Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Can the Free Market Stop the Fast Food Death Cult?

Dismounting MeanMesa's "High Horse"
Clearing the air.
Both the pot and the kettle are black.

In this modern society a number of complex, complicated problems appear to be so complex and complicated that, while we can consider them fairly rationally for a few minutes, the interdependent nature of the obstacles and, well, the complications in them drive such questions into a state in which they are simply -- and, perhaps,  passively -- accepted as "imponderables." In every instance, it seems, just as some sort of solution, or even partial solution, begins to emerge, one of these "lurking complications" quickly rushes into the equation to crush whatever might have been achieved.

Of course the particular "modern problem" in our cross hairs for this post is our immense, self-destructive penchant for "gobbling down" fast food just as fast as minimum wage employees operating the stainless steel corporate burger, taco and pizza factories can produce it. Although it's always fun and self-aggrandizing for someone such as MeanMesa to adopt an aloof demeanor, arrogantly proclaiming, "Lips which touch fast food shall never touch mine," such a statement would seriously dent Short Current Essay's famous reputation for always "speaking the truth."

That "truth" is that MeanMesa loves a nice, greasy fast food burger once in a while! In fact, certain days arrive with an almost obsessive appetite for one of the drippy, paper wrapped "little jewels." And, on those days MeanMesa -- without any hesitation whatsoever -- steps into line, cash in hand, stomach rumbling in anticipation and "strikes" a deal with the eager, bright faced teenager at the order window.

With all these cushioning caveats presented so convincingly and MeanMesa's Styrofoam encased, oily mea culpa out of the way, we're ready to take a hard look at the damage this habit is causing and a possible solution. An alternative to America's fast food habit is, hopefully, not an imponderable.

Just to "up the ante" a little, let's reword that last sentence to say "A free market alternative to America's fast food habit is, hopefully, not an imponderable."

America's Fast Food Addiction:
 A Cluster of Causes
A bacon cheese burger hiding in a thicket of "multiple constraints"

How, exactly, have we arrived at this place?

80% of the millions of Americans eating fast food today are fully aware of the habit's terrible health consequences. It's absolutely not a matter of "Gee whiz. I never knew." Literally hundreds of boring nutritional studies have been confronting everyone with a television set for decades -- all delivering the same message.

Further, even given the general psychology of our population which now dutifully trembles in dread with each new revelation about air pollution, bad pharmaceuticals, unfit water and identity theft, the fast food phenomenon cannot be handily rendered as the mere result of some insidious conspiracy.

No one "tricked" us into this habit. In fact, no one "tricked" anyone. As a population we offered up every temptation to design both the marketed service and the marketed product. The business plan for marketing all these cheeseburgers was also destined to be inevitably successful. Predictably, the consumers with this carefully groomed appetite did their part as they spun out a respectable clutch of fast food millionaires and an even more impressive population of successful franchise operators.

We can surmise a number of "persuasive factors" which are at play in the affairs of those who eat fast food regularly. In this very general way we can briefly "explain" this curious penchant for fast food. We need to do this in order to set the stage for MeanMesa's possible alternative later in this post.

In any event our effort to describe the "generalities" driving America's appetite binge for fast food would quickly become hollow if we focused exclusively on the food itself. Still, we can start with that aspect.

1. It's cheap. The price per fast food calorie is among the lowest which can be found in any of our social culture's typical food choices.

Much of the rest of the planet's population subsists on menus significantly cheaper, but those subsistence menus are generally supported mainly by beans, rice and corn. In most cases these are augmented by regional crops which can be grown nearby. A major segment of the Earth's population relies on catching sea food.

The additional costs for expenses such as refrigeration, transportation to open food markets, food quality and safety management and even procuring cooking heat further complicate matters in the world's poorest regions. An unpleasant variety of other social conditions ranging from access to clean water, failed local governments, military violence, and so on make matters worse.

