The (Million) Dollar Menu: The Real Costs of Cheap Food

By Comrade Sloth

When it comes to specific conditions that seem to be a recurrent impediment to low-income families and their economic growth, one culprit might come from an unexpected source: the drive-through window. While the fast food dollar menu is hailed as the go-to staple for those looking to buy an entire meal for just a few dollars, more and more studies have shown that this industry carries a heavy set of economic, nutritional, and social costs, both to the public and the individual.

One of the most significant of these impacts is the steady decline of public health. The American Diabetes Association has shown that 1 in every 3 people born after the year 2000 will develop diabetes; among ethnic minorities, that rate is 1 in 2. This disease, caused by continuous spikes in blood sugar that result in a gradual wearing down of the body’s response to sugar in the bloodstream, is much more prevalent among those who eat a diet of primarily low-cost, energy-dense foods. Coincidentally, these foods are also the least expensive, and in most cases highly palatable, which makes a burger and fries an appealing option, particularly for a budget-strapped family with children to feed. But customers pay for their bargain meals in other ways: a diabetes diagnosis costs upwards of $85,000 to treat for a lifetime, almost as costly as acquiring a second mortgage. When individuals are uninsured or covered by the state, that expense is shared among taxpayers: costing more than $245 billion annually for this disease alone. For reference, that’s nearly half of what the United States budgets for all of national defense. And diabetes is just one example of a health problem generated by the poor diet directly that stems from economic hardship. Heart disease, the top killer of Americans, has been strongly linked to unhealthy diets that are rich in fat and carbohydrates.

Fast-food companies also commonly employ their workers at minimum wage, which hasn’t kept pace with the cost of living since the 1980’s. On the federal level, more than $7 billion is dished out annually to provide benefits for the 52 per cent of fast food workers and their families who rely on public assistance. Although there is public outcry at the mention of raising the minimum wage (and thus potentially turning the dollar menu into a dollar-twenty-five menu), these figures certainly raise doubts as to whether or not an industry which puts more than half its workers on public assistance is a viable business model at all. Still, the employee taking your order isn’t the only one suffering from disproportionately low wages.  The average chicken farmer contracted by fast-food suppliers makes a yearly income of $18,500, but has invested over half a million into the construction of chicken houses, as well as the cost of constant repairs and upgrades required to maintain the contract.

This drone footage of a pig factory farm shows a giant cesspool of blood and manure that has been rinsed out of the buildings. When these lakes get too full, they are drained by spraying the liquid into the air, where it is carried downwind for miles. This shower of liquid waste falls on the homes of those who are too impoverished to move away. Such is the cost of bacon for your cheeseburger.

This drone footage of a pig factory farm shows a giant cesspool of blood and manure that has been rinsed out of the buildings. When these lakes get too full, they are drained by spraying the liquid into the air, where it is carried downwind for miles. This shower of liquid waste falls on the homes of those who are too impoverished to move away. Such is the cost of bacon for your cheeseburger.

Perhaps the worst damage, however, is that caused to the environment as a result of animal agriculture. Livestock farming is responsible for a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions56 percent of water use, and an unbelievable 45 percent of the world’s surface area.  Cattle farming is the leading cause of species extinction and mass deforestation, and droughts caused by the resultant climate change have been linked to mass migrations and political unrest. As the world’s population is projected to double within the next century, we will only see these numbers increase.  According to a report released by the United Nations, a shift to a plant-based lifestyle is the only sustainable option for the future of food production. Currently, only about 375 million people worldwide identify as vegetarian, not even close to what it would take to slow down the present rate of environmental destruction caused by this industry.

Unfortunately, statistics about diabetes treatment costs and vague notions about environmental impacts are rarely on the forefront of someone’s mind when their diet is dictated by price, not choice. It seems that to most of the public, these dangers are neither immediate nor real; most will concede that they are aware of the detrimental health effects of fast food on their body, but it’s an allowance they’re willing to make in exchange for dollar hamburgers. In blaming the consumer, we only punish those who are already victimized by an economic system that limits their access to healthy and practical food options. Nutritious food choices are often denied to people who live in food deserts, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.” Dietary habits are a highly emotionally charged matter of personal choice, and no one takes kindly to being told what they should or shouldn’t eat. But by feeding our money into this exploitative system that continues to be unchecked, we are charging that decision to a credit card that will hit its limit sooner than later.