06/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For Americans on a Budget, Meats Are the New Carbs

When I was in my 20's, my friends and I knew that the cheapest food available was made of carbs, and we survived on mounds of mac-n-cheese and home fries for lunch, and ramen, rice and beer for dinner.

But animal factory farming has changed all that.

Last week while speaking on tour at San Francisco's Book Passage, my 20-something nephew Michael commented that he and his struggling friends now fill up on cheap meat to tame their growling bellies, more than on bread, noodles, rice and tater-tots.

"We can go to the store and get a pork roast, cook it, and stuff our faces on it for days -- and it's really, really cheap," Michael said. "Meat has become the new carb."

People in the bookstore were abashed by the statement. After all, the idea of blithely pigging out on meat -- because it's cheaper than anything else -- is a bit nauseating, even to the most committed of carnivores. But when you are struggling to find work and make ends meet, cheap food is cheap food. And few things today, pound for pound, are cheaper than cheap meat.

American animal protein is cheap at the supermarket because animal factories cram thousands of creatures into single confinements, feed them a steady diet of taxpayer-subsidized corn, grain and soybeans (often laced with antibiotics and heavy metals to speed up growth), get billions of taxpayer dollars in direct-payment subsidies and federal grants for pollution control, and ship their "output" off to titanic slaughterhouses where costs-per-kill are reduced to a minimum.

I thought Michael's observation was astute. But surely it was metaphorical. After all, how could meat be cheaper than pasta? How could something inside a sandwich cost less than the bread that holds it together?

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was true.

Today, I paid a visit to my local supermarket -- nothing too fancy or upscale, but with admittedly inflated New York City prices. I wanted to see how much Michael's pork roast would cost here. It was $1.19 a pound.

Not bad, but there was even cheaper meat than that. Whole turkey was $0.79/lb and whole chicken was $0.99/lb, (sometimes it falls to $0.69/lb). Beef could be had for $0.99/lb in the form of beef shank or beef rump steak, while ham butt and whole smoked ham were also $0.99/lb. Corned beef was $1.49/lb. And though these were the very cheapest cuts, and you were often paying for bone as well, it would be much cheaper to fill up on these meats than on the grains and potatoes found in the carb aisles.

The cheapest carbs were russet potatoes, at $0.99/lb, followed by rice at $1.49/lb and pasta at $1.99/lb. Once you wandered into the prepared and frozen food sections, however, the price-per-pound really began to soar, including $3.68 for corn flakes, $4.30 for 16oz of potato chips, and $5.12 for the same amount of microwave popcorn (See chart below).

Likewise, healthy fruits and vegetables were priced higher than the cheap meats -- ranging from $1.49 per pound for apples to $4.99 a pound for strawberries.

In a world where most poor people will not even taste meat this year, it is somewhat perverse to think that animal flesh is now the cheap food of choice for low-income Americans. Why should a ham sandwich cost 99 cents-a-pound for the ham, and $3.59-a-pound for the bread? What is wrong with our system when chicken-and-rice costs $0.99 for the chicken, and $1.49 for the rice?

Yes, there are more expensive cuts of meat, and you can probably find cheaper carbs if you really shop around. But the argument remains the same. With all the advantages we grant to industrial-scale animal producers (ie, subsidies, drugs and open access to processing plants), aren't we artificially deflating the price or meat? And isn't that leading to comparatively higher prices for plant-based foods?

Maybe if we subsidized the production of fruits, vegetables and edible grains (most corn is not grown for human consumption) instead of the production of meat and dairy, we would get a healthier, more heart-friendly return on our national investment.

Actual Prices at Key Food Grocery, Brooklyn, NY - Week of April 18, 2010:


Whole Turkey - $0.79/lb
Perdue Oven Stuffer: $0.99/lb
Beef Shank: $0.99/lb
Beef Steak Rump: $0.99/lb
Ham Butt: $0.99/lb
Whole Ham Smoked: $0.99/lb
Pork Roast Shoulder: $1.19/lb
Frierich Corned Beef: $1.49/lb


Carolina Extra Long Grain Rice: $1.49/lb
Colavita Penne Pasta: $2.49/lb
Ore-Ida Steak Fries - $2.72/lb
Chef Boyardee Mac & Cheese - $3.20/lb
Wonder Bread - Light Italian: $3.59/lb
Kellogg's Corn Flakes: $3.68/lb
Ritz Crackers: $4.09/lb
Lay's Potato Chips: ($3.49 13oz) $4.30/lb
Thomas` English Muffins: ($3.39/12oz) $4.48/lb
Act II Microwave Popcorn - Light Butter: ($2.79/8.6oz) $5.12/lb


Apples: $1.49/lb
Zucchini $169/lb
Bartlett Pears: $1.79/lb
Eggplant: $199/lb
Broccoli: $249/lb
Spinach (bagged) $3.16/lb
Seedless Grapes: $3.99/lb
Strawberries: $4.99/lb
Cauliflower: $4.99/lb

David Kirby is author of Animal Factory - The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment(St. Martin's Press)