Let Them Eat Cake! Thoughts About Wealth, Power and the Food Industry

This post, in which I talk about one of the richest ironies of the modern-day food industry, is a bit more pointy-headed and academic than the typical Casual Kitchen article. I thought I'd better warn readers in advance. As always, please share your thoughts and feedback in the comments section.
In a typical economy, things like wealth and income are nearly always unevenly distributed. It's unavoidable in a free society to have a wide range of wealth levels, and even in relatively egalitarian cultures it's not uncommon to find a small number of Bill Gates- or Warren Buffet-type people who possess vast sums of wealth.

However, societies also have an important obligation to address the let them eat cake* problem: the risk that great wealth in just a few hands could skew the prices and supply of basic needs like food, shelter and clothing, pushing them out of the reach of ordinary people.

Keep in mind, this was a serious issue hundreds of years ago. Go back and re-read your history from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries and you'll see how, even in the world's most "modern" societies, food was often scarce, and only the wealthiest people had the resources to secure a balanced and truly healthy diet. The rest of us were living in the mud.

Fortunately, things have changed. Radically. Today, the diversified economies of the modern era have food industries that are so flexible, so widely distributed, and so quick to respond to consumer demand, that the average citizen of the average developed economy now gets too much food. In fact, in many of the world's developed economies, the let them eat cake problem has morphed into a don't let them eat cake problem! One problem (and some might say one form of elitism) simply replaced another.

However, in a distributed and diversified modern economy, we can at least say that control over our food supply is no longer in the hands of a few inbred aristocrats. Even a preposterously wealthy guy like Bill Gates, whose personal net worth is nearly 500,000 times the USA's national median, can't even begin to skew things. If Bill Gates' food consumption were actually commensurate with his wealth, he would have to eat more than 1 million calories per day.

The image stuck in my mind is Mr. Burns crossed with Homer Simpson.

So, riddle me this: why was it so difficult--centuries ago--for the average person to get enough food, and yet today the average person gets too much food, and even the world's richest guy can't even begin to skew the food supply?

It puts a whole new perspective on wealth and power, doesn't it?

Readers, stay tuned: tomorrow I'll discuss who really holds the power over our food industry.

* For those of you interested in the origins of the expression "Let them eat cake!", the quote is widely (and probably wrongly) attributed to Marie Antoinette, wife of France's King Louis the 16th, in response to being told that her subjects had no bread. This was shortly before the French Revolution of 1789. The phrase essentially signifies how easy it can be for the elite of any society to be totally oblivious to the circumstances of the common person. Today, the phrase carries extra irony when applied to our media and (yes, at times) our political elites.

Related Posts:
The Worst Lie of the Food Blogosphere
How to Whine About "Big Food"
Obesity and the Obama Administration: A Blogger Roundtable Discussion
The Problem with Government Food Safety Regulation
Six Good Things About the Awful Economy

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dan pisacano said...

speaking of "different kind of elitism"... i've read that 1 billion people are starving or hungry while many of us have too much cake. with food so cheap as you note, i think this is a much more fundamental elitism - "i'm eating so much i'm 300lbs while 1/6th of the world starves."

i'm not pointing any fingers - i only give a small fraction of my income to hunger/dire need so i'm just as guilty as anyone (or everyone?) else.

Daniel said...

It's an excellent point Dan. I hadn't extended my discussion to developing economies since I have little expertise on the subject.

One thought: if you look at the lifecycle of most cultures, starvation drops off drastically when an economy becomes developed. Thus we should support and foster investment and economic development in the Third World.

What else do people think?


allyspie said...

I think this is just another huge arguement for eating less meat (or none at all - and I say this an occasional meat eater). There are vast amounts of food for those in developed economies because it's made so cheaply, but uses more then our share of the planet's resources, which could be drastically reduced with a shift towards a plant based diet. Maybe this isn't quite on point with this post, but I think it's worth mentioning, and ties into your next post about food blogs holding power in the food industy, and your blog in particular which encourages meatless, simplified meals.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the thoughts, appreciate you tying together so many of the themes I talk about here at Casual Kitchen.

In fact, eating less meat would also help solve the problem in the developed world of people getting far too many calories. It would be a step in the right direction towards combating obesity.


Carmen Forsman said...

I am working with a group of entrepreneurs in Mail that have identified a great business opportunity. In Mali, rice production is huge and growing – there is, without a doubt, more than enough rice to feed everyone in the country. The problem is that these small famers lack the capital to buy processing equipment and a few large “processing” companies monopolize that space. They buy all the rice from the famers (there is really no one else who will buy unprocessed rice) for a very, very low price (it is either this or the crop goes bad) and then these companies process the rice and add a 60-70% margin. Not many people can afford this rice, so some of it goes bad, but these businesses make out OK.

