Despite a recent rise in its popularity that is being attributed to the flailing economy, fast food may not be as cost-efficient as some people believe.
Though higher-end restaurants have taken a hit in recent months, fast-food joints have recently posted rising sales figures; McDonald’s reported a 1.4 percent uptick in February sales and Burger King is expected to have an increase of at least 2 to 3 percent.
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Reacting to the misconception that eating fast food can be a way to save money, Yale Sustainable Food Project Director Melina Shannon-DiPietro stressed that the best so-called value meals are cooked at home. But for many New Haven residents interviewed, food habits are difficult to change, despite evidence that eating at home is better for both their health and their wallets.
“People are facing tough decisions,” Shannon-DiPietro said in an e-mail Tuesday. “We purchase food every single day or every single week, and we have more control over our grocery bill than a car payment or a mortgage.”
Patrice Jones, 26, the night manager at Burger King on Whalley Avenue, said sales may have gone up, since regulars are drawn in by both habit and craving.
“No matter how the economy is, people are still going to eat,” she said. “People will find a way to come here; they know the prices.”
And at Popeye’s on Whalley Avenue on Tuesday afternoon, some customers agreed that changing their eating habits was the last thing on their minds.
Kathy Godfrey, 46, said she has frequented that Popeye’s since its opening 28 years ago, coming in at least three times a week to buy family packs for dinner for her eight-person household. Godfrey guessed that she spends about $150 a week to feed her family Popeye’s and a nearly equivalent $200 dollars a week on groceries. She said she believes she is saving money by buying fast food, adding that her spending habits have not changed significantly during this recession because of her shopping savvy.
“The food, I love it,” she said of Popeye’s. “It makes you feel like home.”
Godfrey said despite her hefty food bill, she is a smart shopper with an eye on her budget each week.
But Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, said though there may not be any one eating trend during downturns, people run the danger of defaulting to supersized, cheap options at fast-food restaurants. Eating out, he added, usually leads to higher caloric consumption than when eating at home.
“Cheap food becomes appealing in tough times, so places like McDonald’s do well,” Brownell wrote in an e-mail. “And at places like McDonald’s, the worse options loom large. For the same price one can buy a salad and drink there, the dollar menu can produce seven double cheeseburgers, with some change left over,” Brownell said, referring to people choosing quantity over quality.
Rebecca Womack, foundation and grants coordinator of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation, said people may not realize they can get more bang for their buck at home.
“Public perception is that a $1.25 hamburger is more affordable than a home-cooked meal. In fact this is not the case,” Womack said. “From our experience, a $70 investment in a backyard garden can yield up to $600 worth of produce in the first year.”
Fifteen-year-old Ramona Reed, who was enjoying a Whopper Jr. and small fries Tuesday afternoon, said whenever she has a couple dollars in her pocket, Burger King is the first place she will go.
“With five bucks, you really can do nothing but get something to eat,” Reed said. “I’ll save my nickels and dimes. I’ll come back.”