The state of things
That desire has been at the forefront since the earliest days of his television career, when Zimmern guided viewers to faraway places they might never visit in person. His hope was that through these virtual journeys, audiences would broaden their own world view.
“I started ‘Bizarre Foods’ because I felt 20 years ago that the world was changing, and we had some incredible social justice issues that needed to be acknowledged. I thought it would help to do a show like ‘Bizarre Foods,’ where people in Japan could see how people in Norway ate, and people in Norway could see how people in Argentina ate,” he says. “And I thought that would help promote patience, tolerance, and understanding in a world that seemed to be running short on it. That was my feeling 20 years ago, and it’s been even more confirmed now.”
Although Zimmern doesn’t outright say conditions have deteriorated over the last two decades, he does name a number of pain points that have worsened, from minimum wage and gender equity to food deserts and healthcare strain. These are all topics that have recently become more prominent in the public discourse, but Zimmern insists there’s a crucial one that’s still overlooked.
“I’ve long said that the biggest issue unaddressed in the restaurant world … the one that’s never talked about, is why aren’t we able to charge on a plate in a restaurant what it costs to put the food onto the plate?” he says, adding that fine-dining, Michelin-starred restaurants are the exception. Guests expect to pay top-dollar for meals at such establishments. Concepts on the more casual side don’t have that luxury.
“Look at restaurants in the middle. If you own a neighborhood café and you’ve charged $14.95 for the chicken plate for the last six years, your costs have gone up 300–400 percent over those six years,” he says. “But try raising that chicken dish to $21.95—which is probably more where it resides, if you want to pay your employees a living wage and offer them the perks and benefits that they would get at any other business—and your customers will practically mutiny.”
As so many operators intimately understand, two crucial forces are driving these reactions. First are the artificially low prices some restaurants—mostly fast-food chains—have peddled for decades. On this matter, Zimmern is especially blunt, calling into question processing methods, such as preserving meats through ammonia hydroxide. These practices scare consumers, he says, but only when they’re paying attention (case in point: the occasional outcry over the pink slime in beef, followed by several years of general apathy).
Instead, the more lasting impact is a skewed understanding of what food—real food—costs, he says. When consumers can order a meal for $5, it can be hard to convince them to pay double or even triple the cost for better quality.
The second and perhaps more insidious dynamic is the growing number of people who are priced out of healthy food, whether at restaurants or in grocery stores.
“There’s a tremendous problem with who can afford to eat what. So if we’re telling people to eat healthy and to eat fruit and to eat fish, well, that’s more expensive. But can we afford not to, and I think the answer is we can’t afford not to; we have to change as a society,” Zimmern says. “If I’m eating healthier, I’m less of a drain on the healthcare system, on the criminal justice system, on the economic development system, on the insurance system, because I’m not using them as often.”
Multiple studies support this assessment. Most recently, a report funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute found poor eating habits result in $50 billion in healthcare costs associated with conditions like heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. And that number doesn’t take into account other costs, such as lost wages due to illness.