However, for this post we will concentrate on US fast food appetites.

Even a very conscientious expedition into a modern US grocery isn't going to offer much relief. Yes, a family food budget can be managed and maximized, but menus begin to suffer immediately when the priority of cost savings begins to dominate other factors such as nutrition, convenience and established tastes. Family nutrition falters when the food within the budget is rejected by family members' taste habits.

2. Meat, fat and salt have always been tasty.

Paleoanthropologists describe the evolutionary shift occurring as the previously herbivore pre-human hominids gradually became omnivores. Adding a little meat to those diets provided food energy reserves which increased the range of possible travel. In no time the production of meat exploded to ultimately reach its current scale.

Abundant research is now revealing that we humans have been eating way too much meat for centuries. We have, of course, also been reaping the inevitable "rewards" of the habit. In developing economies adding regular meat dishes to traditional diets has become a token of "economic success." For a few hundred centuries in our distant past a "rotund girth" on a man or woman became the unmistakable evidence of competitive prosperity.

Ironically, in the contemporary American social culture that "rotund girth," now called over weight or obesity, has been equally unmistakable evidence of the opposite. Poor Americans, largely thanks to readily available, cheap fast food options are the ones who suffer from over weight the most.

3. Fast food is an easier option than preparing a meal.

At first we may think of the fast food option as a means to avoid standing in the kitchen putting together a meal for the family, that is, thawing something from the freezer, running the oven or a fry pan long enough to bake or saute an entree, slicing up some green vegetables for a salad and so on. However, this view of the fast food option omits a measurable collection of other activities which are also involved in the "home made kitchen alternative."

These "additional tasks" associated with the "kitchen option" include making shopping lists, planning menus, managing food spoilage in the refrigerator or elsewhere, keeping the kitchen clean -- in addition to the dishes which must be kept clean and in some cases managing the actual trips to procure supplies. This last issue may seem a little mysterious for blog visitors who have never had the experience of, say, taking a bus to the grocery and returning on the bus with six bags of food.

This last matter can become even more challenging and time consuming if reaching the nearest grocery requires a thirty or forty five minute bus commute. Worse, drivers already carrying a full load of bus passengers have a uniquely unsettling grimace for the passenger hobbling on board with six bags of groceries and a gallon of milk.

Fast food eliminates the after meal task of washing dishes or loading a dishwasher. It may even be reasonable to add that fast food meals are generally much less likely to produce "leftovers" which must be stored for a snack later.

4. Fast food offers a "variety of delights."

An unavoidable part of the "non-fast food" dinner option is courting the creative impulse of "deciding" what, exactly, will be on the menu. Of course there will be the matter of what food is available, how much time will be required and the question of whether or not the kids will be interested in the result.

On the other hand this "menu challenge" becomes much more comfortably finite when the question is reduced to the eleven choices on a franchise ordering menu. Fast food eaters gradually begin to think of the choices on that factory made franchise sign behind the ordering window as a "full spectrum" of all existing dinner possibilities. Think of this as compared to the astonishing, comprehensive content which one might find in an old fashioned encyclopedia's article under the general title of "food."

What do YOU want to be when you grow up? [image]
When the offerings on one franchise's menu board begin to grow lackluster, perhaps the result of simply eating too many of the meals, the change to a different menu board is just as effortless and mechanical as, well, not changing.

The "marriage" between fast food and advertising apparently occurred while Adam and Eve still thought apples were, somehow, "heavenly." While some consumer products are theoretically difficult to advertise, fast food items are not among them. Commercials for synthetic motor oil or the latest video game rely on inciting complex mental "idea making" in the hope of a decision leading to a sale, but images of a hot pizza or a deliciously greasy chili burger with guacamole and fried onion rings reach directly into the mechanics of one's digestive system -- and one's habits.

