Understanding What You Can Do About Food Insecurity Through McDonald’s Big Mac
Updated: Mar 15
Food insecurity, although at varying levels in different countries, exists in every corner of the globe. So does McDonald's.
Today, the world's largest fast-food chain has over 20,000 restaurants in 100 countries in all six inhabited continents. Their most popular food item, the Big Mac, has become the face of the company. McDonald's estimates 550 million Big Macs are sold each year in the U.S. alone. Do the math, and that's about 17 sales per second. The burger has become a veritable pop culture phenomenon, spawning from an impossible-to-forget jingle ("two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun," anyone?) to a currency-evaluation index created by The Economist. The 40-year-old burger has even got its own museum in Pennsylvania. Love it or hate it, the Big Mac has grown from its humble beginnings to become a cultural unifier.
What can we learn about what we can do about food insecurity from the Big Mac? The Economist's Big Mac index is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity, which holds that the price of the goods is different around the world because of under or overvalued currencies. The implication is that people worldwide barter in currencies that have a higher or lower objective purchasing power in each respective country. The Economist's basket has just one item: The Big Mac. The double-decker sandwich is uniquely suited for such an analysis thanks to its consistency – it is nearly identical everywhere – and ubiquity – it is sold in more than 100 countries.
Using U.S. Dollars ($) as the base currency, we see wide variances in the Big Mac's price around the world. Consider India. If an American tourist were to order a Big Mac at the McDonald's outlet next to the Taj Mahal in Agra (known in India as the Maharaja Mac), they would be able to purchase two burgers for the price of one in the U.S. Moreover, if the same American tourist had a layover in Beirut, Lebanon, on their flight back home and decided to order a Big Mac at the airport, they would be able to purchase three burgers for the price of one in the U.S.
While most economists consider the Big Mac Index reliable for determining variances in purchasing power parity, there are some limitations. McDonald's only operates in three countries across Africa: Morocco, Egypt, and South Africa. The "KFC Index" is a better method of determining purchasing power in the 51 other African countries. More important, however, is that in many countries, eating at international fast-food chains such as McDonald's is relatively expensive for local populations compared to eating at a local staple restaurant. While McDonald's largely cuts across class boundaries in the U.S., it still predominantly caters to the lower/middle/rising classes. However, in countries like Pakistan, McDonald's was one of the first American investments into the national restaurant industry, attracting members of society with higher social status because McDonald's western-oriented branding and origins resonated with the English-speaking classes. So, while an American daily wage laborer may end their shift with a hearty meal from McDonald's, it is unlikely that a Pakistani daily wage laborer will eat at McDonald’s because a filling meal might cost their entire day's wage.
Staple foods in the world range widely, but in most parts of the world – especially the low-income world – they cost well below the price of a Big Mac. Our partner in India, Saadi Rasoi, provides subsidized and free meals for daily wage workers who live and work in Ludhiana, India. Their cost for a nutritious, full meal? Seventeen cents or 13 Indian rupees. The price of a Big Mac in the McDonald's outlet in Ludhiana? $2.82 or 205 Indian rupees. Run your numbers, and you realize that one Big Mac in the U.S. can purchase almost 33 meals in Ludhiana, India. Let that sink in. 33 meals.
Non-governmental organizations such as Million Meals Mission can, in no way, reverse global inequalities. However, our grassroots partners in countries worldwide allow us to ensure that we do our part in plugging structural socio-economic gaps that leave billions of people vulnerable to food insecurity. Through our network of friends, well-wishers, and donors in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore, and more, we ensure that we leverage our position in these countries to maximize your donations' dollar impact. While $5 may get you one meal in the United States, the same amount of money can provide up to 30 meals in India (more in other countries). Our job is to ensure that we identify partners who maximize your dollar contributions in the local communities in which they work. We will continue to strive to do that. If you are reading this blog in a high-income economy such as the U.S. (where I am writing from), know that your contribution will impact local communities worldwide merely by virtue of the lottery of your location and the currency you barter in. Please consider donating to Million Meals Mission the next time you order a Big Mac.
Million Meals Mission raises awareness about food insecurity and provides meals to food insecure communities around the world.
By supporting us, you can help us provide nutritious meals to countless people in need!