It used to be that preparing meals for a family took a woman most of the day, especially back when she had to raise and slaughter whatever animals provided meat and grow her own produce.
Nowadays, we can buy, say, lasagna from the freezer section of the grocery store, bread from the deli section, and a bag or two of salad from the produce section.
That can provide a complete meal for a family with practically no effort. As a percentage of the family’s income, it probably costs less than our great grandparents paid for one of their meals.
What is the real cost of this convenience? Let me count the ways:
1. The energy costs of manufacturing, packaging, and distributing the food, not to mention hauling the used packaging away from the house, contribute to each person’s carbon footprint. We have not yet devised any method of manufacturing, transportation, or waste management that does not result in some kind of pollution. We import too much of our energy, most from nations that are not our friends.
2. The manufacturer of the lasagna has spent a great deal of money to determine how to make the tastiest product it can with the lowest cost. There’s nothing wrong with trying to provide good value and get repeat business. Unfortunately, the lasagna, along with all other prepared meals, gives its pleasure through layers of fat, sugar, and salt. The human body easily becomes addicted to the accumulation of these ingredients, resulting in our current obesity epidemic, with all its consequences for people’s health.
3. The whole meal probably came from miles away. In addition to the transportation costs, the distance has an accountability cost. Remember when packaged spinach was recalled? Carelessness at one farm resulted in contaminated spinach. That spinach was mixed together with spinach from other farms and distributed all over the country. Some of the packages contained toxins from the contamination. Most probably did not. And yet all of it had to be recalled. There was no economical way to determine which few packages were not fit to sell.
More could be said, but this is enough for one post. Do I mean we have to give up all our conveniences? No. I’d rather cook my own lasagna than buy it from the freezer section, but I certainly like having packaged mixed greens available. I wouldn’t eat multiple kinds of lettuce fast enough to keep from throwing most of it out.
Meanwhile, I do believe that if more people cooked their own lasagna and/or clamored for real food, the kind you actually have to chew, restaurants and manufacturers would be happy to supply more wholesome and less addictive products. After all, if people stop buying addictive food that makes them unfit and unhealthy, manufacturers will have no choice but to start making what customers will want.
It would be nice if more things could be grown, packaged, and distributed locally. A bad batch of something would not require destruction of the good with the bad over half the country.
Does convenience have to cost so much? Can we find a way to get the costs under control? Are “efficiencies of scale” really all that efficient?