Should Fast Food Be A Luxury?

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Should Fast Food Be A Luxury?

Rising costs are changing the way we eat in the United States. In the past four years, food prices have risen a shocking 25%, meaning that the same grocery basket of goods you purchased a few years ago is now significantly more expensive. And it’s not just groceries—we’re also seeing surging restaurant prices. For many people, that means cutting back at the grocery store, perhaps cooking simpler dishes and deciding to eat out less.

But these days, it may not be enough to curb your sit-down restaurant budget. Fast food, which has long been considered an affordable option for many consumers, is also getting more expensive. So expensive, in fact, that according to a recent Lending Tree survey of 2,025 Americans, 78% now consider fast food a luxury and are choosing to eat it less often. For many, buying a burger and fries these days can feel like a strain on the budget.

It’s not good news that so many Americans are now struggling to purchase food that used to be deemed an affordable option. For some households, this new reality can create new, compounding difficulties. A busy parent who used to be able to grab a quick meal at a fast food joint may now have to carve even more time out of their schedule to cook a (cheaper) meal from scratch, cutting down on the time they have to work or rest, which can then affect their quality of live and income in turn.

At the same time, though, most of us probably should be eating less fast food. Most fast food is unequivocally unhealthy, and excess consumption of it can lead to chronic health consequences. And it’s not just about health—fast food companies create notoriously exploitative working conditions for their employees, who often have to rely on government assistance because their greedy companies don’t pay them a living wage. That’s not even to mention the exploitation of animals and farmworkers that have traditionally allowed these companies to sell food at such low prices, or the environmental degradation that occurs as a result.

It’s a bummer that burger prices are on the rise, but the low food costs of the past aren’t necessarily the ideal we should be aiming for, since low prices often means someone is getting exploited. Were it priced fairly, going to Wendy’s probably would be more expensive than it is now.

Higher prices don’t necessarily mean that workers (or animals or the environment) are now being exploited less. Average fast food price markups actually increased by 8.4% in just 2023. That means more profits for the people at the top, while the people who are actually doing the work struggle to pay their bills (or just buy a fucking burger).

So, should fast food be a luxury? I would argue that it should. These foods are expensive to produce ethically and take an expensive toll on our health. What shouldn’t be a luxury is healthy groceries and access to adequate, enjoyable, culturally appropriate food. What shouldn’t be a luxury is the time needed to cook a meal from scratch. What shouldn’t be a luxury is a job that pays a living wage in the richest country in the world. This doesn’t negate the struggles of those who depend on fast food to feed themselves and their families now, but it should make us question what we really want out of our food system. Is it a cheap burger? Or is it an equitable food landscape where we can all eat to be healthy, happy and satisfied? 

Perhaps most importantly—who’s going to foot the bill? Most of us have been paying our whole lives through low wages, high prices, environmental degradation and chronic health issues from unhealthy diets. I think it’s time for the fast food industry executives to pick up the tab.


Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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