Thursday, May 01, 2008

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

A news article from a few years ago reported that on average, American families eat out 18 times in a month. The statistic stunned me. I was thinking oh my, are most Americans rich enough to be able to eat out that often? Another article questioned whether eating out was more expensive than cooking at home. Conventional wisdom from another age and place would suggest that eating out has to be more expensive than cooking at home. Conventional wisdom may not be so wise anymore in this age of fast-food proliferation.

In the United States, people have gotten used to spending only around 10% of our personal disposable income on food. (Even the poorest families pay only a third of their income towards food expenses.) Americans do not have the highest per capita income and yet, when compared with other nations in terms of proportion of per capita expenditure on food, Americans spend the least!* This combined with spending about a third of their income on shelter, leaves the average American family with more than half their spending power still intact. This extra income, after taking care of life's two big essentials, has been important in the spending patterns and developments in consumerism we witness today.

This model of capitalism and consumption doesn't crave quality. It craves a Walmart and McDonald's type mentality which depend on mass production at cheap cost. What's more, this brand of capitalism has now been exported to some of the fastest growing economies of the world. I believe that the way we have been living and feeding ourselves has been neither healthy nor fulfilling.

How is it that you can buy a quarter-pounder at Micky D's for 99¢ when it takes 700 lbs of grain to grow 1 lb of beef? (And let's leave aside McD's outlay on advertising for the 99¢ burger.) Not only do we not question how and where cheap food comes from but we behave like real gluttons eating all that growth-hormone laced, stressed-cow meat. Meat consumption is at the highest point it has ever been in human evolution. We eat not to survive anymore but because cheap food has been easily available. But cheap food is not healthy food. I am not saying that by costing more, food is guaranteed to be of better quality. But good quality food cannot be obtained as cheaply as food has been available in the hypermarkets of America (or for that matter, the world now).

The global rise in food prices is not the worst thing that could happen to us. It is the worst thing that could happen to the world's poor and those who spend most of their income on food. Food is essential to life and good food is essential to good health. If food became a central item in our bills again, perhaps we would learn to appreciate what we put in our bodies and perhaps we could also drum up some compassion for others in dire straits here and across the world. We would learn to live on less and spend less on non-essentials. We would learn that ethanol made from food-grade corn is a poor panacea for our pollution problems. We would learn to use the car less and use public transportation or bicycles more so that we have more money for essentials. We would teach our kids the importance of saving electricity to lower our bills so we could spend them on healthy family outings. Can you see why I think that by paying too little for our food we also value it little?

*In 1994, Americans spent 7.4% of their income on food to be eaten at home whereas, the Canadians spent 10.3% and the British 11.2%. In countries like India, almost 50% of the income went toward food eaten at home.
[click on picture to be taken to site where it was found without attributions.]

1 comment:

Radhika said...

Tom said:
I think McD's sells 99 cent burgers as loss leaders--the profit is in fries and (especially) soft drinks.

To which, I replied:
Ok, explain that to me please. How can that make economic sense? The fires and drinks don't cost enough to cover the cost of the meat, especially bundled as value meals.

And later:
Hmm, actually, Frank tells me the "loss leaders" are never packaged into value meals. But I still don't get loss leaders. And have you seen the recent ads run on TV (by KFC) about the 99¢ Chicken snackers? Can someone please explain how this works?