A while back, we posted an e-mail on this blog from a reader named Ralph Thomas:
It has been my gut-level (sorry, pun) feeling for a while now that the McDonald’s McDouble, at 390 Calories, 23g (half a daily serving) of protein, 7% of daily fiber, 20% of daily calcium and iron, etc., is the cheapest, most nutritious, and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history.
This is the kind of statement that most people cannot help but argue with, in one direction or the other (but yeah, mostly in one direction). Is the McDouble really the modern miracle that Thomas suggests, or a food abomination, a perfect symbol of the over-engineered, overabundant food cycle we’re trapped in?
Philpott, a longtime columnist on food and agriculture at Grist, now writes for Mother Jones and runs Maverick Farms, a smart-farming education center in the mountains of western North Carolina. He is in favor of organic farming and against pesticides, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer; he has argued that the meat industry abuses workers and that McDonald’s underpays employees.
Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, runs Hurst Greenery. He’s a third-generation farmer, a former hog farmer who now grows 4,500 acres of no-till row crops including corn and soybeans; he also grows a lot of flowers. Among his written defenses of modern farming are “Don’t Presume to Know a Pig’s Mind” (in the N.Y. Times) and “The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals” (in The American). (And here is Tom Philpott criticizing Hurst’s “Omnivore’s Delusion” essay.)
FWIW, McDonald’s has 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries, serving serving nearly 69 million a day.
Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio, it’s that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name. It is “the hidden side of everything.” Dubner, how are you man?
Stephen J. DUBNER: Kai, I’m great. Thank you. Nice to talk to you. You like riddles, don’t you, Kai?
RYSSDAL: I do.
DUBNER: Alright, let me try something out on you then. A listener of ours, a fellow named Ralph Thomas, recently asked us to weigh in on what he calls “the cheapest, most nutritious, and bountiful food that has ever existed in history.” He says It’s got 390 calories, 23 grams of protein, substantial portions of calcium and iron, and it costs only a buck or two. So Kai Ryssdal, let me ask you this, what food is Ralph talking about?
RYSSDAL: It’s got to be like tofu, or soy, or some kind of thing. Right?
DUBNER: God you’re smart.
RYSSDAL: I know!
DUBNER: But you’re wrong, also.
RYSSDAL: You do that to me all the time. What is that?
DUBNER: It’s the McDonald’s McDouble hamburger.
RYSSDAL: No it’s not! Stop it.
DUBNER: Well this is Ralph’s argument, and you responded the way a lot of people respond. We actually brought in a bunch of McDoubles here at WNYC for the staff, and this was definitely not a McDonald’s crowd. Check this out:
STAFF 1: Not nutritious at all.
STAFF 2: Zero nutrition.
STAFF 3: I would say from zero to kale...
STAFF 4: Technically there are pickles, so I think there are vegetables.
STAFF 5: They’re not like real pickles, you know what I mean? It’s like McDonald’s somehow has engineered their own version of the pickle.
STAFF 6: They’re, you know, a piece of synecdoche for American, mass, bland, synthetic, corporatism.
RYSSDAL: Alright so a couple of things: One, synecdoche, good word. Two, I always did like McDonald’s pickles. And number three, c'mon that’s the public radio crowd. You heard the lady: “zero to kale,” c’mon.
DUBNER: That is exactly right. And that’s kinda my point. The more I thought about Ralph Thomas’s question – again, whether the McDouble is the cheapest, most bountiful, and most nutritious food ever – the more I realized that how you answer that question says a lot about how you see the world, not only our food system, but also the economics of it and even social justice.
RYSSDAL: Whoa dude, where is this coming from?
DUBNER: Well, we set up a little debate on the McDouble between two people - I’d like to play you some of that. One is a health food activist, the other a sort of scholarly farmer. The activist is Tom Philpott, he is a food columnist for Mother Jones, and he says sure, the McDouble is cheap, but that’s because the price does not factor in all the external costs.
Tom PHILPOTT: In order to present to us all that $2 burger, you’re talking about a vast army of working poor people. And that doesn’t even get to the farmer who grew the corn and soy.
DUBNER: Okay, so on the other side is Blake Hurst, who is a corn and soy farmer, and he is the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. Hurst points out that this vast army of working people are also consumers who benefit from low prices.
Blake HURST: It’s pretty easy to say everyone ought to get paid more, I’m in favor of that, particularly in my own case, but pay is only good in so much as what it can buy. And what you can buy is a McDonald’s cheeseburger for just a little over a buck in almost 14,000 restaurants. And that is a good thing.
RYSSDAL: Alright, so value judgements aside, that’s the cheap part of this equation. What about the “bountiful” thing you were talking about?
DUBNER: Well as Blake Hurst points out, 14,000 Mickey D’s in the U.S. alone where you can pop in whenever you need a burger – and this highlights a larger issue that he feels is wildly overlooked:
HURST: The biggest unreported story of the last three quarters of a century this increase of the availability of food for the common person.
RYSSDAL: And I’ll give him that. That is, generally speaking, a good thing. You can’t turn around nowadays without finding food.
DUBNER: That’s right. In most places, that’s absolutely true. According to the Global Food Security Index that The Economist publishes, the United States is number one in the world – meaning food is very bountiful. Now, that comes with its own problems of course.
RYSSDAL: Alright but Dubner, listen: The point of the original question is that if you had a bunch of people to feed cheaply, and you wanted to feed them at least reasonably well, what would you give them. What’s the answer?
DUBNER: Well, here’s Tom Philpott’s very Mother Jones-ey idea:
PHILPOTT: You can get a pound of brown rice, organic, and a pound of red lentils for about two bucks each. And a serving size, say a cup of each of those things, would be about 75 cents.
DUBNER: Okay, so that’s that. And here’s how Blake Hurst, the farmer, sees things:
HURST: Yeah, but I rest my case. I’m sorry, there is no amount of marketing that’s going to make me prefer brown rice and lentils over a McDonald’s cheeseburger.
RYSSDAL: All right, well maybe he’s got a point. Who won the debate though, dude?
DUBNER: I’ll let your listeners decide. As you see, people have very strong opinions about this stuff, fact-based or otherwise. In my own home, I’ve got one kid who loves McDonald’s and another who won’t go anywhere near it, and that’s how it goes with these things. So, I guess I got to call Tom Philpott back to get some nice recipes for lentils and rice - I got to feed my daughter.
RYSSDAL: Yeah that’s right. Good luck on that one. Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics.com is the website. Dubner, we’ll talk to you soon.
DUBNER: Thanks for having me Kai.