As I age, I’m starting to recognize some of life’s subtle, yet recurring patterns. For instance, anytime I give a talk about food in the community, someone invariably asks about organic vegetables—nothing surprising there. When I advocate for eating organic fruits and veggies due to concerns with pesticide exposure, someone invariably responds by asking for my opinion about the store Whole Foods. Here’s where the pattern comes into play—whenever someone mentions Whole Foods, they always slide in the ‘whole paycheck’ joke. It never fails. You can’t say Whole Foods on the Southside of Chicago and not hear ‘whole paycheck’ somewhere in the conversation. When I was giving a talk at a Church, once I said “Whole Foods”—the pastor slowly sauntered over to the pulpit where I was standing, grabbed the mic, and said “whole paycheck.”
Yes, I get it. Whole Foods is expensive, but everyone acts like buying anything from there requires a cash-filled briefcase handcuffed to your arm.
The ‘whole paycheck’ joke annoys me for several reasons. One, it’s an old joke. In the pantheon of tired jokes, I place it right next to when people hear my last name and respond with ‘Old McDonald had a farm’ or something about Ronald McDonald.
Secondly, food insecurity isn’t funny— some people really have to give up their whole paycheck for one meal in some countries. I’m not talking about feeding a family for a month; I’m just talking about one meal.
In this post, I want breakdown the relative cost of one meal around the world.
Is the relative cost of a single meal around the world the same? …Not even close.
In 2017, the World Food Programme set out to analyze the relative cost of a single meal around the world. They hired a team of statisticians and economists to provide an answer. Their squad defined the price of a 600-calorie bean stew based upon the relative salaries and currencies in different countries. The team did the following to come up with the cost:
1. They standardized a stew of beans paired with a “carbohydrate component that matches local preferences.”
2. They calculated the cost of ingredients based on the national currency in each country.
3. They determined the average daily budget per person based on the local currency and the national GDP of each country.
4. They looked at the portion of the daily budget spent on one serving of the meal and calculated a meal-to-income ratio.
5. They calculated a theoretical price of the meal by applying the meal-to-income ratio for an individual in a developing country to the budget of someone in New York.
They found that one meal of beans in some countries can cost a whole paycheck. Here are a few highlights.
1. New York – $1.20
2. Egypt – $9.09
3. Pakistan – $15.86
4. Uganda – $30.06
5. Somalia – $42.12
6. Haiti -$72.65
7. Malawi- $94.43
8. Syria – $190.11
9. Sudan- $321.70
What’s the bottom line?
- Whenever you say “whole paycheck” regarding Whole Foods, think about places where people spend their whole paycheck on one meal.
I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.