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Tuesday: June 14, 2005

Eating One’s Own Dog Food, II

Filed under: — site admin @ 5:31 PM UTC

Ann Althouse has an interesting post about raising the retirement age for Social Security. The last paragraph is an update:

In the Comments: Responses that show why politicians don’t dare to suggest the obvious, obvious solution! Make this proposal and the practically next words you hear will be “dog food.”

I have known for many years that ‘old folks forced by poverty to eat dog food’ is almost certainly an urban legend. Way back in the late Carter or early Reagan years, one of the regular columnists in The American Spectator (perhaps Tom Bethell or Ben Stein) went to the trouble of testing the basic plausibility of this already-widespread belief. He checked the price of a 2-pound can of Alpo at his local supermarket, and reported that for the same amount of money he could buy a pound of chicken and a pound of potatoes, with two cents left over. In other words, dog food ain’t cheap, and old folks who eat it, if they exist at all, need to be examined for (other) symptoms of senility, insanity, or plain old-fashioned stupidity.

I was about to hit ‘publish’ on the paragraph above when I realized that I ought to get off my butt and see whether this is still true. Perhaps dog food is a better deal than it was twenty-something years ago. I spent a few minutes this morning checking prices at my local Giant, which happens to be next door to the largest old folks’ home in Baltimore County: at 52, I was the 2nd-youngest customer in the store. In what follows, all prices are per pound, not per container or serving. I didn’t worry about the size of the packages at all, but recorded the price per pound displayed on the shelf, and assumed that the impoverished elderly could and would buy whatever portion size (up to 6 or 7 pounds) would save money. Here is what I found in the dog food aisle:

Canned Alpo or Pedigree: 83.2¢.
Giant’s house brand ‘Companion’ (cute name!): 57.5¢ to $1.43, depending on size.
Purina Moist & Meaty burgers: $1.09.
Cesar Select dinners: $3.15.
Beggin’ Strips: $6.38 to $9.04. (Why not just to buy the dog some bacon?)

What about the more standard alternatives? I’ll start with the chicken and then list some of the fruits and vegetables I found that were even cheaper, in order from most to least expensive:

Chicken: 99¢ (Purdue chicken leg quarters on sale) or $1.29 (18 piece fryer pack).
Yellow onions: 83.3¢ ($2.49 for a 3-lb bag).
Turnips: 79¢.
Green (aka ‘spring’) onions: 79¢.
Eggs: around 70¢ ($1.19 per dozen for XL, package marked “1 lb 11 oz”).
Carrots: 69.8¢ ($3.49 for a 5-lb bag).
Green beans: 63.2¢ (Del Monte, in the 6 lb 5 oz can).
Cabbage: 59¢.
Bananas: 49¢.
White potatoes: 44.6¢ ($1.88 for a 5 lb bag).

At some times of the year, apples and tomatoes would probably also drop below 99¢ per pound. Of course, Alpo is 100% edible, whereas all of the alternatives except the canned green beans have bones, shells, skins, or stems to discard, but they’re all at least mostly (80+%) edible, unlike (e.g.) artichokes or pistachio nuts, and I suspect Alpo contains more than its share of unnutricious gristle. Whether baked or boiled, potatoes with skins on are better for you anyway. So far, it looks like dog food could be slightly cheaper, if you stick to the house brand, since a diet of cabbages, bananas, and potatoes would be hard to keep up for long.

I didn’t think to check the prices of bread, rice, or hot dogs, all of which would have included some very inexpensive options, and Giant seems to be all out of 50-packs of tortillas, which I have often bought there for around $3.00, if I’m not mistaken. Nor did I look for day-old baked goods or marked-down damaged canned goods. However, I did take a look at some of the dried foods. These are much harder to evaluate accurately, since a pound of noodles or dried beans will likely turn into roughly two pounds of food when boiled into edibility, and is therefore equivalent to something like two pounds of canned dog food, where the water is already included in the purchase weight. (No, I will not get a scale and weigh a package of noodles or beans before and after boiling. It’s not like I’m getting paid to write this stuff.) Here is what I found:

Ramen noodles: 88¢ (suprisingly high, but unusually dry — perhaps they triple or quadruple in weight when boiled?).
Macaroni: 75¢ to 99¢ (a dozen varieties, some on sale).
Dried beans (half a dozen kinds: black, white, yellow, lima — like a Benetton ad!): 69¢-79¢.
Dried lentils: 55¢.

