Bodega: Cheap Eats and Social Commentary For 25 Cents

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Do you think the $1 menu at McDonald’s is disgusting, or a godsend? Well, check out this funny yet sad video about cheap eats in the Bodegas of New York City, otherwise known as the corner convenience store. (There are a few expletives, but nothing extremely offensive.)

A humorous yet searing commentary about the choices confronting people who live in “the poorest urban county in the country.” Under the yellow awning of the Bronx Bodega, all the important food groups are represented. Join Dallas Penn of and Rafi Kam of as they illustrate the finer points of the Bodega Food Pyramid.

I like the Whole Foods comment. This stuff could be called “Empty Foods”. This reminds me of my breakdown of What 200 Calories Costs – The Economics of Obesity. If you’re poor, it can be tough to turn down pork rinds, snack cakes, ice cream sandwiches, and sugar water for just 25 cents apiece. You could get 1,000 calories that would fill your stomach quickly and easily for a buck. Can you really justify spending more than that if you don’t have to?

Sure, you could get a side salad at McDonald’s for $1, but that provides a mere 20 calories. Even with the low-fat Italian dressing, that’s another 60 calories for a total of 80 calories. That’s not going to satisfy you.

Is there just not enough demand for nutritious, cheap, and convenient foods? Or is it just too expensive to manufacture?

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  1. They had a bodega where I used to live (northern jersey). I used to go there everyday after school to get some quarter waters and pork rinds. It’s just a mini supermarket and the video kind of makes it look bad but in reality the bodegas have the same stuff as in the pathmarks and ralphs. There are choices it just depends which choice you make.

  2. Hi, Healthy nutrition is a good investment for sure.

  3. OMG those guys are HUGE…. eating cheap junk may save money, but HOLEY at what REAL cost??? What are the med bills going to be like in a few years time as a result of poisioning your body with this stuff?

  4. When you don’t have much money, you go for the quick win, and in this case, it is cheap junk food or alcohol that will fill you up, give you a quick rush, and not cost much. It is a way of life in a lot of places, and not just the cities. I lived in the rural South for many years, and it is a way of life there. Pork rinds, peanuts, Little Debbies, and soda. (yes RC and Moon Pies too). It isn’t healthy, but it does the job for most people, and is the only thing they have known their entire life. It isn’t an easy thing to change.

  5. Hey,

    Thanks for the link to our video. It’s funny you mention the dollar menu in the opening because our first video was about how to create your own “ghetto big mac” off the mcdonalds dollar menu.

    Bodega was the follow-up. Our third cheap food video was all about cereal. You can check it and the rest of our work at

    We’ll be working on a flick about check-cashing spots next which might go well with the theme of your site. I’ll let you know when it’s up.

  6. This was really interesting! Thanks for posting that.

    Life Patrick said, “it ain’t an easy thing to change”.

    Because of my father’s job, we moved a lot. There were times in my young life where we moved to really, rural area, where owning a car is luxury. My earliest memory was to go to a tuckshop and buy four plum sweet for 10c. Not 10 cents each, but 10 cents for four. When we moved back to the city, I found out that it was the “sweets of the poor”, but my tastebuds have already been trained to eat “peasants food”.

    So no matter how much more I can afford now, I still go to the “poor area” to stock up on those food. The coolest thing is that I can buy them much more because I have more money to spend! It’s not healthy, for sure. But sometimes you can’t beat the taste. 😛

  7. peanuts aren’t bad nutritionally, at least compaired to Little Debbies, soda, and pork rinds.

  8. Having grown up with poor relatives, I know that they weren’t counting calories. They were counting change to get a pack of smokes. When the first of the month came, then it was like a winning lottery ticket. They smoked Marlboros and Newports for a week or so, then it was back to the Basic generics.
    Poor folks, unfortunately, are poor due to bad decisions. I can find the same junk food in any convenience store and mini-market in any middle-class neighborhood in the country.
    Corporations, rightly or wrongly, measure the risk and the reward in bad neighborhoods, and make their decisions accordingly. Here in Cincinnati, pharmacies are closing up in rougher neighborhoods due to theft and robbery. It’s too bad for those that live there, but it is a business decision made by a business.

  9. So exactly what are the solutions for American society’s over supply of cheap, unhealthy, processed foods? Start a movement of grow your own vegetables in the back yards?

  10. Actually, now that I think about it as a kid I used to buy the 25 cent Nutty Bars by Little Debbie as a supplement to lunch.

