Money and Food

It seems like a lot of articles coming across my virtual desk these days are talking about quality food and associated costs. Most of you know something about this. Taco Bell can sell a taco for 79 cents while Whole Food sells organic almonds close to 8 dollars a pound. I had a real dose of reality when I recently visited my grandparents and witnessed what they ate. Up until this point, I had romanticized their eating habits. Before my grandfather retired, he ran a grocery store. And with his brothers, they ran an apple orchard, a wholesale business, and other food stores. I remember growing up and overhearing stories of this or that farmer and how good his crop was this year. Indeed, I tasted some of the best corn on the cob during my childhood summers there. So I always had the notion that my grandparents were tied to local farms, good eats and other wholesome principles like not wasting food. Last weekend I saw my grandpa eating a bag of Combo’s and then explaining that he got it for a dollar. We went grocery shopping and he cruised the aisles looking for deals…looking for cheap food. He can even tell you where the cheapest pizza buffet is in his hometown. He no longer cares for the quality, he just wants a good price!

I want to believe this devolution in eating great, fresh food was subtle and over a long period of time. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, and they are not plugged into the current movement of local and organic. They just like to eat, and they like to save money. So they are attracted to the low-priced junk out there. Perhaps they haven’t noticed that food is getting scarier to eat unless you are conscious to your choices. They probably think food is food, and that food hasn’t changed that much in the last 50 years. You buy it from a store and then you consume it. They don’t see the subsidies and agribusinesses and a plethora of other complexities beyond the store aisles. And it’s scarier to think that they might not do anything about it even if they did know. Old people have a tendency to be set in their ways, right?

I was reading a fascinating article in QSR magazine. It was talking about the in’s and out’s of the current pricing wars at quick service restaurants. Just about every fast food joint needs a value-menu to stay competitive. The article also mentions the game of low pricing: it attracts new customers and it has the ironic effect of increasing overall purchases. It was a good reminder to never underestimate the business astuteness of these big corporations. They are keenly watching the psychology of the buyer to maximize profit. And this issue is all the more real with the prolonged recession. Like my grandparents, most of humanity likes to eat and also to save money. So people are driven more and more to cheap eats, which then creates a never-ending spiral of cheaper and cheaper food.

What if Taco Bell got down to a 10-cent taco? How could they possibly source all of their ingredients in mass volume from around the world and still make a profit? 10 cents doesn’t go a long way! As mentioned in another post, part of the answer is externalized costs. You can also read Marion Nestle’s take on the topic. Basically, over-exploited laborers and the damaged environment are picking up the tab so the rest of  us can eat cheaply. In other words, the quest for cheap food has more intangible costs to the environments, to the economy, and to our health.

So what’s the answer? It not an easy solution. A big part of it is convincing the government to throw subsidies toward organic farmers instead of the huge agribusinesses of corn and soybeans. As long as these companies are rewarded for mass producing genetically modified crops with tons of chemicals, we don’t have a chance of changing the diet of America. So many cheap, bad food comes from these two subsidized crops. Plus, there are strong lobbyists with deep pockets working to keep the system just as it is. Furthermore, we know that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink it. Even if we could get the cost of healthy, organic food items low enough to be affordable to a wider population, who’s to say they would eat them. Thus, a massive education campaign needs to accompany any solution to tell people the risks of conventional farming and the benefits of organic. Finally, the dollar is king. If we have affordable, healthy food and an educated population that demands it, then they become powerful consumers affecting markets and demand. Corporations will respond and give their customers what they want. Ideally, their profit will then come from people’s desire for more and more healthy options. Sounds like utopia!

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