Where Does Our Happy Meal Come From?

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Even the McDonald’s Happy Meal is getting expensive.

Food inflation has been low since the 1980s, but recently basics like bread, milk, eggs, and flour have sharply jumped. As the country’s largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes, and the second largest purchaser of chicken, as well as a company that defines itself by selling cheap food (dollar menu, anyone?), I figured tracing the origins of a simple Happy Meal might result in some insight on why our food suddenly costs so much.

The Happy Meal: A Not-so-Simple Little Box Topped with Golden Arches
McDonald’s wants you to know where your four-piece nuggets, fries, and soda are coming from. That’s what their Web site says, anyway. “See what we’re made of” glides across the opening screen of the nutrition section, accompanied by colorful and friendly looking pictures of eggs, chicken burgers, crisp-looking lettuce, and plump tomatoes.

A little digging showed me that McDonald’s signature happy dish is shipped in from the nearest distributorship (Irvine, California’s Golden State Foods Corporation in my case). There are forty of these in North America and they serve as the basic meeting point of all the different meal ingredients, which are then loaded into temperature-controlled, compartmentalized trucks and sent to your nearby McDonald’s. But where was my food before it ended up in an Irvine warehouse? The various buns, veggies, and meats come from just about everywhere, resulting in a spider-webbed, crisscrossed trail to the nearest Micky Dee’s. In other words, price revelation number one: it takes a whole lot of gas to get that food to our plate, er, box from all these different locations. Add to that the individually-rising prices of each ingredient and we’ve got ourselves a recipe for not just a happy little meal, but a darned expensive one, too.

The Hamburger (or Cheeseburger)
Meat: Arizona, Colorado, Australia, New Zealand
Bun: Oklahoma
Cheese: Arizona
Pickle, Onion: Varies seasonally 

French Fries

Chicken McNuggets
Chicken: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi
Oil: North Dakota 

Apple Dippers and Low-Fat Caramel Dipping Sauce
Washington, Mexico, South America 

Milk, Chocolate Milk, Soda
Dallas, Atlanta

As McDonald’s says, “We essentially shop where you shop.” We all know that where we’re shopping, the prices are not so pretty. But I can’t help but wonder how easy it would be to save money (not to mention the planet) by sticking to more local ingredients. Whatever the answer, we should probably get our dollar burgers and cheap happy meals while we can. The rising price of ingredients compounded with the sheer cost of the gas it takes to bus (or fly) them in from around the world means the days of the dollar menu may be numbered. Image source: Breakmould (cc).


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