5. We know better, over and over, every time.

After a decade of inundating reports about the health risks of eating fast food, hardly anyone can continue to claim ignorance of the practice's disadvantages. However, all those admonitions deal with long term negative effects, and the common decisions to have "just one more" are "issues of the moment." Further, these "decisions of the moment" are made amid all the other conditions of modern life which almost inevitably accompany such moments.

Still, Americans are able to gaze down and ignore their gradually expanding waist lines before they state their order into the microphone in a drive through franchise store. Exhausted mothers, having just completed a full day's work, glimpse the growing bellies of their own children but still ask them if they want fries or an extra large iced soft drink. This comfortable avoidance often falters, at least for a moment, after the fast food meal has been consumed, and the family car is, once again, headed home for a night of sedentary television viewing.

No sincere parent can claim to be completely at ease with an eight year old who is already twenty pounds overweight. Likewise, not even the busiest adult with only enough time for a "quick sandwich" on the way to an appointment can effortlessly dislodge that last blood pressure warning or trousers with a waist measurement eleven inches larger than ten years before.

We all know better. [image]
Years ago a young acquaintance of MeanMesa shared his own chilling reflection of a typical "dinner time" in his childhood home. Both the adults in the family were highly educated and notably successful in business. There was a massive suburban house in an exclusive neighborhood with a fleet of fine cars in the garage. His account says it all. His mother would call to the family, "Okay kids, it's time for dinner. Get your coats."

From all appearances this prosperous family could have comfortably afforded both a part time house keeper and a part time cook.

A Quick Look at "Lunch in the Good Old Days"
It didn't seem like anything special at the time.

MeanMesa is firmly convinced that there is a viable fast food alternative. As usual, while such a solution does not promise a perfect alternative, it does herald the possibility of a very significant improvement. Let's have a look.

For a beginning we must indulge ourselves in a very short story about "fast food" in the times before the fast food craze began its cross country march after the first McDonald's turned on its neon lights in Chicago in 1955.

MeanMesa was working in a small machine company which manufactured a variety of specialty transmissions. The shop was located in an "industrial" area of Dodge City, Kansas. At lunch time pretty much the entire shift drove a mile or two to the nearest roadside "cafe/diner." When we arrived there, we joined a line of other customers waiting outside for lunch. The eatery's staff moved through this line or arrivals handing each one a [3.2% Coors] beer and taking an order.

The inside of the place was huge. There was a vast expanse of wood plank picnic tables. A sad country western song filled the place from a crackling juke box stationed along one side. To complete this ancient picture, a "go-go" cage was dangling from a chain in the middle of the room with a local girl mechanically performing what was for Dodge City, Kansas, deep within the Bible belt in the mid-20th Century, a tempting, semi-salacious, yet fully clothed dance of sorts.

Importantly, the menu of the place's offerings for lunch was scrawled on a large blackboard which could be seen from the line out outside. Each day's fare amounted to the choice of perhaps six casseroles which had been prepared that morning. Ordering was simple: pick a number.

The smell of those delicious casseroles was unavoidably inebriating -- even from outside the restaurant. The cost [not adjusted for inflation] was around $2.50. For that price a customer would receive a paper plate with a quite respectable portion and a single bottle of beer. The place's policy was to make certain that every customer had eaten his fill. When one presented an empty plate to one of the waitresses, he would receive another serving without charge. It was a rare case when a customer could eat more than two helpings.

Additional bottles of beer were fifty cents.

In reflection it is clear that the casseroles were prepared from the daily bargains available in the local groceries. The various recipes used to "engineer" a day's menu offerings could claim nothing particularly elaborate. Many recipes were repeated frequently.

As for nutritional considerations, one of these meals could also make no specific claims, either. The food was wholesome and delicious. Most of the recipes included beef or chicken, a few vegetables, rice or pasta and a few other very pedestrian ingredients. One had the enduring suspicion that the recipes had probably originated in the chow hall of one of the local ranches.

