Monday, January 2, 2012

Extreme Couponing, Extremely Processed Food

When I watch Extreme Couponing on TLC, I think mostly about food. When I first watched the show, I was a little bit impressed by the themes of saving and thriftiness. It struck me as a countercultural message, considering how many families live in debt and how people are so good at throwing money away. It was kind of nice to see people rack up big savings. As I watched more episodes, that message got lost. I paid more attention to what ended up in all those grocery carts. What I noticed was a lot of junk food and the absence of actual food. I saw a lot of sugary cereals land in the cart, along with boxes of pasta, sugar-filled beverages, and unhealthy products posing as healthy products (bottled water with vitamins isn't healthy when it contains a lot of sugar. Nor is bottled water flavored with artificial sweeteners). I also saw lots of frozen dinners getting thrown into the cart. Here's what I haven't seen: apples, bananas, broccoli, or carrots. Or other fruits and vegetables. Or meat and fish that's not in a frozen package. Who knows, maybe these folks buy produce in other places. Maybe they head to farmers markets on occasion. Maybe they buy lots of organic goodies with the money they've saved at the grocery store. I haven't watched every single episode, so maybe some decent food gets mixed in once in a while. All I can say, based on the episodes that I've seen, is that the show features processed foods that are unhealthy. It seems to suggest that savings only come when you buy junky foods at grocery stores. This brings to mind Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, page 157, in which he points out that "bogus health claims and food science have made supermarkets particularly treacherous places to shop for real food." Pollan advises consumers to stay out of the middle of grocery stores, because processed food products dominate the center of the store: "If you keep to the edges of the store you'll be that much more likely to wind up with real food in your shopping cart." Furthermore, he advises getting out of the supermarket when possible: "You won't find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmers' market. You also won't find any elaborately processed food products, any packages with long lists of unpronounceable ingredients or dubious health claims, nothing microwaveable, and, perhaps best of all, no old food from far away."

I want to point out that some episodes featured people who bought items for charitable purposes. I've seen two episodes in which people used their couponing powers for good, donating their bounty. And I also want to say that I know food costs a lot of money. I do most of the grocery shopping in my family. Many times I've come home from the grocery store having spent $150 and had little to show for it. I do a lot of shopping at grocery stores--I live in Buffalo, NY, so farmers markets don't happen year round in my neighborhood. And I definitely buy some processed foods. So I'm not here to say that people should buy exclusively fresh and healthy foods. Not everybody has access to affordable healthy foods. And lots of people who do have access to healthy food without financial constraints make questionable food choices. My purpose here is not to harshly judge the shoppers themselves. I actually think they have some form of talent for being able to save a ton of money at the grocery store. My main criticism is that the show celebrates big savings on food that is hazardous to our health. The contemporary grocery store enables bad eating habits across the socioeconomic spectrum. And that's not entertainment.

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