All The Farm That Is Fit To Print

Sunday, September 25, 2011

$5 Challenge, McMuffins, and the Cost of Food

by Anna Lappe

I hear it all the time: I can’t eat healthy; organic food is so expensive! Over the weekend, Slow Food USA brought together more than 30,000 people around the country to tackle this lament with the “$5 Challenge,” showing how we can eat well on five bucks. Sure, if you go to a Whole Foods in Manhattan you can be set back $20 bucks before you know it, and with little to show for it. But, as Team SFUSA helped reveal, there are ways to stretch your dollar and eat well.

Still, all this got me wondering: Is fast food really cheaper, no matter how you slice it?

At a McDonald’s in Greenpoint, a friend pointed out to me, Egg McMuffins were going for $2.99. Seems cheap, right? (Of course, if you know much about our modern industrial food system and its costs, you’d know that this price tag doesn’t account for how much you and I are really paying: the billions in health care costs because of preventable diet-related illnesses; the billions more in pollution clean-up costs, largely from the factory farms producing the meat, including that McMuffin bacon. You get the idea.)

But let’s stick with the actual price: $2.99. And compare that with what it would cost to make an organic, homemade Egg Mc-ish-muffin.

I priced out the ingredients from a Brooklyn supermarket (not a Whole Foods, mind you) and calculated the specific price per ingredient based on a comparable portion size. The grand total for the organic, homemade one? $2.59. Yup, that’s forty cents less than the fast food “cheap” meal.

Cheaper and, I would argue, better. Now, we could debate the nutritional merits of a breakfast of bacon and cheese on an English muffin, but I think there’s good evidence that when comparing these options, the organic one is healthier, better for the environment, not to mention animal welfare and worker welfare in terms of decreasing exposure to toxic chemicals. First, the McDonald’s sandwich includes trans fats, those “bad-for-you” fats that the company had promised to phase out of its products, but didn’t. And the bacon, unlike the organic variety, will have come from pigs raised on diets that would most likely include daily doses of sub-therapeutic antibiotics and potentially everything from rendered animal fat to plastics (they say it’s for “roughage”).

Finally, you might not realize you’re eating genetically modified foods when you’re biting into a McMuffin, but think again. Some variation of the soybean is found in every one of the ingredients that make up this McDonalds’ sandwich, except the bacon. (And since pigs in factory farms eat a lot of soy in their feed, well, you could argue it’s in there, too.) And, since virtually all soybeans raised in the United States now come from genetically modified seeds, good chance you’re eating it in here. Why all that soy?

Since soybeans are one of the cheapest crops to grow in the United States, (thanks in large part to federal subsidies), food companies commonly use soy-derived emulsifiers to help ingredients stick together, for instance, or, in the case of your muffin, to help the dough rise easier. Along with the English muffin, soy lecithin is in the cheese, eggs, even in the liquid margarine to cook the eggs.

So, if the homemade version not only helps you steer clear of GMOs and is most likely better for you, but is also demonstrably less expensive, then why does fast food always get presented as so cheap, and organic as so out-of-reach and pricey? Answering that question forces us to talk about more than just the sticker price on a McMuffin or the back-story of its ingredients. It means talking about the food system and, even more importantly, the economic context we all live in, for all of that comes into play to determine the choices we can, or can’t make, about what we eat.

Taking this broader view means asking questions about food access: Who lives near a store that carries organic food and who doesn’t? Why do certain communities have a McDonald’s on every other block and others have farmers markets? And it means asking questions about who has a kitchen they can cook in, one with toasters and stoves, pans and knives. And it means inquiring about who has time to go to the store and cook and clean. (Especially clean, I think, having just done a sink full of dishes myself).

For millions of Americans, especially those living below the poverty line, these are the questions that are just as intricately connected to the question of what we choose to eat as the price at the end of the checkout line. And, we know now, more families are living in poverty than at any time in the past 52 years, when estimates for families in poverty were first calculated in this country. In its latest data, the U.S. Census Bureau found 46.2 million Americans—one in five children—live on annual incomes below $22,113 for a family of four. For these tens of millions of Americans the fact that you can make an organic Egg Mc-ish-muffin more cheaply than buying one at McDonalds is cold comfort when the food system and the economic system—the access, the time, the wages—are rigged against you.

I’ve heard the “food movement” criticized for talking about too many “issues”—poverty and farmworker wages, environmental pollution and animal welfare, health and obesity. We’ve been accused of not being focused enough. But in light of the complex factors that impact what we feed our children, I don’t think this is a weakness; I think it’s our strength. How can you talk about food choices without talking about inequality and government policy? How can you talk about food choices without talking about stagnating wages for workers and longer average working hours? You can’t; we shouldn’t. And, thankfully, food movement organizations like Slow Food USA don’t.

The idea behind Slow Food USA’s $5 Challenge this weekend was more than just to show it’s possible to eat well on a budget. It was to get us asking if it is possible to eat well affordably, then what are all the other barriers that keep so many from being able to choose “slow food”, not fast food, and how do we lift these barriers?

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