The economy begins in the kitchen

Maria Sophia AguirreFamily meals have a huge impact upon the economy which governments and businesses ignore at their peril. So argued economist Maria Sophia Aguirre in this excerpt from a paper presented at the Excellence in the Home conference in London.


In order to examine how family dinners influence distribution and consumption in an economy, the 1958-1961 famine in China as well as the most recent change in the consumption patterns of Chinese children are of assistance.

What makes the Chinese famine a useful case is that it occurred at a time when China had enough food. But in a short period of time it produced 30 million casualties and about 33 million postponed births.1  Studies have found a variety of causes, including bad weather, reduction in sown acreage, the government’s high grain procurement, forced collectivisation, allocation of resources away from agriculture to heavy industry, bad management, and the collapse of incentive mechanisms. Another factor is the sudden withdrawal of rights from the collectives.2 

Although these theories offer some explanations as to the magnitude of the catastrophe, they fail to explain why the famine started when the grain per capita income available for both agricultural and non-agricultural populations had registered an increase in 1958. In a 1997 study, Chang and Wen suggest that the primary cause of the famine was not the collapse in grain production but the failure in consumption rationality that took place when family dinners were replaced by the communal dining system.3

In 1958, with the aim of reinforcing Communist ideology in China, Mao and the Party created more than 2.65 million communal dining halls. Commune members were instructed to dine in them instead of in their homes.4  The Party advertised the new policy as a means to liberate more labour, especially women, from housework for productive purpose. As a consequence, private kitchens were destroyed in many places, peasants’ private food stocks were collectivised, and cooking woks and pots were collected and melted down for iron or steel. Furthermore, under the illusion of unlimited food supply, communal dining halls provided free meals to members, and communes no longer allocated grain and other food products to individual farm households. Instead, food products were channelled directly into communal dining halls. Thus peasants had no other option but to rely on them for meals.5

Agriculture and industry forge ahead togetherA popular slogan of the communal dining halls was “open your stomach, eat as much as you wish, and work hard for socialism.” As a consequence, peasants ate more than they needed, leftovers were thrown away, and much of the food was wasted in the process of transfers from storage to cooking simply because of neglect or poor management. This over-consumption and waste quickly exhausted the food and by the end of 1958 food shortage and/or starvation was reported in some areas.6 

In spite of this, Mao refused to revert his policy until the middle of 1961 when farmers were allowed to decide whether to keep communal dining halls or prepare meals in their own kitchens. Also, small private plots were returned to the peasants. As a result, most communal dining halls were closed and grain output started to grow. The famine ended within six months.7 

Clearly the experience of the Chinese famine of 1958-1961 illustrates the relationship between family dinners and efficiency of food consumption and distribution. The elimination of family dinners precipitated within six months a famine that lasted until family dinners were reinstated. Although other causes contributed, family dinners played a crucial role in the beginning of the famine and in its end. The Chinese experience also indicates that when economic policy undermines family dinners, the consequences for an economy can be disastrous and economic growth can become unsustainable.

New consumption problems

Today, 45 years later, China is facing another distribution and consumption food problem. Various surveys on children’s consumption have shown that since the late 1990s, children’s consumption is higher than that of adults in urban families. Studies have found that parents unceasingly satisfy children’s wishes for food consumption but ignore what children really need for their healthy growth, thus wasting resources and jeopardising the development of their children. Some provide excessive in-between meals and unbalanced diets that destroy their appetite and good eating habits. Others have turned to health enhancing products such as liquid food supplements when children do not need them. Thus the family meal has been replaced by milk, cookies, and cold drinks, or by health supplements, all of which contribute to stomach diseases. Not surprisingly, the number of digestive medical conditions among children has doubled in five years.8 

Children’s luxury consumption is mainly reflected in between meal snacks. Expensive candy and canned drinks are bought by parents if they are in fashion. Researchers have indicated that such consumption patterns can not be sustained by all families and are lowering parents’ living standards. These concerns have been accentuated by a rapidly aging population and by the negative human capital as well as distributional effects that this waste of resources can have in upcoming years. If parents unconditionally satisfy children’s food desires, it is easy for children to adopt a single-minded pursuit for material goals and go astray if their family cannot satisfy them.9  Thus, resources are used inefficiently when decisions on consumption are made which weaken family dinners rather than strengthen them. This, in turn, hampers the sustainability of real economic growth as it affects negatively not only the efficiency of distribution and consumption of goods and services, but it also affects savings and thus investment.

