“Good, fast, cheap — pick any two” is a common phrase that defines the constraints on any initiative. If used as a lens through which to view the post-war packaged food industry, “fast and cheap” was clearly the choice of U.S. manufacturers and consumers. Indeed, the USDA reported that we spend significantly less on food than our grandparents did.
The average share of per capita income spent on food fell from 17.5% in 1960 to 9.9% in 2013. Americans spend less on food consumed at home than other countries of the world. NPR reports that, according to Annette Clauson, an agricultural economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service, “food is still a good bargain for the American consumer.”
But is it? We also know from the report done by U.S. Health in International Perspective that, of 17 developed nations, the U.S. is dead last in health. We live shorter lives than people in other rich nations despite spending more on our health care system than any other. Yes, we have more homicides and car accidents than other developed nations, but we consume the most calories per capita and endure some of the worst rates of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Clearly, we Americans fell in love with fast food consumed both in and out of home. But we’ve awakened to the true cost of “fast, cheap” and it ain’t no bargain. American consumers are increasingly rejecting highly processed food with its typically high concentrations of calories, sodium, sugar and ingredients your grandma never heard of. And they are creating the fastest-growing segment of the food industry, what Michael Pollan calls in this week’s New York Times’ Magazine, “a $50 billion alternative food economy, comprising organic food, local food and artisanal food.”
The problem, however, is that the high-income readers of the New York Times have long had access to the knowledge of better-for-you food, the income to afford it and the access to retailers of it. While the average share of per capita income spent on food fell to only 9.9% in the U.S., among the lowest income population, food still accounts for 36% of total income. And that “fast, cheap” food that is generally accessible and affordable to this population is anything but cheap. It is driving the highest rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity of anywhere in the world, and with it, huge health care costs.
There is good reason to believe that what Pollan calls “Little Food” won’t be little much longer:
- Knowledge is power. And the American people now have it and are changing their food consumption behavior.
- Big retail is strongly reacting to the changes in consumer behavior. Just look at the focus on organic and local at Target and Walmart.
- Big Food manufacturers are gobbling up Little Food to offset some of their declines in mature, highly processed brands as well as to provide some PR cover on the company’s role in feeding America.
- Government knows that it must meet consumers on the access and affordability of BFY food in order to manage rising health care costs. Why do you think a candidate for POTUS would get involved in a city tax issue the way Hillary Clinton recently supported the Philadelphia soda tax?
Pollan excoriates Big Food, saying it has one idea: “If you leave us alone and pay no attention to how we do it, we can produce vast amounts of acceptable food cheaply.” Big Food is better and smarter than that, even if you believe they are only motivated by profit. They, like the American consumer, retailer and government, are just coming to terms with a new definition of “acceptable” food.