    Some of the Bodega products do seem kind of unique, though. I’ve never seen “quarter waters” in my local convenience stores, or 25 cent pork rinds. $1.59 for 40 oz. of malt liquor. That must taste like paint thinner.

  11. ARZ
    So exactly what are the solutions for American society?s over supply of cheap, unhealthy, processed foods? Start a movement of grow your own vegetables in the back yards?

    Of course, the people using the bodegas can no more afford the land (or space) required to grow the foods anyways, so the people who can afford to run a garden are the people who are least likely to need the help 🙁

    Taking care of your body costs money pretty much any way that you slice it. Either way, great post Jonathan.

  12. “Poor folks, unfortunately, are poor due to bad decisions.”

    Wow, what a blanket statement.

    I guess mine was choosing to be born to poor parents. I should have known better.


  13. Have you seen King Korn? The documentary says a lot about how the junk food industry is being subsidized.

  14. That logic makes tons of sense Saladdin. Maybe it is the poor decisions of your parents that caused you to be poor. Or the decision to not think outside of the culture of poverty box. Sure some people are poor because that is all they know. However other people from poor neighborhoods decided to look outside of that culture and find prosperity.

    On top of all this, we are having a discussion about “poor” people in the United States being obese. Does anyone else find this ironic? Every where else in the world if you are poor you are starving. Here in the States you can be poor and be 400 lbs.

  15. The Other Schmitty says

    “You could get 1,000 calories that would fill your stomach quickly and easily for a buck.”

    That’s not really true. You’re much better off with some carbohydrates if you want to be filled up. There’s not a very strong correlation to calories. For best results boil some potatoes.

    There’s a table relating different foods to their level of satiety here:

  16. When I first moved to NYC in 1986 I lived in a poor neighborhood. There was plenty of junk food for sale, but there was also plenty of decent and healthy food to buy for anyone who wanted it. Plantains, beans, rice, potatoes, etc are still pretty cheap even today. It’s just less work to buy crap.

  17. I come from a third world country. Poverty should not exist in this country from my observation. Thats why u see immigrants coming to this country with $100 to their name and making it in life.

    If you are poor, stop living in a large expensive cities. Move to rural missouri or some rural area…

    U still make $6.00 to $7.00 an hour working in McD’s and rent is only like $300 to $400 for a 2 bedroom apartment. You have a choice to make this work.

  18. Sounds like more people need to get into freeganism (look up freegan in either Google or YouTube). Free, fresh food! To be honest, though, I have to say the idea ooks me out at a gut level (um, no pun intended), sitting here in my safe suburban perspective, but it does make sense at the intellectual level.

  19. Yes, you can eat well, as the previous poster pointed out — if you are willing to do some work. Bananas, rice (even whole grain rice), black bread, tuna and fresh chicken can be had for pretty little. But the convenience of grabbing something, with the cheap price, is the reason we go for this stuff. I eat $1 menu stuff once a week or so — I get a salad, sometimes a chili (which has assorted beans in it), sometimes chicken nuggets (which I peel and put on the salad). It’s not the best, but not the worst either). A plain baked potato is not bad either (they have that). The more the public demands healthy choices, the more stuff they’ll put on the menu. Pork rinds are definitely not for me, but I bet there is some good stuff at bodegas too, if you look.

  20. My name’s Dallas and I am the fatter half of the duo featured in this video.

    We traveled to a neighborhood in the Bronx,NY called Hunts Point. There is a tremendous warehouse zone in Hunts Point where more than 90% of the fresh meat, fish and vegetables are processed and delivered to restaurants all around the city.

    The people of Hunts Point don’t have access to these wholesalers, nor do they have the education or franchise to establish a neighborhood cooperative with which to purchase a stake in the warehouses so that the neighborhood might have at least ONE supermarket.

    Poor people remain poor for many, many reasons. There is no single silver bullet to remedy their struggle. One bullet is education. Poor and disenfranchised people need to be educated on the real life benefits of nutrition, or at least the monitoring of the things we ingest. Another silver bullet is advocacy from franchised voters like I imagine the folks on this thread are. Until you recognize your direct link to a disenfranchised person half a world away you will continue to see yourselves as separate.

    Rafi Kam and I try to study the urban condition with a bit of humor and oftimes over the top satire, but the truth of the matter is that we here in America are teetering on becoming a third worls nation ourselves with the methods we use to disenfranchise and debilitate our citizens that have lesser means.

    Which side of the fence do you stand on?

  21. “Is there just not enough demand for nutritious, cheap, and convenient foods?”