Cut those prices in half to adjust for the wet-dry comparison, and they’re even cheaper than house brand dog food. If anyone objects that some dog foods are also sold dry, I will point out that they also generally sell for $1.00 per pound or more.

Conclusion: I wouldn’t care to live on a diet including only the (human) foods mentioned, but I could certainly get used to it very quickly if the only alternative were dog food. Many healthy and (relatively) tasty human foods are in fact cheaper than dog food, and eating dog food will not save you money unless you’re too stupid to choose the cheapest non-canine foods.

Update: (half an hour later)

I don’t doubt that people have eaten dog food now and then for non-budgetary reasons, and posted on the topic a few weeks ago in Eating One’s Own Dog Food, I.

8 Comments

  1. This was very good. We become so accustomed to so many conventional notions in our public discussions, that we don’t question them. Simply checking the relative prices of dog food and various human staples is something I wouldn’t have thought of doing. Very clever…and informative.

    Comment by Mark Daniels — Tuesday: June 14, 2005 @ 9:43 PM UTC

  2. Of course, in this case I just provided the long memory, and someone in a long-ago American Spectator was clever enough to think of comparing prices. Perhaps he was a frugal dog owner, or a frugal man indifferent to pets and married to a dog-lover. I’ve never had a pet myself, and would have assumed that dog food is cheaper than human food if anyone had asked me. I’d never even stopped in the pet food aisle until today. I suppose dog food is surprisingly expensive because carnivores like dogs and cats require a higher percentage of meat in their diets than omnivores like us: otherwise their food would surely be cheaper, since they’ll eat things that we will not.

    Comment by Dr. Weevil — Tuesday: June 14, 2005 @ 9:57 PM UTC

  3. You need to do this as the cost per calorie (edible portion), not cost per pound. And you also need to take into account the energy costs of cooking it.

    Comment by Stuka — Wednesday: June 15, 2005 @ 1:20 AM UTC

  4. BTW, according to this, the elderly don’t really eat much of anything anyway.

    Comment by Stuka — Wednesday: June 15, 2005 @ 1:21 AM UTC

  5. The urban legend has, essentially, never been about “dog food;” except where the person telling the story has made a mistake. It’s “cat food.” Specifically, TUNA.

    The earliest version of the tale I’ve run across supposedly happened at a supermarket checkout counter. The prototypical little-old-lady gets to the checkout with a couple of cans of tuna cat food. She’s fishing the coins out of her change purse and the cashier makes some comment about how well the woman looks after her cats. The woman looks up with tears in her eyes and plaintively says, “Oh no, dear, I don’t have any cats. That’s for me; it’s all I can afford.”

    The story ends there and creates the meme of poor, elderly people who can only afford to eat pet food. That is not the case, even if Purina tuna cat food costs less than a similiar size can of house brand tuna. If people are eating tuna cat food, its because they want tuna, not because they couldn’t find something else just as filling and/or nutritious for the same price.

    In the real world, rather than in the tales of politicians and activists, elderly people with poor eyesight might easily mistake tuna cat food for canned tuna for human consumption. The only thing they may be able to easily read on the can is “TUNA,” and the cans are about the same size as cat food tins.

    [There are plenty of stories about people trying dog food, usually kibble or Milkbone Dog Biscuits, just to see what it tastes like; but not because it's all they can afford.]

    Comment by Lynxx Pherrett — Wednesday: June 15, 2005 @ 11:58 PM UTC

  6. Sorry, Lynxx, but even if there is another urban legend about cat food, there is certainly one about dog food. The Althouse post I linked to includes no fewer than five references to dog food from four different posters. Omitting the one whose point is unclear to me, here are the others:

    Goesh:

    I think many Seniors have a pipe dream of their children sharing their wealth with them once they grow feeble and start consuming dog food for at least one meal a day to save money.

