As someone who is quite into food, I love watching Masterchef, the show in which amateur cooks compete with each other over a period of weeks, facing various challenges in order to win the coveted title. I've actually been watching the UK, US and Australian versions of the show, which vary immensely in style. I don't normally like food TV shows, but Masterchef's common theme appeals to me: the quality of the food and ingredients used.
In fact, over the last few years I've started paying real attention to the quality of the ingredients I use in my cooking - and put in my belly. This has ranged from getting organic vegetables from Abel and Cole, learning how to make my own bread and beer - without any additives - and regularly getting eggs from my parents' chickens. I've become convinced of the benefits to both health and soul, of doing this.
So, something that chimed with me was when I heard Adrien Nieto, the runner-up in season two of the American Masterchef quip "pay your farmer or pay your doctor."
In the US as I understand it, payment for medical services can be a real issue, and I gather people end up spending some considerable thought on how to prioritise money for medical bills against other things. I can imagine that in some circumstances, there is little choice, and other purchases must fall by the wayside. If then, there is indeed some correlation between health and quality food, Adrien's claim could be quite true. Those who choose (or who can only afford) to eat cheap, low quality food, are inevitably likely to face higher medical bills. I would be very surprised if this message gets across to many Americans, but there is probably little denying the economic logic it presents.
In the UK and many other countries however, we don't pay for medical treatment based on how much of it we need and use. Despite this difference, the economics of food production and distribution are much the same. In a sweeping generalisation with many exceptions I'm sure, high quality food does cost more than low quality food in the UK. So where's the economic incentive to eat well?
This is of course a very simplistic analysis, and I am certainly not arguing that we should incentivise the buying of good food by charging for medical treatment, but the dynamic is worth considering for its effect of people's behaviours.
There are public health efforts to encourage healthy eating of course, and they should be applauded. But the real issue for me that makes our current system of food production and distribution wrong is that the economics of it do not support a desired, but somewhat intangible outcome of good health and happy, soul-enriching food. I haven't researched into this particularly, but I have some intuition that I've developed from my own experiences.
Firstly, low quality food for sale in supermarkets is made artificially cheap, through the use of manufacturing processes which make it low quality. This over-engineering of food and its distribution establishes a low baseline price for food in our minds. Market segmentation then ensures that the higher quality products in the supermarkets are able to be packaged and presented as such, and command a higher price tag. These more expensive "premium" foods, often reflect the real price, and it's no surprise that farmers struggle to make a living through the production and distribution of quality food.
But secondly, since high quality packaged food becomes the preserve of only a more wealthy or health-conscious market segment, the price of high quality food through the supermarket channel can actually get over-inflated, when compared, for example, with local distribution. We end up with a vicious cycle, so long as one sticks to supermarkets.
Compare, for example, the quality and price of supermarkets' packaged "premium quality" ranges of foods (e.g. "The Best", "Taste the difference" etc.) with quality fresh ingredients from a local farmers' market or bakery.
This is all my intuition, a testable theory, perhaps. But if there is some truth to it, then my question would be whether future quality food can be provided through the centralised economic model of supermarkets and distribution chains at all. Or, perhaps whether the real answer to quality food lies in localism instead.
Or, perhaps since in the UK we pay the cost of health care through general taxation, Adrien's choice lies at the feet of government instead of individuals. Should we subsidise the cost of quality ingredients? Just a thought.