What Does Cheaper Mean?

I have a confession to make: Little Miss Farm Fresh Food got some french fries at McDonald's recently. And I was shocked when I found out that my medium order of french fries (do they still have a regular size?) cost $2.39. I was so surprised, I asked the cashier - "Seriously, $2.39?"  And indeed, I had not mis-heard. 

Since I work with the wonderful Slow Food Huron Valley, I'm conscious of the fact that some people have the misconception that Slow Food=elitist gourmet food snobs. This is always surprising to me since the group that I work with is all about growing and appreciating our local food community, having potluck dinners, going on farm tours, organizing community events that highlight our local food producers (like Tantre Farm, The Blueberry Patch, Mill Pond Bakery), etc.   

In conversation with friends or acquaintances when the topic of how we're working on understanding where our food comes from and on getting it from someplace in Michigan comes up, there's the invariable knee-jerk reaction of "Oh, but it has to be a lot more expensive to do that."  Um, no, it really isn't. In fact, I'd wager that it's less expensive overall all and I can use math to prove it. 

It seems like some of the assumptions out there about our food are part of the wave of anti-intellectualism that has settled like doom over this country for the past 7 years.  Don't misunderestimate me, I've got a strategery for showing how wrong these assumptions are.  

I just called the People's Food Co-op and asked them for the prices on organic versions of each of these items. Here are some back of the envelope calculations on what it would cost to have an equivalent 1 person serving of a (nutritious version of the) McDonald's Meal Deal at home using easily available Michigan and organic ingredients:

1/4 lb. grass fed beef - $1.00

Organic wheat bun - $.52

Organic onion slice - $.16

Organic ketchup - $.18

8 oz. organic potatoes for fries - $.50

Oil for frying - $.25

8 oz. Calder milk - $.37

TOTAL - $2.98

I just called the McDo on Stadium Blvd. and asked them how much for a 1/4 Pounder with small fries and milk:  $5.10

So, what exactly do people mean when they say people with limited incomes eat fast food because it is cheap? Of course leaving out all the externalized costs of the pollution, oil consumption, and labor practices of the Golden Arches.  What does this "cheaper" mean exactly?  Does it really mean that it takes less time than cooking and sitting down to eat with your family?  That's not cheaper, it's faster. It's clear to me that "cheaper" means something more complex than "costs less money."  Because even fast food does not cost less than cooking at home. Period.

So why aren't we having the discussion about what really prevents people from cooking and sitting down for dinner with their families?  And why are we swallowing whole the assumption that fast food is cheaper?  Poor people don't eat fast food just because it is cheaper. What would it be like in this country if everyone made a living wage? 

While I understand that people have limited incomes, according to a Feb. 2008 report somehow 188 million of the 300 million people in this country can afford having a cell phone.  Yet one of them is not me.  What we call "cheap" and "expensive" is really about the complexities of our priorities.  The next time someone shows me their new cellphone, I'm going to have to say "Gosh, you could get a lot of food from Michigan every single month with the money you spend on that..."  

Copyright 2011 - The Farmer's Marketer