    Goesh again:

    The upwardly mobile go-getters of today are saying essentially the same thing about geezers, “let them eat dog food”.

    Beachcomber:

    . . . AARP is sending me scary propaganda that seems to suggest that the dog food cliche isn’t all that improbable unless we all fall in step with the AARP party line and fight for our “rightful benefits”.

    Smilin’ Jack:

    . . . pampered American geezers who by age 60 have had plenty of opportunity to either save for their own retirement or learn to like dog food.

    Comment by Dr. Weevil — Thursday: June 16, 2005 @ 3:01 PM UTC

  7. I know many people say “dog food” or “pet food” when they bring up the cliche about poor seniors, but if you go looking for the anecdotal evidence that backs up the meme (something Althouse’s commenters don’t provide), most of the individual stories seem to be about “cat food.”

    Try these these in addition to the one I related:

    i remember being about four or five and at the albertson’s (denver’s jewel) with my dad, and seeing an old lady buying about twenty cans of cat food and nothing else. i said to my dad, “gosh, she must have a lot of cats,” and he said, “maybe, but a lot of older people eat cat food. it’s easy for them to chew and it’s inexpensive.” and i remember a friend telling me he hung out with an older guy who ate cat food.

    I too have heard of older people eating cat food or dog food. I believe it to be true… Unfortunately, the last time I heard of it was a year ago when they discovered a little old woman dead in her trailer, partially eaten by her cats, who only had cat food in her house and had cat food in her stomach.

    Notice that in the second comment, although the writer says “cat food or dog food,” the only incident provided as evidence referred to “cat food.”

    When it comes to dog food, there is this tale from the same site:

    My grandfather used to think the dog kibbles in their house were Cocoa Puffs. I remember walking into the kitchen, I must’ve been about 8 or 9, in their house, and he was munching on them. I was creeped out so I went and got my dad and he told me grandpa just started doing that. They wound up switching brands of dog food if I recall correctly, so he wouldn’t eat it.

    Of course, that’s not the same thing as eating it because it’s cheap. I don’t know from Adam on that topic. But I do know of at least one old dude who ate it, in any case.

    I can think of a couple of reasons supposedly true individual stories of elderly people eating “cat food” turned into a meme about “dog food.”

    1. Maybe people think eating dog food sounds more disgusting than eating cat food, so they use that as the cliche.

    2. Maybe people are just more familiar with dog food than cat food.

    3. When inflation was high in the 70′s, horse meat for human consumption became available in some markets as a cheaper alternative to beef. Maybe the two ideas — people eating horse meat because it was cheap + dog food sometimes made of horse meat — merged to become the idea of people eating dog food because it was cheap.

    [I also think the basis of our disagreement may be because of the difference between urban legends and memes/cliches. The former are normally specific, individual tales, while the latter are concepts or assumptions. In this case, I believe the urban legends have been corrupted as they became one cliche.]

    Comment by Lynxx Pherrett — Friday: June 17, 2005 @ 1:57 AM UTC

  8. I’m under the impression that cat food costs more than dog food, so if dog food costs more than human food, eating cat food makes even less economic sense – unless someone is after a particular flavor, rather than just some kind of sustenance with a reasonably good taste. E.g. tuna for humans is one of the highest priced items ever on our family menu, so I’d be surprised if tuna-flavored cat food wasn’t cheaper.

    Secondly, are there old people without access to cooking facilities? Cat and dog food are pre-cooked. Most pre-cooked human foods run several dollars a pound, even for such nutritional nullities as crackers and breakfast cereals. Of course, aggressive shopping can find bargains; my work-day lunches are generally based on Save-A-Lot whole wheat bread at $0.79 a pound and lunchmeat at $0.99. I’m not sure if that’s any better than what goes into canned dog foods, but my dog certainly thinks it tastes better. (I’m not about to try his food myself.) It’s possible that an old person with limited energy and no car would find cat or dog food to be the cheapest pre-cooked food at the one store he could get to by bus.

    Comment by markm — Saturday: June 18, 2005 @ 8:15 AM UTC

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