How Much Food Will a Dollar Buy?

How Much Food Will a Dollar Buy?

by Karen Brown

karen brown - how much food will a dollar buy?

Ten organic blueberries? A foot-high stack of ramen? A necklace made from candy? How much food will a dollar buy and how much of it is healthy? How much of it should even be considered food?

Those are some of the questions photographer Jonathan Blaustein explores in his project, "The Value of a Dollar." When you consider that the USDA estimates that schools have about a dollar available to spend on the food in each student's lunch, Blaustein's photographs of everyday food items bring home the challenges of serving a nutritious meal on such a tiny budget.

karen brown - how much food will a dollar buy?

It was a cheeseburger in a local fast food restaurant near his New Mexico home that got Blaustein thinking about the value of food and the seemingly contradictory messages conveyed in its pricing.

"On one menu they had a cheeseburger for a dollar," he said. But what caught his attention was another menu that featured a double cheeseburger for the same price. "How is that possible?" he thought. The additional piece of meat and the extra slice of cheese didn’t change the price at all. So Blaustein decided to document what he was seeing.

Seeking to portray food in the same light ­– literally – as the food industry, Blaustein painted the walls of his apartment white and used a sharp lens and a shallow depth of field to create the same illusions used in commercial food photography.

 "I thought, 'Well, I know what they tell me it looks like,' he said. 'What about what it actually looks like?’ ”

karen brown - how much food will a dollar buy?

As he pursued the visual dimensions of a dollar's worth of food, deeper questions began to emerge as to how food is valued and how its pricing often seems counterintuitive. Why, for example, did a dollar purchase only ten blueberries grown in the United States, but nearly twice as many that came from Chile, about 5,000 miles away?

karen brown - how much food will a dollar buy?

karen brown - how much food will a dollar buy?

Why did the most highly processed foods like mechanically extruded noodles, white bread, and even candy – foods requiring a lot of energy to produce –  seem significantly cheaper than raw, unprocessed foods like fresh fruits and vegetables?

karen brown - how much food will a dollar buy?

These questions open into larger issues that influence the availability and quality of food, including government subsidies, global trade, "cheap" energy, and workers’ rights. 

The visual results of Blaustein's work are so arresting that it has been featured in blogs and publications around the world, attracting the attention of the New York Times and National Public Radio.

For more information on issues and solutions related to school lunch, including the finances behind positive change, see the Center's Rethinking School Lunch Guide.



12 comments posted

I find it highly ironic

Submitted by Jenny (not verified) on Tue, 2012-03-13 21:32.

I find it highly ironic that highly processed foods, requiring machinery and manpower to produce, would cost so little, while fresh and organic foods cost comparatively more. Are they enjoying economies of scales that are unfairly gained?

I think his pictures and

Submitted by Abby Jones (not verified) on Mon, 2012-03-12 02:50.

I think this picture and blog opens up questions. The questions asked, why do some foods seem to cost so much more to produce but in reality costs the same – a dollar. The foods that are healthy are so expensive, and foods that are unhealthy are so cheap. What could have caused this?

UPDATE: photos acquired by New Mexico and Library of Congress

Submitted by karen on Wed, 2011-05-18 16:40.

The State of New Mexico recently purchased a unique portfolio of the entire “Value of a Dollar” project for the State’s permanent Public Art collection, at market value. The Library of Congress purchased a portfolio of the project as well, from the 16×20 edition, which will reside in its permanent archive, and be accessible to the public online and in person. Congratulations Jonathan!

School Lunch Program

Submitted by Mary Brighton (not verified) on Thu, 2011-04-21 11:02.

Wow, so artistic. Really loved this article and the representation it shows for what a dollar can buy. So ironic some of the subtitles about blueberries from Chile, or that fruits and vegetables costs more than processed foods.

Food crises in America. Luckily less where I live (in Pau, France), but it is getting there.

Raising 4 young children here in France. I am American (and a registered dietitian). It is much easier here to eat healthy because the values based on food are different then in American. There is more assessible agriculture, local market, and the feeling that food is indeed sacred. Of course, it is not perfect.

