why the thing you’re criticizing might happen. And please, try to take as your basic premise that people with other experiences are, on the whole, going to be just as reasonable and sensible human beings as the people with your background, so if it were “so easy” for them to do whatever it is you’re saying they should be doing, well then maybe they would be doing it.

You don’t even have to know math. Just use some fucking common sense.

4 thoughts on “Math and Grocery Shopping, Part 2: a Follow-Up for Stupid People, or, Why This Relates to Classism

  1. InMyBook

    This 2004 article in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” very nicely refutes the ignorant views of people such as the commenters you cited and summarizes my education and experience as a trained nutritionist in the field of public health nutrition:

    Healthcare tip: Limit consumption of ignorant comments, especially those in response to “subjects everyone is an expert on,” such as diet or raising children. Ignoring this advice can lead to skyrocketing levels of stress with elevated blood pressure in smart, educated people. Beware of the unhealthy long-term negative health consequences of this acute and chronic stress.

  2. slhuang Post author

    Wow! And that’s way more scientific than I was being. (See, this is the difference between a mathematician and a scientist, or, more broadly, between a theorist and an experimental scientist. When I wonder about things, I logic about them instead of doing good scientific studies. Really what this post is is technically only a good hypothesis! But still, it makes sense, and it seems to dovetail with the more complicated conclusions in the paper you linked.)

  3. Pingback: Why I Love Opportunity Cost

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