J500 Media and the Environment

“Clowning” with the Six Degrees of Food News by jenh

Anyone else find this photo creepy?

Opening of McDonald’s, Beijing

Something about the sunglasses, I guess. Or the export of American culture.

The photo dipicts clowns who were on hand to celebrate the opening of a McDonald’s in Beijing, and it was part of a New York Times article about the company’s record profits in February. McDonald’s profits jumped 11.7 percent internationally, fueled in part by Leap Year sales but also the weak U.S. dollar. You can get more Mac for your Yuan these days.

I’d like to use that story to play the Six Degrees of Separation game. But instead of people, in this instance, I’d like to look at the short distance between food news. We know McDonald’s is doing well – that’s one data point. Let’s put another marker by the story that University of Washington researchers determined that calorie for calorie, junk food is way cheaper than good-for-you food. According to the researchers, who compared foods in major grocery stores in the Seattle area, you pay $1.76 per 1,000 calories for sugary, fatty foods that have the most calories, but you pay $18.16 per 1,000 calories for the lowest-calorie foods (which are most often better for you, such as fruits and vegetables).

Now, here’s our third degree: increasing food costs overall. We’ve endured a 4.2 increase for meats, fish, veggies, fruit, dairy and eggs in 2007, and there’s a predicted jump of 3.5 to 4.5 percent in food costs for this year. May not sound like much to you as an individual, but when you add in higher fuel costs for gasoline and heating your home, you’re bound to notice it.

And finally, there isn’t enough grain to go around. We’re looking at a worldwide grain shortage brought about in part by more people on the planet, corn-hungry biofuels such as ethanol, and fewer acres to grow food successfully. Or, you can think of it the way Daniel W. Basse of the AgResource put it in this comprehensive look at grain shortages:

“Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe,” Basse said. “But if they do, we’re going to need another two or three globes to grow it all.”

When I look at the big, big picture, taking all this news and more into account, I’m scared by what I see coming together. A faltering U.S. economy. More people are cash-strapped and rely on unhealthy, calorie-dense foods. Those unhealthy foods gobble up lots of resources (transportation, grain for animal meats, land and plastics for packaging, among them). Global warming may restrict those resources even further. At the same time, prices for all foods are going up, driven in part by scarcity of supply. Already, some nations have to safeguard grain supplies that are distributed to keep people from rioting.

There’s no easy way to answer such a complex economic web of problems. But I think that if anything would bring about change to the American, Western diet that the world seems to embrace more and more often, it’s going to be the force wielded by economics. If there isn’t enough money to buy meat, or bread or milk, at some point we will be forced to go without it. I wonder how that will affect that jump in profit at McDonalds?*

*And I’m not picking on McD’s as the evil empire, but they are a mom and apple pie export of American living, as well as an enormous corporate success. About 47 million people each day eat at the 31,000 McDonald’s locations worldwide. That’s roughly the entire populations of Greece, Australia and the Netherlands combined.

–Jen Humphrey


8 Comments so far
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I was tricked by your argument but good to know unhealthy foods are still not good for you and the environment at the end.

I totally agree with your points, but most people who eat at McDonald probably don’t think about it. After all, it’s cheap and convenient. What would you suggest to replace McDonald or satisfy those people’s needs being friendly to the environment?


Comment by sachikom

I can’t help but bring policy into this discussion: farm subsidies are regularly being handed to the biggest farms with one of the magical monocrops: corn, rice, wheat, soybeans. The subsidy system was developed by Roosevelt during the Great Depression to help farmers on the Great Plains – struggling in the Dust Bowl – try and maintain a living. The way these subsidies are used today promote cheap corn to fatten (and sicken) cattle, chicken, and hogs; cheap grains for processing (preservatives and the omnipresent high fructose corn syrup), and fast food – including McD’s – cheap (there’s more corn than chicken in a McDonald’s chicken nugget).

As consumers, we need to make our voices heard as the Farm Bill is still being worked on in Washington. Powerful lobbies are not as powerful as an entire nation of hungry, obese, pissed-off people! (I hope)


Comment by jkongs


This is such a thoughtful analysis. Thank you. You are absolutely right. We consumers don’t actually know the real cost of food because of all these subsidies which unfortunately don’t make distinctions between farmers who really need it and corporate agri-businesses.

Sachiko does bring up an excellent point about access which I think is a huge problem now that will only getting bigger if things progress as you say. In the US, the highest levels of obesity are in the areas with the greatest food insecurity. That is because cheap food is the first option.

How do we create a food system that recognizes the true cost of food, pays farmers a living wage, and ensures healthy food access for everyone?


Comment by j500

I love the image of a “nation of hungry, obese, pissed-off people” demanding change. Humor aside, that’s what it’s going to take, though – “regular” people with a lobby demanding change. The farm bill is such a disasterous mix of profit-driven policy meant to preserve the status quo. If anyone wants to know more about it from the great food writers like Pollan and Schlosser, look at this Nation series on it.