For curiosity, I did a 30 lunch day comparison of school lunches served in America (primarily in Toms River, NJ where I grew up) comparing to Pau, France (and other areas of France).
What a shock. It is almost at the point of having negative benefits to serve these children these foods. There are healthy choices in American school lunch menus, but I wonder if the children are eating them?

Here in France you are not allowed to bring packed lunches, but there is a 3 course, hot meal (usually using local produce) served to children.
Nothing is perfect, but this is a start.

Subscribed to your feed and looking forward to reading more interesting articles.

Mary Brighton

school food

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 2011-04-13 12:02.

"This is a great perspective on food quality and the value we place on our children's nutrition. Thank you for bringing this fascination photo project to my attention" - I agree with Mike, this is a fascinating conversation which will no doubt be a bone of contention for a long time with the current economic climate. Personally my opinion is that we need to spend our money better, with a better education of spending, to get the most out of a dollar. Like growing our own to supplement the spending!

Food a dollar buys

Submitted by Joanne McEntire (not verified) on Mon, 2011-04-11 11:45.

Anything that gets our attention and re-fashions our norms about food, value and well-being gets a star from me! This reminds me of Wasteland, the movie about an artist working with pickers in trash dumps, showing us a different view. Thanks.

Deciding on calories

Submitted by Carl Balingit (not verified) on Sun, 2011-03-13 00:00.

I think a preference to “buy from the dollar menu,” as Michele Hays wrote, sometimes comes from a tendency to think in terms of calories rather than nutrition. Since a cheeseburger is much more filling than a palm full of blueberries, it gives the impression of getting more bang for your buck.

Of course, we actually get less bang from cheeseburgers (or other subsidized foods) because it’s whole foods that are truly bursting with nutrition.

Ironically, the more empty calories we consume, the hungrier we become as we starve for real nourishment.

Not sure I agree with the general premise

Submitted by Michele Hays (not verified) on Sat, 2011-03-12 10:10.

While nothing on this page is false, it illustrates the point that we need to be better educated to leverage our dollars to buy good, inexpensive food.

For instance, that same dollar buys about 10 servings of whole-grain oatmeal, or 5 servings of dried beans - both very healthy foods. In season, it also will buy many servings of watermelon, a hand of bananas, whole carrots, onions, and cauliflower. The USDA's ERS has a whole listing of foods by cost per edible cup...and there's many healthy foods available at all different price points, including your dollar mark.

It's no wonder people prefer to buy from the dollar menu at a fast-food place if they think all they can get at the grocery store is 10 blueberries - never mind that berries are one of the most expensive produce items available.

Thanks for your comments

Submitted by karen on Sat, 2011-03-12 14:11.

Thanks, Michele, for your comments. Yes, there are quite a number of foods that provide good, or at least much better value for that dollar than some pictured here. But it is quite interesting to see -- and I mean literally "see" in Jonathan's photographs -- the incredible contrast in value that often seems to exist irrespective of the costs of producing a particular food. As you know so well, there are critical economic, social, and ecological root causes at the foundation of food availability and pricing. This short blog certainly doesn't go into much depth on those issues, but it could be argued that those root causes deserve examination as a source of long-term solutions to major food and health challenges. I deeply appreciate your resourceful and practical strategies for finding well-priced food in any market. For my viewpoint, it is ALL important, and I value your views and participation. Thanks for writing.

Good use of photography to

Submitted by Michael Hahn (not verified) on Fri, 2011-03-11 17:46.

Good use of photography to drive home the message. When the FDA implemented the NLEA in 1994 it was largely in response to a food industry that was using ingredients to 'manufacture' food whose dietary effects were unknown. The population needed to be informed, allowing them the option to make decisions based upon nutrition information. How do we refine this system to regain interest and draw attention to peripheral health and consequence of the larger picture?

Beautiful, thoughtful work.

Submitted by moya (not verified) on Fri, 2011-03-11 08:47.

Beautiful, thoughtful work. We have to ask ourselves how we lost so much control over our food production and supply chain. Industrial Revolution, economics driving workers to the cities, social stigma of working with one's hands and in the earth? It's got to change.

The value of food

Submitted by Mike (not verified) on Thu, 2011-03-10 17:58.

This is a great perspective on food quality and the value we place on our children's nutrition. Thank you for bringing this fascination photo project to my attention.


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