The Unintended Consequences of the Dollar Menu

Last week I went into the McDonald’s Express on 7th Avenue, not because I had any particular craving, just because I’ve come to recognize the McDonald’s (and the even more ubiquitous Starbucks) logo as the international symbol for “public restroom.” At the Express, the menu’s focus is the dollar menu. Now, in a large city, this draws a very specific demographic from the lower end of the economic spectrum. The place was populated almost entirely by sad old folks who are unwilling or unable to shop and/or cook for themselves, and by the apparently homeless and/or just plain crazy. I’m not saying it was like visiting the set of The Fisher King, but it was not your average fast food crowd.

Because I’ve learned my lesson not to use a business’s bathroom without buying something[1], I bought a $1 burger and Coke and sat down to eat (the line for the bathroom had two older ladies in front of me). An older gent sat down next to me and greeted the lady to his right with familiarity; apparently this McDonald’s is the neighborhood cafeteria, or more like the local bar for people whose drinking days are behind them.

Having seen the film version of Fast Food Nation, I’m always aware that there is a reason why the meat costs $1. I don’t eat at McDonald’s often enough for it to matter to my health[2], but it scared me to imagine that these poor souls do. And as fewer young people seem to know how to cook these days, the number of individuals on this particularly sad trajectory will only increase[3].

I’d like to blame McDonald’s or capitalism or whatever Big Evil people like to shoot at, but really it comes down to the individual’s choice of convenience. Cooking a meal requires grocery shopping, pots and pans to wash, and the time and labor of cooking. The only way out of this mess is to get people to enjoy cooking a meal or at least view it as something that must be done, like brushing your teeth. My crackpot scheme would be to change public schooling such that Home Economics is a senior-level, yearlong course; because everything I learned in Home Ec, I forgot by the time I went to college. Nutrition education needs to be expanded in there as well; kids need to know that McDonald’s should be the gustatory equivalent of candy – something that is not to be consumed in large daily quantities. But then there are a lot of things I’d like to change about public schools…

And so it goes.

1.) In ’06 I was locked in to a restaurant over near 48th street after I was seen using the restroom without buying something.
2.) I get the jones for a quarter pounder with cheese about once every three months, milkshakes one month.
3.) I am reminded of a defendant in my dad’s court whose justification for writing hot checks to Burger King was “I had to eat, your honor.” My father then informed the accused of the wonders of the grocery store, particularly the produce aisle.

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