This guest post is by Tracy Lerman, who likes to cook food from the Santa Cruz farmers market and ride her bike by the ocean. In her spare time Tracy works at the Organic Farming Research Foundation doing policy advocacy and organizing.
Recently a new “restaurant” opened up where I live. This eating establishment, called Cereality, is a franchise with five other locations. It calls itself a “Cereal Bar and Café” and its menu primarily features different kinds of cold cereal that you can mix and match along with a variety of toppings. The cold cereal is your typical General Mills or Kellogg’s fare, and the toppings include candy, nuts, and dried fruit. For $3.99, a customer can order a mix of two cereals plus two toppings and his or her choice of milk in a nifty container. (They also have oatmeal and smoothies.)
The café itself is riding high on novelty, from the employees dressed in pajamas to the kitchen cupboards filled with boxes of cereal, giving it a pseudo lazy-morning-at-home feeling. One wall is adorned with frames each displaying a single popular cereal, as if they were rare insect specimens in a museum. The area with the milk dispensers is called the “Moo Bar.”
Cereality’s locations are mostly college towns, mine included, and that target audience is apparent in the price; choice of product; the casual atmosphere; the fun, brightly colored website with photos of young people having a blast while eating cereal; and the emphasis on the über-”convenience ” of the whole experience.
So what’s not to like?
First off, the extortionist markup, which I’m roughly estimating at around 650%, compared to the cost of a box of cereal bought at the supermarket. Using prices listed at Safeway.com, a one-cup serving of Frosted Flakes with milk is about 61 cents. In restaurants that actually cook food, a typical markup is about 330% — at Cereality, the markup is more than twice that, for food that requires almost zero preparation. And this markup is on top of the more than 5,000% markup General Mills charges to add some high-fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings to a few ounces of dried grains. Even with the current record-high grain prices, the corn in that same one-cup serving of Frosted Flakes costs less than a penny.
Have we honestly reached a level so low in our national eating disorder that people will pay for the novelty of eating a bowl of cold cereal, in a restaurant that sells only cereal — the same kind of cereal that every major supermarket chain sells — when for less than a dollar more, they could have a whole box? Cereal has got to be the most convenient food there is to prepare; it’s not like you need any special talent or equipment beyond a bowl and a spoon. You don’t even need a kitchen to fix a bowl of cereal.
Of course, the reason why the cereal grains purchased by General Mills or Kellogg’s cost mere pennies is the tremendous subsidies that go to corporate agribusiness growing corn and wheat, thus creating an excess of extremely cheap and nutritionally deficient grain products that are making our nation fat and diabetic and destroying arable farmland because they are grown in huge, chemical dependent monocultures. On top of all that, subsidies force small-scale farmers both here and abroad off their land because they can’t compete with our artificially cheap grain prices.
However, I’m pretty sure Cereality’s mission is not to show us the “real” price of cheap grains by making people pay $4 for a bowl of cereal.
It is becoming increasingly clear to some of us who aren’t farmers or CEOs of food corporations that, in order to profit from selling inexpensive food, you will probably have to exploit workers, farmers, the environment — or all three somewhere along the chain. Cereality is buying a product already made cheap through a toxic and unsustainable agriculture system. But they take it one step further and sell it at a several-hundred-percent markup, packaged in novelty and nostalgia, and make their own profit while calling their product “cheap” at $4. I guess in these times of economic recession, a $4 “meal” at a restaurant does sound like a good bargain, but when you factor in the additional costs to our health, the environment, and the survivability of family farmers, it’s a total rip-off.
I don’t mean to crucify the founders of Cereality. I doubt this idea was born from a desire to destroy the planet or give everyone diabetes. I bet that they are just entrepreneurs who like cereal and had an idea. But the snowballing unsustainability of our current food system is becoming too difficult for people to ignore. Creating new ways of getting people to buy cheap, no-cook, novel foods seems at this point doesn’t seem that hip or cool. It feels like a step backward.