In an article called “The greatest food in human history,” Kyle Smith argues that the McDonald’s cheeseburger is “one of the unsung wonders of modern life.” With its 390 calories, 23 g of protein, 7 percent of daily fiber, and 20 percent of daily calcium, available at 14,000 U.S. locations for $1, Smith argues that the cheeseburger is a boon for the American poor, who would never be able to afford the same number of calories if forced to buy vegetables instead. He criticizes the “usual coalition of class snobs, locavore foodies, and militant anti-corporate types” for heartlessly hiking up food prices through their activism.
What Smith does not seem to grasp is that wanting and encouraging the poorer members of society to eat a well-balanced, fresh-food diet is not a question of elitism, though that word is frequently used to criticize the revolutionary work of food activists such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. Rather, this is a question of justice. Access to healthy, fresh food should be a basic human right. No one should have to fill their bellies with empty calories in order to stave off hunger pains.
There is something very wrong with the entire national system if, in 2014, a country’s lower-income citizens can only afford McDonald’s burgers, and never vegetables. In the same way that clean water and education are basic rights, so should daily access to healthy, fresh food be a top priority of governments. Children in particular deserve no less.
But this would require a revamp of the entire food production system, including re-allotments of the subsidies that make it possible for a burger to sell for $1. We take that price tag for granted, and yet one pound of beef requires far more infrastructure, maintenance, feed, and water to produce than one pound of potatoes. This cheap, meat-centric, fast food diet is enabled by what meat and corn industry lobbyists are allowed to accomplish.
Vegetable farmers don’t have the same political clout, so they don’t receive gigantic federal subsidies. They sell their kale and cabbages for several dollars more than a cheeseburger, despite the fact that the latter should, and actually does, cost far more than the former.
What the final price of a McDonald’s cheeseburger fails to take into account are the enormous impending health care costs incurred by people whose diets are based on fast food, as well as the environmental price tag of producing meat on such a massive, streamlined scale.
Smith claims, “If the macrobiotic Marxists had their way, there’d be no McDonald’s, Walmart, or Exxon, because they have visions of an ideal world in which everybody bikes to work with a handwoven backpack from Etsy that contains a lunch grown in the neighborhood collective.” I think he’s on to something. Even better would be to start decent school lunch programs, where cooks prepare ample meals made with community-grown produce. Paid for by the government, such a program would alleviate financial stress on parents and guarantee one good meal a day.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but throwing up one’s hands at the futility of the current system and claiming there’s nothing to be done for the poor, who are doomed to eat McDonald’s cheeseburgers forever, is far more elitist than working for change.