These entrepreneurs are starting (and have raised funds for) a large process plant that could serve most of the country. They will process the rice, fortify it with essential micronutrients and sell it to the population at a price they can afford, and make money. Private sector solutions have the advantage of being sustainable and not subject to the whims of the current administration or the strategic focus of a NGO.

I could go on…food insecurity is not a problem with supply; it is a problem with corrupt businesses and governments.


Retreat & Renew said...

I think it's true that we're not starving; however, for healthy food/habits our culture is...which is why such a large percentage of americans are obese. I do think this problem has to do with marketing and big business' relationship with food. People are not educated adequately on the subject, and are largely under-or-misinformed re: their diet, and how largely that impacts their health. Big business pays big bucks to influence what people buy or think is healthy, and they only do it for profit (using cheap ingredients regardless of health consequences) and it doesn't help that those same masses think health problems are tied to little pills they can take to make things all better!!! I really do think it's all abt. money, and would love to have a long discussion about it when you get back from your travels!!! :)

Jessica Barcomb said...

by the way, Dan, that last comment was from me, Jessica, Laura's cousin :)

Daniel said...

Sounds like that would be a perfect example for a case study for Columbia Business School, don't you think? :) Enterpreneurs with a little bit of capital break open a previously sealed market, and create value, both for themselves and for consumers. Thanks for sharing your always-interesting experiences!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! You are hitting on one of the fundamental reasons why this blog exists. Casual Kitchen is all about sharing solutions to the problems in our food industry, our diets and our pocketbooks. I'm looking forward to that conversation too.


Anonymous said...

The major problem is that the very poor can't afford to eat healthy food...they simply cannot afford it. Instead of consuming fruits, veggies, and lean cuts of meat, they're reduced to eating mac and cheese several times per day, or filling up on starchy, inexpensive foods. This is why the poor grow obese, not because they have "too much" food - that is never the case...it's because they can't afford to eat the RIGHT stuff.

The very wealthy, on the other hand, are extremely wasteful in most cases. The billionaires holed up in their 45 room mansion toss food and drink around like it's mere grains of sand. Parties, grand receptions, lavish dinners...and more food than is necessary is ordered in an attempt to impress the guests.

If only those in the top percentage of the wealth scale would stop hoarding their money like rats, more and more people on the lower rungs of society might not have to suffer so much.

Daniel said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for your comment. A few thoughts in response:

First, to respond to your comment about healthy food being expensive, please take an open-minded look at a post I wrote on this very subject.

As for the rest of your comment:

If only those in the top percentage of the wealth scale would stop hoarding their money like rats, more and more people on the lower rungs of society might not have to suffer so much.

Admittedly, this is getting beyond the scope of this post, but it always depresses me to hear a statement like this, because it says more about the person making the statement (and their baggage about money) than it describes reality.

The vast majority of the wealthy people I know hoard nothing and waste very little of anything--particularly food. I'd rather see you start with fact-based and anecdote-based evidence before drawing any conclusions. Don't start with your projections about rich people and then imagine a hypothetical picture of Mr. Burns throwing a lavish and wasteful party as "evidence" that your projections are accurate.


Anonymous said...

Hello, Daniel...

I'm responding to your post about the costs of "junk" and healthy food. Unfortunately, I've found that boxed mac and cheese sells for about 49 cents in my area, but each time I buy HEALTHY food, i.e. lean meats, fresh fruit, whole grain breads, etc. I can't get out of the store without spending at least $80. However, if I were to buy a few packages of boxed mac and cheese, some instant (boxed) potatoes, Hamburger Helper boxes, etc. - i.e. foods that are found on the shelves of the dollar thrift store, where many poverty stricken people shop, I could easily get out of there spending less than $20.

When I was a starving college student, my roommates and I survived on this junk. It was all we could afford.

Even when I use coupons and shop the sale aisles at my local grocery store, I STILL can't get away with spending any less than $80 - $100 each time I shop for groceries. I've noticed that the HEALTHIER the foods I buy, the MORE expensive my food bill is.

And unfortunately, I DO know people who have a lot of money, and these folks toss money around like it's confetti. I happen to know a woman who spent several THOUSAND on a three year old's birthday party! It was ridiculous what she spent on the cake, alone, not to mention all the side dishes that the children couldn't have cared less about. Most of the food went uneatean at the end of the party, but it was "only money" so why should SHE care?

I wish this were not the case. People living in poverty are lucky to be able to buy a small birthday cake for their children, so it burns me up to see people go to such extremes in an attempt to impress somebody.

I'm so sorry to sound so negative, but unfortunately I've witnessed these things, and really wish I had NOT.


Daniel said...

Julianne, these are interesting comments and I think they're worth a wider audience, so I've created a post where I've asked readers to share their insights with you. Have a look and please share your thoughts!