In my post from last week, Richelle responded and posed the question to me: "How do we get back to quality?" One answer I thought of brought me into the financial agenda, in that cost always plays a factor in purchasing. This reminded me of an important discussion on the status of our food system in the United States. I have always been health-conscious, but watching two eye-opening documentaries, King Corn and Food, Inc., greatly impacted my perspective. The problem as framed in each of these movies is simply that the quality of our food is extremely poor, as discussed in King Corn.
As Walter Willet says in that video, "most of what we've done in agricultural (so-called) improvements and in food processing have actually degraded our food supply from a nutritional standpoint." In a different section of King Corn, one farmer even says "We're not growing quality, we're growing crap!" Even if you choose to eat "healthier," you're often still eating modified foods that have been changed to grow bigger and more quickly than their natural counterparts, leading to a tradeoff. That tradeoff is the nutritional value of the food itself. In this, you can see that a decision has been made to place quantity as superior to quality.
So why is this happening and why is it being perpetuated? Food, Inc. offers part of the explanation.
I think this video shows that consumer choice plays a significant role. American culture is highly value-driven. Average Americans don't want to pay more than they have to, and this is especially the case for low-income families. As Mrs. Gonzalez says in Food, Inc., "when you have only a dollar to spend and you have two kids to feed, either you go to the market and try to find something that's cheap, or just go straight through a drive-through and get two small hamburgers for them ... sometimes you look at a vegetable and say 'OK, well we can get two hamburgers over here for the same amount of price.'" With a prevalence of low-quality, flavorful foods that are cheaper than less enticing high-quality foods, it's no surprise that things like fresh produce are losing out. However, Americans' perception of value in this situation is being distorted by practices in the food industry. The reason that all of the junk food is so cheap is because the corn used in them is heavily subsidized. This means that the actual price is not reflected.
In this I find a key point on how to get back to quality. In order to make good decisions, I believe consumers need to know the actual cost. A cheeseburger at McDonalds costs one dollar, but what are the hidden costs? What about the cost of staying in shape? What about the health costs that could be incurred if you develop diabetes? What about the health costs of fighting increasingly stronger strains of e-coli because of the cattle are being fed antibiotics? Perhaps these questions seem a bit alarmist, but trends show that problems such as obesity, diabetes, and resistant strains of bacteria are on the rise. Once you examine the hidden costs it doesn't seem to be very high quality anymore. As designers, we can try to reveal hidden costs by creating packaging that's not deceiving and is as clear as possible about the actual quality of the item. We can also choose to work for and support causes that raise awareness on issues such as these. On an individual level, we need to be more outspoken about hidden costs. Consumers today have a vast audience available to them through the internet, so if we know of a concern with a product we should make sure others know too. Once consumers know the accurate costs, they will be able to make better decisions on quality.
Another important factor in getting back to quality is removing obstacles that distort costs. In the example I've given, the subsidization of corn plays a large role in the success of nutrition-deficient foods. However, if corn was not subsidized, prices would change drastically. For example, sodas would become much more expensive as they adjusted to the actual costs of producing corn syrup or switching to sugar. This would help to level the playing field. Additionally, removing subsidies could then cause farmers to look at growing other crops, which would then lower the cost of fresh produce items. In order to combat such distortion, we as individuals need to use our voting power. In some cases, this may mean choosing lawmakers that oppose distorting factors such as subsidization, and by actively letting them know what we want. Additionally, we can place a vote every time we purchase by choosing to buy a certain quality product. If there is enough demand, new competitors will attempt to fill the gap that others aren't. Although this may not be as applicable in all product areas, I do think it's important to be on the lookout for factors that can distort individuals' perception on quality.