    Well, the honest answer is that nutritious foods do not taste good, so perhaps the demand is just not there.

  22. “Poor folks are poor due to poor decisions.” And everyone gets what they deserve in this best of all possible worlds.
    I assume the corporations exploiting these folks are somehow getting what they deserve too, so I need not concern myself with this issue.

  23. Not long ago, before fast foods and processed foods, the trend was that overweight people were higher on the economic ladder. They had enough money to buy more foods thus they consumed more foods. People on the lowest rung of that economic ladder couldn’t afford to buy that much food thus they consumed less foods.
    The opposite is happening today. With the invention of fast foods, TV dinners, and overly-processed foods (read cheap foods), most can afford to buy these foods. There are more fast foods places in “ghetto” neighborhoods than they are quality grocery stores.
    It?s not about supply and demand for nutritious, cheap and convenient foods. It’s about socioeconomics.

  24. I think there are three issues; economic, education and emotional. Economically it’s much cheaper and easier to buy some deep fried crap. Secondly, if consumers are not educated properly (by their family as much as anything) then they’re going to eat crap and think they’re fine. Emotionally, I imagine there’s a lot of comfort in something hot and fatty when you face a problematic home life or work life.

    “… nutritious foods do not taste good …”

    Woah, I think you’ll find a lot of people who disagree with that statement. I’m rather amazed someone can write that actually.

  25. Mickey Blue Eyes says

    There’s an old saying: “You always pay more to get less.” For example:

    * Unleaded gasoline costs more than leaded gas back in the day. (less lead = higher cost)
    * Kosher food costs more than non-Kosher food. (half the flavor for twice the price, the joke goes)
    * Low-fat food costs more than it’s full-fat brethren.
    * Healthy food costs more than unhealthy food. (less calories, fat, etc = higher cost)

  26. Claiming it’s just a matter of education is wrong. I fully agree that there’s a lot of cheap, nutritious, and somewhat tasty foods available out there. But, what most people pushing those foods don’t acknowledge is some very basic bit of economics: Opportunity Cost. [See if this is unfamiliar.]

    Just about all of the cheap & nutritious foods have a large opportunity cost to them: time needed to prepare them. It’s not something that can be handwaved away, especially when you’re talking about the poor. A lot of the poor are already busy either with multiple jobs or time spent in (mass) transit to said jobs. Even 20-30 minutes to prepare something may be more than they feel they can *afford*. (And, that choice of words is deliberate; time is something you have to spend.)

    Solve the opportunity cost problem, and more of the poor will consider more healthy foods.

  27. I grew up pretty poor (not according to my friends from the Dominican Republic but poor by US standards) but my mom tried to feed us nutritious meals. Meat, potatoes or pasta, and a vegetable every night. Even still I would probably be overweight and unhealthy if I hadn’t developed food allergies. You learn a LOT about what’s in your food when it can literally poison you. Once I stopped eating high fat/oil laden foods, I realized that I can taste the oil when I eat something that is prepared with cheap oil (soy) or with margarine (soy). When I was younger I didn’t notice but now, I’d rather not eat than eat that junk.

    As for the socioeconomics, we were poor but today I live better than I thought I would, mostly because my family pushed all of us to educate ourselves and stressed the importance of education. I worked my way up – and I do mean that I worked, hard. I think that if you want to get ahead and are willing to work for it, you will get ahead. If you want to sit around and cry about your lot in life and not DO anything to change it, then you deserve that life. Life isn’t fair, if someone told you differently, they lied.

  28. I grew up with poor nutrition from varied reasons – economic, mother’s disinterest in cooking and my own personal addiction to sugar.

    This is one factor I didn’t see mentioned above. Many of the cheap foods listed are actually addictive. I’m not sure if it is physically addictive, but it is certainly emotionally addictive. As early as age four I remember getting an emotional high from candy/cookies. I lived in abuse and was very unhappy. So I related to sugar as if it was love. I’m 54, I’m not poor, but I still struggle with obesity/emotional issues and an addiction to the “love” of sugar.

    I’ve read books, been in 12 step programs, prayed for help and still, to a large extent I sabotage my health, figure and budget through poor eating habits. It feels like a vicious circle I’ve never escaped.

    However, I’m not dead and I still believe I can change and I seek change. My comments are basically to state that many poor people not only seek a quick physical satiety, they also seek an emotional comfort. It is one more factor that compounds their problems nutritionally, economicallly and medically. It’s an emotional form of self-sabotage, sometimes unconcious – sometimes deliberate.

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