The Price of Food

America is the richest nation on the planet and we spend less of our income on food than any other country.  In 1949, the average American spent 22% of our income on food.  Currently, we’re spending only about 10% of our income on food. This is historically unprecedented.

Some might say, “How is this a bad thing?” Now we have more money to spend on computers, entertainment, education, travel, or any number of things. Perhaps, if your goal is to “have it all.” I’m not so sure that’s a great goal. I’m also fairly convinced that those extras we want to spend money on are not more valuable than the health of our planet, ourselves and the people and animals who provide our food. Some might also say now everyone can afford food because it’s cheap. Let it be known that I care a great deal about food security for American families. But we need to become more concerned about making food fair (to animals, the land, and farmers/workers) and affordable instead of cheap. Will that mean spending more money on food? Most likely. When someone makes more money each month (a fair living wage/salary) then food can be affordable instead of cheap.

The current food system doesn’t reflect the “true cost” of producing it. For example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, a group of tomato pickers (they pick around 1/3 of the nation’s tomatoes), is fighting for a penny/lb of tomatoes increase in their pay. They barely manage on their current pay and live in poverty. A penny/lb pay increase might raise their standard of living to acceptable, but the CEOs and executives don’t think they deserve fair pay. That’s why our tomatoes are so “cheap.” Someone else is paying the price.

Frankly, we’re not putting enough of our resources to providing good quality, humanely raised, healthy food for everyone. That is, we’re only putting 10% of our monetary resources toward food which is not enough! An alternative theory is that companies are pilfering off too much in profits and that’s where we could find the extra money for a fair food system. It’s tough to prove, but it’s a good thought and certainly corporate profits do get in the way of affordable food. The pervasive goals of cheap food and high profits drive policies and procedures that don’t mesh with the greater goals of a truly fair and sustainable food system.

If the rest of the world spends a higher percentage of their income on food, regardless of annual income, why can’t we? Why is America so special that we can only spend 10% of our income on food? I’m not so sure it’s that we feel special, it’s just that as far as priorities go, food doesn’t get much respect. I think it’s about time we get back to the basics and put more money into a fair and responsible food system.

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The Flaws of Humanity and the Food We Eat

I’ve always said that I don’t like when perfect becomes the enemy of good. But what happens when the flaws of humanity become the enemy of good?

Most people like fast food and other convenience food items. I know some people who think that McDonald’s is gross and would never eat there, but the majority of Americans do eat there. It must taste good. It must offer some value for the cost or convenience of the food or else people wouldn’t keep going there. Is that the end of the story? People like it and want to eat there so who are these food elitists to claim it’s unhealthy and shouldn’t be consumed?

That’s the crux of the problem. Humanity desires things that are not beneficial to us no matter how obvious that might be. This is obviously most prevalent in affluent developed countries and that’s to whom I’m referring in this post.

Americans are never going to stop going to McDonald’s on their own…because the draw of cheap and viscerally tasty fatty/sugary food is awfully hard to resist. My own personal struggle is to resist McDonald’s breakfast items. I grew up eating them and now I have to muster every last ounce of strength not to get breakfast burritos every now and then. Once or twice a year I fail. I admit it, I drive up to the window and I pick up my breakfast burritos. My inherent flaws express themselves in my eating habits from time to time.

One solution to the problem of overindulgence is “moderation.” I don’t think that’s a bad idea, if we only knew what it meant and how to apply it to the toxic food environment we live in. The food companies selling us their products certainly don’t want to give us any quantification of what moderation might mean. It would hurt their sales and potentially put them out of business. I’d say a good rule of thumb for “moderation” when it comes to eating at fast food restaurants (Applebee’s counts!) would be no more than 12 meals per year. That works out to one meal a month or 0.01% of all the meals you’ll eat in a year. So you wouldn’t eat fast food 99.9% of the time. Do you think McDonald’s or Burger King is going to put that on their billboards.

Come on in and enjoy a delicious Whopper! But only 0.01% of the time!

Americans are going to inherently want to consume unhealthy food because it’s both “cheap” and tastes good in some visceral way. Food companies step in and provide the food that Americans are “demanding” and make a hefty profit doing so. Demand is not simply a function of the customer asking for something. It’s much more complicated. Advertising is about creating demand. Food companies have multi-million dollar advertising campaigns — and we get stuck in a vicious cycle:

Homo Economicus is not a rational being when it comes to food (or lots of other things in my opinion). So to say that whatever Americans “demand” is always justified and good for everyone is wrongheaded. We humans are flawed and so our desires are going to be inherently flawed. This is evident in the rise of the fast food nation. You can’t look yourself in the mirror and say that fast food is good for America or anyone else in the world.

While humanity will never reach some Utopia of eating perfection, good is certainly a worthy goal. And strong “demand” for unhealthy convenience food is not good. Modern economics will tell us that it is a good thing. I’m not convinced. I think the purely economic approach to doing things is not the end-all-be-all.

The Point: Are we going to just give in to our flaws as people? Are we going to continue living and promoting sedentary lifestyles while eating fast food and getting fatter and fatter and sicker and sicker just because that’s what Americans are demanding? There is an ideal. And then there is getting as reasonably close to the ideal as we can. Due to the inherent flaws of humanity we will never reach the ideal. But we must commit ourselves to striving towards the ideal. What do you think?