Does anyone need to know the price of groceries?

“What could it cost, $10?” |  Lotte Löhr  on  Unsplash

“What could it cost, $10?” | Lotte Löhr on Unsplash

If you want to be the next contestant on The Price is Right, maybe start memorizing the price of groceries.

But does everybody else have to?

Howard Shultz isn’t a great presidential candidate for lots of reasons, but his knowledge of cereal pricing shouldn’t be one of them. Despite that, he’s now the latest in a long line of public figures lambasted for a lack of grocery pricing knowledge.

Our current president thinks you need ID to buy groceries. Our previous president complained about high food prices at Whole Foods…while visiting a then Whole Foods-free Iowa. George H.W. Bush marveled at grocery scanners. Lucille Bluth doesn’t know how much bananas cost. Jack Donaghy doesn’t knows nothing about potatoes. In cases both real and fictional, the rhetorical goal of their critics is the same: use the price of food to paint the wealthy non-shopper as out-of-touch with “real America.”

Not every rich guy asked about groceries gets it all wrong. In 2018, Bill Gates joined Ellen for a pricing game that put his grocery knowledge on embarrassing public display. Rice-A-Roni for $5? Tide Pods for $4!? But Gates caught on quickly, listening to the crowd and adjusting his responses accordingly. I’m not suggesting that Gates should run for president, but he was doing what we want our leaders to do: listen to people and adapt their responses accordingly. Oh, and he also wants to pay more taxes.

Back to the gotcha grocery test, which relies on two assumptions: 1) there’s a fixed price for food and 2) there’s no division of household labor. The price of food changes from region to region, even store to store. Those price differences may or may not be known by the person doing the shopping, but they’re unlikely to be known by the person not doing the shopping. If only one member of a household does the shopping, or if the household hires out shopping, it’s ridiculous to expect that the non-shopper would know the price of any individual item.

There’s a third assumption embedded in the grocery test as well: that knowing how much groceries can teach someone what it’s like to be poor. That assumption has helped generate the SNAP Challenge’s $4 a day form of poverty tourism. Corey Booker tried it in 2013, and was followed by dozens of politicians and many more public figures instagramming tiny piles of food, quitting after a few days, and lamenting poverty.

SNAP Challenge participants may have been buying too few calories and too many limes, but that’s not why they failed. It’s because they forgot the “supplemental” in SNAP. Many recipients of SNAP benefits remarked that they would likely fail the SNAP Challenge, too, because it didn’t allow for as much money as they spent on groceries. The Washington Post gave politicians doing the Snap Challenge two Pinocchios.

The SNAP Challenge, unlike the grocery gotcha test, at least seems built on a well-intentioned desire to empathize with others. But in both cases, the focus on the price of groceries (This guy doesn’t even know the price of milk! or Wow, do you know that milk costs as much as a day’s SNAP allowance?) is, well, trivia. It’s not even that helpful in grocery-based game shows, especially not if you’ve got a plan.

I’m guessing that no one followed Booker, Paltrow, or any other SNAP Challenger out of a grocery store yelling “YOU’RE WELCOME!” a phenomenon which Stephanie Land recounts not once but twice in Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. Focusing on the relatively simple data of pricing helps us ignore much thornier issues, like how we harbor much more social disdain for the person who can’t afford milk than the person who doesn’t know how much it costs.