Altering the Course of the Fast Food "Juggernaut"
It takes twenty miles to turn around an oil tanker.

It's hardly a "new" question. But if not fast food, then what?

All manner of alternate ideas about replacing the fast food industry with something less destructive began to surface when the waves of health warnings became "media trendy." Unhappily, in every case one element or another of the factors driving the consumer market's obsession with the "meals" as they currently existed was left unanswered by the latest version of such a replacement.

It began to appear that allure of "cheap, quick, greasy, salty, convenient, no grocery shopping, no left overs and no dirty dishes" had staked out an unassailable market position which could never be challenged by any of the proposed alternatives. Was there simply no possible way to "bend the curve" which could possibly break this market driven, fast food consumption death spiral? 

Well, there might be.

Any plan with this ambition will have to "address" the factors cited above as an explanation for the fast food habit's current popularity. By "address" we mean to consider the following general requirements in roughly this order of priority:

1. Some sort of "wholesome" meal must be available at or below the common cost of its fast food alternative. This means "kitchen" wholesome, not "whole foods" wholesome. Solely offering an improved "food plan" will not suffice. This will require a "sustainable business plan" which encompasses such a "food plan."

2. This kind of food must accommodate the current market's penchant for -- hey, insistence on -- very fast preparation on demand.

3. The meal offerings in an "alternative" basic menu must be palatable, at least palatable enough that when the guilty feeling from eating the existing offerings is replaced with the positive feeling of eating something much more nutritious, what remains is strong enough to drive a sustainable consumer market.

4. The consumer market must become confident, at the point of purchase, that a satisfactory meal need not be offered exclusively as a "menu selection." Yes, we're talking daily casseroles or something like them. Further, a responsible replacement serving to replace a fast food competitor will require require a much better nutritional balance while offering a competitive "palate."

Happily, none of these things represents an insurmountable obstacle. A few creative new ideas and a solid dose of American "know how" should be enough to turn the trick.

A Tour of the Kitchen
 in MeanMesa's Fast Food Diner
There's no need to think about buying a franchise.

One great aspect of this idea is that it does not require an investment in scale. Anyone interested in giving this a try need only shop for an appropriate spot to lease and start looking for some usable "used" kitchen equipment. Of course each new entrepreneur will tailor the idea to his or her own vision, and regardless of the initial form such an enterprise might take, expect a serious "learning curve" to begin almost immediately.

Let's take a peek at how MeanMesa would approach this business adventure.

The "casserole part" of the design is extremely straightforward. The GOOGLE has casserole recipes by the hundreds, and just a wee bit of experimentation at home will yield candidates for a "starter set." 

The idea of casseroles began as a means to stretch dinner options with a very modest amount of the most expensive ingredients. The "casserole trick" home makers have known for centuries was to include less expensive components in a way that left the entire result tasting delicious and "somewhat expensive."

Remember, the daily fare will always reflect what bargains and sales are to be found in the local groceries, so recipes should be selected which can exploit these good values at low prices. There might be one vegetarian entree each day, but no more than that. Americans like meat.

Three or four large pans of delicious casseroles will be a good place to start. Dinner sales will chart your course and recipe choices after things get rolling. Paying attention to a few "minor adjustments" in the kitchen routine of preparing these casseroles will move your diner's nutritional content way beyond your "frozen grease and salt" competitors.

Next, an oven filled with plenty of baked potatoes and yams seems like a good idea. These can be sold as side dishes. Naturally, the diner's kitchen should have a spot for a good automatic rice cooker and a nice big canister of brown rice. Most casserole recipes will include pasta, but some customers will prefer to "build their own dinner" with their favorite form of carbohydrates. A fresh roll can be offered, although baking bread "in house" may be better left for later.

When it comes to "building one's own dinner" an important nutritional requirement is for fresh vegetables prepared in a way that leaves vitamins, minerals and fiber in tact. MeanMesa's idea is, at least at first, to steam fresh produce is a quick steamer. The morning grocery trip will provide the vegetables to be offered with the day's al a carte customers.