Frequent family meals enhance human, moral, and social capital, the existence of all of which are necessary conditions for sustainable economic growth. Frequent family dinners strengthen family relations, increase academic performance, and help prevent substance abuse. Furthermore, the role of frequent family dinners in the economy indicate that many of today’s human, social, and moral capital problems are not going to be resolved in court rooms, legislative hearing rooms or classrooms, by judges, politicians, or teachers. Rather they will be solved in living rooms, dining rooms, and across kitchen tables – by parents and families.

Meals and the economy

The Chinese case indicates that is not enough for an economy to produce food. The context in which the food is distributed and consumed, as well as the qualities of meals are also important for the interpersonal relational dimension of consumption, which in turn plays an important role in developing human capital and strengthening social and moral capital.

The frequency of quality family dinners is higher in healthy families where both parents are present. It follows that good economic policies with regard to family dinners are those that foster a healthy constitution, preservation, and development of the family. As in any other aspect of the economy, it is not enough to seek the implementation of remedial policies, ie, those which seek to solve or assist dysfunctional situations or its consequence. Friendly-family policies are needed at both the micro and the macroeconomic level. Facilitating frequent family dinners is one way of doing this.

For this, all sectors of society need to be engaged. Governments can foster and promote the family through using multiple tools: taxes, education, health care, homeownership, and work participation policies. Within this context, if governments are to aim at increasing the quality and frequency of family dinners, three issues need to be addressed: working hours, after-school activities, and long commutes. In the area of work and school activities, the structure itself seems to be in need of revision. Long working hours and short school hours combined with a myriad of extra-curricular activities are not conducive to frequent family dinners. In both areas, much remains to be done. An important change in paradigm is required if these policies are to effectively address family dining needs. Policies to be effective must address the needs of the family as a unit and not the needs of each of its members independently of each other. The relative cost of time to family dinners also demonstrates that time is a crucial component of public projects involving time savings, mostly transportation.

At the private sector level, businesses also need to strengthen the family. The length of the workday as well as its structure require immediate attention. Some of these initiatives might include flexible working hours for men and women, work-sharing, and facilities which allow parents, especially the mother, to work from home some days of the week. At the individual level, education and information regarding the importance of frequent family dinners, their role in the creation and growth of human capital, as well as the normal development of children need to be imparted. Only in this manner the allocation of time will be optimal in this area. Mothers have a special role in this, as they normally are primarily responsible for the performance of household tasks, especially in the area of food shopping and meal preparation, even though she might also work outside the home.

Elsewhere I have argued that it is within the family that the need for distribution is mainly felt and that it is for this reason that it is through the family that the economy transcends the mere individual level. Distribution within the family is usually carried out through women. Woman, because of her characteristics, has the capacity to distribute goods in a just manner, according to the specific needs of each member of the family. This is an important concept in income distribution theory and policy as well sustainable real economic development.10  The study of the family meal and its effect on human capital and consumption reinforce this idea.

Maria Sophia Aguirre is Associate Professor of Economics at Catholic University of America in Washington DC.


(1) Ashton, Baisl, Kenneth Hill, Alan Piazza, and Robin Zeits, 1984.  “Famine in China, 1958-1961”, Population and Development, 10:4, pp. 630-659.

(2) For a review of these findings see Walker, Kenneth, 1984.  Food Grain Procurement and Consumption in China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(3) For a review of this literature see Chang, Gene Hsin and Guanzhong James Wen, 1997.  “Communal Dining and the Chinese Famine of 1958-1961”, Economic Development and Cultural Change, 46:1, pp. 1-34 .

(4) The communes collectivised all means of production, including not only land and draft animals, but also those retained by individual members under the preceding cooperative system, such as small private plots of land and orchards. Many communes also collectivised members’ personal property such as kitchenware and furniture.

(5) Chang and Wen. “Communal Dining and the Chinese Famine of 1958-1961”, p. 5.

(6) In some rural areas the grain in three months amounted to what usually sufficed for six months. In some other areas, three months’ supply of grain was consumed in two weeks. For a more detailed study of over-consumption see Yang, Dali, 1996. Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society, and Institutional Change since the Great Leap Famine, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

(7) Yang, Dali, 1996. Calamity and Reform in China, p.8.

(8) Ying, Guan, 2003.  “Consumption Patterns of Chinese Children”, Journal of family and Economic Issues, 24:3, pp. 373-377.

(9) Ying, Guan, 2003.  “Consumption Patterns of Chinese Children”.

(10) Ying, Guan, 2003.  “Consumption Patterns of Chinese Children”


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