“Clowning” with Six Degrees of Food News

Editor’s note: What does the opening of a McDonald’s in Beijing have to rising food prices in the US, or food riots in other parts of the developing world? Plenty, according to Jen Humphrey, a student in Professor 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, 2008.

Anyone else find this photo creepy?


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

The photo depicts 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.

Image credit: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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