Cheap Eats

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

I am getting on my bandwagon today, because this topic just keeps hitting me in the face lately.

I’ve read a few of the books out there about the true cost of cheap food, and cheap products in general.  Like so many things that seem wonderful at first glance, that “too good to be true” moment, there is a downside to many bargains.

The incredible amount of cheap everyday household goods in the U.S., including clothing, furnishings, toys, electronics, kitchen wares, you name it, has meant that our dumps and landfills are overflowing because guess what? Cheap doesn’t last. When we can’t deal with our own garbage, we ship it overseas, where, for instance, old computers leach toxic substances into the ground (and water) of less affluent nations.

Cheap food has its own downsides, beyond the litter from fast food restaurants that dots our landscape and fills our garbage bins. Cheap food is often harmful to the environment to produce and of poor nutritional quality. Cheap food often means that the animals and workers in the supply line are treated poorly. Then there are the restaurant workers who have no benefits or sick days, because all that is part of controlling costs, and therefore, keeping consumer prices artificially low. Hey, if you want to add a dollar to my meal so your dishwasher doesn’t have to come to work sick (and contagious), it’s fine by me. I actually think it would be fine with a lot of people, if they only thought about it in those terms.

We have cafés dotted around the campus where I work, and in spite of prices that I think are modest (and carefully set I know), I still regularly hear people say they wish the food was cheaper. Most of these comments come from people much younger than me, and of course with the students, they all are. But when I think back to my life at that age, I had to scrimp and knew I couldn’t afford to eat most of my meals out.  In other words, I brown-bagged it!  (And I still do most days, but by choice now.)

Why do we think we’re entitled to have whole meals prepared for us for just a very few dollars? Just how would that work, in economic terms?  Even if you pay slave wages and no benefits, and get your food from dubious sources (pink slime anyone?), that hot lunch is still going to cost upwards of $10 by the time it’s put on your plate because you are supporting a business. Maybe you just can’t afford it right now. Does anyone ever say that to themself anymore?

Here’s a suggested reading list on this topic:

The current hot book: http://www.amazon.com/Salt-Sugar-Fat-Giants-Hooked/dp/1400069807

A groundbreaking present day classic: http://www.amazon.com/Nickel-Dimed-Not-Getting-America/dp/0312626681

Written by an academic: http://www.amazon.com/Real-Cost-Cheap-Food/dp/1849713219

The American Way of Eating, à la Nickeled and Dimed: http://www.amazon.com/American-Way-Eating-Undercover-Applebees/dp/1439171963/

A good read I enjoyed, about one person’s journey – “How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week)”:  http://www.amazon.com/Feast-Nearby-marriage-preserving-bartering/dp/158008558X

Yay for Barbara Kingsolver: http://www.amazon.com/Animal-Vegetable-Miracle-Year-Food/dp/0060852569

This serious work, from University of California Press is about selling cheap flap cuts of pork and mutton to “second class” nations: http://www.amazon.com/Cheap-Meat-Nations-Pacific-Islands/dp/0520260937

About the powerful documentary deconstructing the corporate food industry in America: http://www.amazon.com/Food-Inc-Participant-Industrial-Poorer-/dp/1586486942.

And maybe it’s time to re-read Upton Sinclair?

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