Usually, when people complain about food prices or how much dining out costs, I’m always the first to either ignore the complaint or justify it. Between the cost of ingredients, supplies, paying people a livable wage, prep time, expertise, and rent, I used to be astonished that a steak ever cost less than $25.
So, what I’m about to say is either an indication that food prices are out of control or that I’ve gotten old. Or both.
Food Prices: The Gyro
Recently, Hubster went for dinner at a local restaurant. He ordered a gyro and a soda.
With a tip, it cost $20.54. I was like, “WTAF?!”
His initial reaction was shock, but he tried to give them the benefit of the doubt:
- They’re local
- They’re a small business
- It was a big gyro
But over $20 for one person to have a single food item and a drink is, frankly, unaffordable. That’s three hours of work (gross, not net) at the federal minimum wage, which is also my state’s minimum wage.
That’s almost a third of an eight-hour shift for one meal. That’s a lot for something you need to survive. Meaning food, not a gyro.
Who do we yell at here? Do we go all Karen and speak to a manager? Not even close.
Who Do We Blame for Food Prices?
As a regular restaurant diner, you’d think I’d be angry at the restaurant, and initially, I was. But then I remembered their prices are a reaction to a larger economic problem. This is systemic, not localized.
When I say “localized,” I don’t just mean the individual eatery. I also mean it as “individualized” or “personal.”
Case in point: A lot of folks would argue that someone being paid minimum wage shouldn’t be dining out, drinking soda, and so on. However, making food prices an individual or personal issue is a quick way to demonstrate a few futile ways of thinking. It shows that we:
- Think we have a right to control what other people put in their bodies
- Think we have a right to other people’s personal finances
- Aren’t exercising empathy
- Lack an understanding of macroeconomics
Let me use Hubster in a hypothetical scenario to demonstrate this point. Let’s say Hubster was being paid the minimum wage. He could’ve drank water, which would’ve saved $3. He also could’ve skipped tipping, which was $3.42. (Note: We never skip tipping, and I’ll get into that later.)
The gyro alone was still $13. With tax, it comes in at $13.91. Folks, that’s still two hours of work at gross minimum wage.
“Just Eat at Home!”
Do you really want me to do this? Do you want me to calculate how much a homemade gyro would’ve cost? Well, I’m not gonna. I’m gonna let someone else do it.
That link is to Budget Bytes, a cooking website that’s been around forever and breaks down meals by cost. They don’t have a recipe for gyros, but they do have one for Greek chicken wraps. This is, in theory, cheaper than traditional gyros because ground lamb is pricey compared to chicken. Adjusting the Budget Bytes recipe for one serving and adding up how much you’ll spend on ingredients, it’s $2.42 per serving.
That’s an incredible savings, right? Eating at home is a no-brainer!
Except it’s not.
What a lot of people forget about eating at home is the cost of time and energy. If you’re single, childfree, work one 40-hour-a-week job, and aren’t suffering from the limitations of a disability, sure. I can see the case for cooking at home. You’ve got Greek chicken wraps for the whole week. Yay!
Just remember to properly store the leftovers, transport them with an ice pack during your commute, get them in the fridge as soon as you get to work, and hope no one steals your lunch. And don’t forget your lunch bag before you leave work! Or on the train! Oh! And get that ice pack in the freezer, so it’s ready for tomorrow. Or make sure you buy more than one.
That’s my ADHD brain panicking, but easy, right?
What happens if that’s not your scenario?
A Sociology Lesson about Money
When I was teaching sociology, we’d do an activity to demonstrate what it was like living on minimum wage. Mind you, the last time I taught was in 2019, so this was 2023 pre-inflation. Also, this was a community college in an affluent section of town. This was a valuable lesson for a lot of students, especially working in groups with those who’d already done some living outside of their childhood homes.
Here’s how the activity went, and props to whoever came up with this:
Students worked in groups. They’d pick from index cards that explained their circumstances, like a family of four, a couple, or a single mother of two. As those families, students created monthly budgets. Then, they pulled from another stack of cards to determine their income: $100,000 a year, minimum wage, etc. After that, they revised their monthly budgets.
This was, without question, one of my favorite activities to watch.
The groups with families being paid the minimum wage immediately started cutting stuff from their budgets. Transportation was almost always the first to go.
Meanwhile, the family making $100,000 planned vacations and often had two cars.
Then came the wildcards.
Sometimes, I’d decide who got what; sometimes, they had to pick more cards. If I felt particularly evil, I’d make the minimum-wage group suffer a massive medical bill.
Almost every time this happened, the family turned to crime. I’m not joking. They’d be like, “Well, I guess we’re selling drugs” or “we’re selling our bodies.” The laughter of discomfort would always take over.