That’s what’s so maddening about the junk food study. People who are the most food insecure, who have the least resources to buy their food, are closed out of buying what would be the most healthy for them. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to buy a box of mac and cheese or ramen for dinner than to prepare a quick dinner from vegetables and rice, but when you see the price of those veggies it sends you back to the mac and cheese. I don’t know what the answer is. I made a personal choice to no longer eat fast food (the general ones, like McD’s) a few years ago. It forces me to plan ahead and bring leftovers to work and a cooler with food for road trips, but it’s been worth it. I guess that in part, all these food decisions come down to how much you know, and how much you are willing to work at changing yourself. It would be nice if the farm bill made it a bit easier, though. -Jen Humphrey

Comment by jenh

This is what caught my eye in this post – “According to the researchers, who compared foods in major grocery stores in the Seattle area, you pay $1.76 per 1,000 calories for sugary, fatty foods that have the most calories, but you pay $18.16 per 1,000 calories for the lowest-calorie foods (which are most often better for you, such as fruits and vegetables).”

Why are they just looking at calories? Did any of the researchers take the time to look at the nutrients and vitamins you’re getting for your money? That keeps you healthy and what, in my opinion, is important – not just calories. Processed food is almost all empty calories (meaning it has very little nutritional value), so why are they looking at calories and not vitamins/minerals, which is what keeps us alive and healthy. I think a lot of people have forgotten that we should eat food for the nutrients that nourish us and keep us alive, not for calories or convenience or even addictive fatty fried food taste.

We always hear that sustainable/organic food is more expensive, and in some respects, it might be, if you just look at dollar figures and not proper nutrition. But I’ve been trying to get someone to go into a McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King and price out a meal for 4 people. I had an intern do the first part, and I think it came to around $24.00 (at least here in NYC). Take that amount to a farmers market, health food store and a Whole Foods and see what you can buy. Can you cook a meal for four? I think you can. It might not be as convenient because you have to cook it, but I think you can prepare a much more nutritious meal for that amount of money. Just eating Mac n Cheese is not nutritious (and I don’t even think it’s actually cheese they put in there…) – so if we look at getting a balanced, nutritious meal, I think the numbers might be different, as well as the quantity of food. How much sugary, starchy food do you have to eat to get the proper vitamins? (it’s probably impossible, no matter how much you eat).

So, maybe what we need to do is to get people to look a little differently at their food and stop obsessing so much over calories and start to look at the nutritional impact of what we put in our mouth.

Comment by Diane Hatz

Diane, you raise a great point. I agree with you, we need as a society to stop looking at the caloric content of food and, as Michael Pollan has suggested in In Defense of Food, stop allowing nutritional science from ruining food. On the other hand, there were benefits to reducing their findings — much of which were about how good foods are being priced out of people’s financial means, or are perceived to be as you point out. One of those benefits was to bring the increasing prices to the attention of the media, which spurred discussion. It also reduced the science into a simple comparison that people could readily grasp: lots of people count calories or read the label on a bag of chips, and now they could understand, perhaps, that it was ludicrous that broccoli or berries cost way more than a high-calorie “meal” of non-food substances. Maybe they would demand a change. Someday, maybe…

-Jen Humphrey

Comment by jenh

Diane Hatz,

I agree that food quality can not be measured solely by energy density (i.e. calories), and that there are many more factors to consider such as actual nutritional content, taste, presence or absence of contaminants, vitamins, minerals, etc.

However, that said, Dr. Drewnowski at the Univ. of Washington who was one of the researchers for this particular study works both on projects at the Center for Public Health Nutrition and the Center for Obesity Research at the university. I believe that he is on the way to proving a link between obesity and income. If he can establish this link, perhaps then we will start seeing policy measures to change what appears to be an economic problem.

As of the last CDC study in 2006, 34% of US adults over age 20 are considered obese. According to the US Census Bureau, 36.5 million Americans live in poverty (rate of 12.3%). I would venture to guess that the group of people making just above the poverty threshold are really struggling with food prices, too. To give you a loose idea of poverty thresholds, one person making $10,488 or less and a family of four making $20,444 are both considered to be living in poverty. Well, what about that family of four making $24,000 – I bet they’re struggling, too, even though they’re above the threshold.

Not everyone has access to locally grown foods and/or they can’t afford to buy better quality (in all senses) food. Because the grains, sugars and fats are the most affordable and accessible foods available, perhaps this has created the obesity epidemic resulting from an overfed but undernourished segment of the population.

We can’t merely continue to push healthy eating habits to people who simply can’t afford it. These low-income consumers need, more than anyone, a food system that is sustainable, nutritious and affordable. I believe this will only come about from policy measures, farm incentives, etc. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Dr. Drewnowski’s research will provide the evidence that the government needs to see this as an economic problem, step in and help change our entire food system for the better.

~ Sarah Hemme

Comment by shemme

[…] Simran Sethi’s Media and the Environment course at the University of Kansas. This post was originally published to the course blog on Tuesday, March 11, […]

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