If a politician mentions the lowly potato chip -- the standard food of the lazy, the fat, the sloppy -- it’s generally going to be in reference to how children need to exercise more, or how Americans need to eat healthy, or (in the case of Michael Bloomberg) how fatty foods should be taxed.
But in a speech at the Virginia Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Saturday, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley turned the American love of the potato chip on its head, using it to make an argument that maybe — just maybe — our priorities are a little messed up.
“As a nation, we now spend more on potato chips than we invest through our government into energy research and development,” he said.
O’Malley isn’t the first figure to use this talking point. Groups that support increased federal government spending on the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — have been using it for a while. The American Energy Innovation Council -- a group of big name business leaders and CEOs who are lobbying for increased spending on energy research -- cited it in a report from last summer, as did a group of educators and business leaders assembled by the National Academies of Science.
The Snack Food Association — a trade group for producers of the favorite snack food — said there were $3.477 billion in sales of potato chips last year, according to a third-party firm it hired to gather data. But that only includes supermarkets, drug stores and other mass market retailers. It doesn’t include sales at Walmart, convenience stores or a bevy of other places consumers might buy a bag of Ruffles.
But citations elsewhere (including the one an O'Malley spokesman e-mailed to us) point to numbers assembled by Snack Food and Wholesale Bakery magazine. In the June 2010 issue, it says Americans spent close to $8 billion on potato chips during the 365-day period ending March 21, 2010. (That's an 11 percent increase from 2009.)
That $4 billion gap seems large, but Chris Clark, the snack food association's vice president for operations and management, said that sales doubling once you add Walmart and convenience stores to the mix wouldn't be surprising.
"It doesn't strike me as absurd or ridiculous," he said.
For fiscal year 2012, President Barack Obama’s budget request asks for $5.4 billion.
Of course, the comparison is naturally a little lopsided. Potato chips are consumer spending, while the energy research and development money comes from federal coffers. So when you buy some Lays, it's not like that money would otherwise go to groundbreaking electric-car research or the development of wind power. Still, O'Malley was right as rain and gets an Honest Abe.