To be extra, I’d give the family making $100k a year a $5,000 bonus.
The responses? “Sweet! Extra vacation!”
The point of the lesson: Cooking at home is not always cheaper, realistic, or fair.
Imagine if we did that activity in a classroom now.
In Another Set of Circumstances
If we’re to make food prices an individualized problem, we must consider everyone’s individual circumstances, right? Returning to my teaching years, cooking at home was damn near impossible for me. My circumstances were extreme, yes, but that’s the game we’re playing here.
For a few years, I was teaching at three different colleges and commuting to three different suburbs multiple times a week. I worked from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Returning home for a meal was not an option unless I wanted to add at least an hour a day (which I did not have) and quite a bit of gas money to my budget. Plus, to carry food with me meant carrying all the materials for my six or seven classes, plus my personal belongings, plus my meals. And I wasn’t always guaranteed access to a refrigerator or a microwave.
As I inevitably passed a million drive-throughs, dining out was cheaper and easier.
Looking at today’s economy, I think about people working two minimum-wage jobs who also have kids. Like, how in the hell do they do it?
This is what I mean by empathy. We cannot look at the minimum-wage worker and say, “I’ll blame you for your circumstances, but I won’t commend you for shit.”
And let’s not get into how I was working 60-plus hours a week, not quite making $40,000 a year, getting zero benefits, but was shamed for eating Wendy’s because it was “expensive” and I’m fat.
That’s a post for another day.
Food Prices Are Not Your Individual Fault
Last week, a piece came out about how much you have to make to “afford a one-bedroom rental home in any state in the U.S. without spending more than the recommended 30 percent on their income,” and the news is fucking bleak.
If folks being paid $7.25 can’t afford housing and who work more than one job and who rely on public transportation to commute and who can’t afford a damn gyro, then that’s a much bigger problem than what they opted to eat for lunch.
It’s not on restaurants either. If they survived the pandemic, they have a lot of stuff to deal with including the justifiable demand for a living wage. Most small restaurants are trying to keep up too.
This is also not about how people don’t want to work or that tipping is out of control. While there could’ve been a labor shortage because over 1.1 million Americans have died from COVID, we also know people simply aren’t settling for minimum wage because they can’t afford it. Moreover, unemployment is low, which means people looking for jobs are struggling to find them. If someone’s complaining about a labor shortage, I’d bet they aren’t paying a livable wage.
Beyond that, how can anyone blame tipping? The workers making the tipped wage in Iowa ($4.35 an hour) need those tips more than anyone, but anyone in Iowa being paid less than $16.55 an hour is gonna have that housing problem from the Buzzfeed article.
This isn’t on the individual.
The Actual Food Price Problem: Price Gouging AKA Greed
OK, so you’re like, “I thought this was about food prices.” It is.
- There’s a new, local, much-hyped restaurant near me that’s charging $32 for a carrot dish.
- I spent $9.22 for a large chai (with tip) somewhere else.
- A cheap meal I used to order at Wendy’s cost $5 in 2019 now costs $9.49. That’s almost double in four years.
That’s not normal nor is it standard inflation. That is unchecked price gouging on a systemic level. That’s the top of the food industry saying, “People need to eat, and we want to recoup pandemic losses, so we’re going to charge whatever we want, and people are going to keep spending it because they don’t have a choice.” To mix metaphors, this is corporations testing the waters to see how deep their pockets can go.
Don’t mistake what I’m saying. That one restaurant, that one coffeeshop, Wendy’s, the gyro place . . . they aren’t all like, “Let’s ruin the average American’s bank account!” They’re reacting to the need to stay afloat. They’re being forced to pay high prices for everything they need, and to survive, they pass that cost on to us. But it starts at the top of the food supply chain, if you will.
What we’re being told in the media is that prices are due to inflation. We will never hear that it’s because of unregulated capitalism, and we won’t hear as often about price gouging. To criticize profit or capitalism is akin to being unAmerican. Imagine if the government tried to lower prices on anything that people see as optional. Food, weirdly, is seen as optional, especially dining out.
All you have to do to see the source of the problem is look at profits for the top three food corporations:
- PepsiCo: 2022 total assets: $92,187,000
- Tyson: 2022 total assets: $36,821,000
- Nestle: 2022 total assets: $135,182,000
Maybe you’re like, “I don’t have a problem with those corporations making a profit. That’s capitalism!”
If that’s the case, then why be mad at increased costs at small restaurants or tipping? That’s also capitalism.
Personally, if I’m to live within capitalism–and I must–my issue is with the three corporations (and their ilk) with assets totaling $264,190,000.
A $13 gyro sucks. Unchecked greed sucks more.