The fresh vegetables already cut up and waiting for customers should be choices which will steam at roughly the same rate. Timing is important. Since the meals being prepared and sold will be "take out," partially steaming may prove to be the most satisfactory.

In the interests of good nutrition a very plain green salad should be available. Prepared from a collection of reasonably priced selections, a large chiller pot of salad can be prepared in the morning and offered in individual "carry out" portions very quickly. The same can be said for a modest "carry out" portion of fresh fruit -- always determined by the day's bargains available in the grocery.

The vegetable steamers, the salad and the fruit represent a serious improvement over the fast food competition -- especially when the meals are intended for children.

The "take home" idea is a good one for a start up business. It eliminates the cost and maintenance of a dining room, public restrooms and even parking spaces, and the decision makes the facility requirements easier and cheaper, too, not to mention somewhat streamlining your dealings with the local health inspector

There are also good choices for sensibly priced, environmentally sensitive [or even reusable...] thermal packaging.

A purist may purchase brown rice and steamed vegetables, while a block layer may want a serious serving of everything that's for sale. The working mother with three hungry children might want a generous serving of one or two kinds of casserole, fresh green salad, and baked potatoes or brown rice.

Once all this arrives at home the table can be set, and the dinner can be placed in the microwave. If the vegetables have only been partially steamed, they will emerge from a microwave in a perfect state.

Now a note about prices.

If the kids are hungry, a working mother will plan for a fast food cost of around $3-$5 per child. The target pricing for a meal from this diner should be at that rate or lower -- and it can be. After a market population has been developed, a nutritious meal for a young child could be sold for significantly less than this.

Children -- as little human omnivores -- should, at least theoretically, be quite interested in eating food from this type of menu. Of course, it would not surprise anyone if this turned out not to be the case in the beginning, but because of its convenience and availability, those picky little eaters may very likely encounter these meals far more often than what might result from a parent's sincere decision to "do something about what the kids are eating."

Although the press of daily events might cause such an intention to falter over time, this alternative presents a convenient, pragmatic approach to permanently improving the children's appetite for more wholesome food. [If the necessity is present, "tomorrow's" school lunch can also be conveniently organized from these same dishes.]

With respect to marketing and pricing, just a little leg work might possibly secure the authorization to provide meals [especially to children] which are paid for from monthly food stamp allotments. Another possibility is to offer weekly or monthly "lunch cards" for the cases when a working parent must be absent at dinner time.

MeanMesa thinks that children are far too precious not to be fed as well as possible -- all children from all classes and situations. The reasons justifying why this is not happening are simply not good enough.

Just a Wee Bit About the 2014 Farm Bill
Not all of it reeks of Republican cruelty, classism and tax cuts.

Emerging from the already heavily soiled Republican controlled Congress, the "bipartisan" 2014 Farm Bill [Read more  here - USDA Farm Bill] actually contained a few things which might, at least potentially, benefit those Americans who don't control gigantic corporate farms with big subsidies, or who don't have a team of eager K Street lobbyists on the pay roll. Relax. MeanMesa intends to skip all the really disgusting parts in favor of mentioning just a couple of thing that have to do with this post.

1. The bill provides crop insurance for smaller farms which raise a variety of crops. This is new. The bill's authors hope this will encourage more local food production instead of just insuring massive "commodity" based agricultural businesses.

2. The bill includes resource money to promote local farmers markets -- especially in places where groceries selling fresh produce are limited. Federal regulations which control these farmers markets, while not necessarily relaxed across the board, have largely replaced the previous agribusiness "plantation owner" versions with more rational regulations dealing more with locally consumable food availability than corporate profits, tax loop holes and subsidies.

The point is simple enough. 

A local, successful farmers market would be an excellent partner for one of these new-style diners.

No comments:

Post a Comment