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How Global Food Prices Led to the Rise of Fast Food

With Western convenience, of course, comes high levels of fat, sugar, and salt.

Nick Rose

Nick Rose

Photo via Flickr user Byron Villegas

One of the most amazing things about fast food chains (there aren't many other ones) is consistency. No matter where you are in the world, you know what you're going to get, you know how it's going to taste, and you know it's going to be cheap.

But the perverse side to this cheap consistency—beyond eating too many late-night burgers after drinking—is that fast food has changed the way many people eat, especially those living in the food deserts across North America.

A recent report by the Institute for Development Studies and Oxfam called "Precarious Lives: Food, Work and Care After the Global Food Crisis" uncovered some pretty jarring results about the rise of fast food and processed food in countries hit hard by the global food crisis that emerged over the last decade. By investigating national food prices and wages in Kenya, Bolivia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Zambia, researchers noted a rise in fast food consumption as buy power power fell.

Between 2007 and 2011, global food prices for basic foods like maize, rice, and wheat skyrocketed. As a result, many people living in the aforementioned countries had to make some adjustments to their work as well as their diet. That meant more dangerous jobs, more women being forced to work, and also the need for cheap, consistent food to feed children. Food prices eventually readjusted somewhat in these countries, but their appetite for cheap fast food did not, meaning that they are continuing to undergo a significant cultural shift, according to the report.

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Even though fast food is typically associated with lower-income communities (myth busted, by the way) in the West, the sheen of American-style fast food is actually a status symbol in many countries, especially among kids. "Children and young people were early and enthusiastic adopters of all manner of processed foods—cheap, tasty, fun, trendy, and typically habit-forming," the authors of the report wrote.

But that's not to say that there isn't weariness in some communities vis-à-vis double-arched colonialism. One focus group undertaken by researchers in Lusaka, Zambia found that young consumers are pretty well-informed about the ills of processed food. "Foods like chips and pizza are causing funny diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure," one respondent said in the report. "We say these are rich people's diseases as poor people don't get such diseases because they can't afford such type of food."

The problem is that, much like in North America, even well-informed people will eat fast food because it's cheap and convenient. But with Western convenience, of course, comes high levels of fat, sugar, and salt and the very real possibility of new health problems emerging in these countries where food is a matter of subsistence.

"This report is a reminder of the particular risks that globalisation poses to the relationship between labour and food, and raises questions about our choices as to how to respond," the authors concluded, adding that regulatory steps should be taken "so that bad food, dangerous and demeaning occupations, and strained care are no longer necessary elements of resilience in the face of global economic development."