Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The shadow work behind your supper

Mother Jones printed an article I agree with that wasn't written by Kevin Drum.

This doesn't happen very often, so let's go into more detail. It's a few years old, but it's new to me. In the piece, Tom Philpott challenges the idea that cooking at home is cheaper than eating fast food.

First, a little background information. Poor Americans are more likely to be overweight, and one explanation is that they lack access to healthy foods and buy fast food because it is easier to get and costs less money. I don't buy that explanation, but I've never found the counter-argument compelling either; that it's cheaper to cook at home than to eat fast food.

The New York Times printed a column and infographic by Mark Bittman showing a hypothetical McDonald's meal and contrasting it to a meat and potatoes meal at home. According to Bittman, the home-cooked meal is both cheaper and healthier.

But Philpott noticed a key difference: One is a prepared meal, ready to eat, while the other is just the raw ingredients.

But what about the time it takes to plan the dinner, shop for the ingredients, transform them into a meal, and then clean up the resulting mess? 
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tells us that the median hourly income in the United States is $16.27. Let's say it takes two hours to put the Times' meal together and clean up afterward—for the median US worker, that's about $32 worth of labor. VoilĂ ! Our chicken dinner now costs around $46. Suddenly, that $28 Mickey D's excursion looks like quite the bargain. 

Here's what I saw as Philpott's first flaw in the article: His $16.27 an hour figure is for a median hourly worker, but that's not a valid figure for a poor person. Their time will be worth significantly less. Let's forgive his poor choice of numbers and instead look at this as an opportunity cost issue.

Cooking for one's family is an example of shadow work, or unpaid labor that could otherwise be performed by a middleman. Without trying to put a specific dollar amount on it, people's time does indeed have value. They may be extremely busy and lack the time to cook a full meal, or see it as wasteful. There may be other things they want to do with their time.

Despite what Philpott says, the family who gets take -out is not leveraging "the fast-food industry's cheap labor pool for a fuss-free meal." No, they are leveraging the economies of scale that comes from purchased food, as opposed to cooking it at home in a small-scale operation that frequently ends with extra perishable ingredients and may have to throw them out.

While I don't agree with the details Philpott used, his overall idea is correct that preparing cooked foods and raw ingredients will always be an apples and oranges comparison.

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