I have little to no experience in economics and would enjoy a simple answer, if possible. Additionally, I base this question on subjective data, so I might be completely wrong in my assumptions.
EDIT: The title was deemed confusing. What I mean by "food" is any ready-to- or close to ready-to-eat meal. Restaurant meals definitely qualify, but so do frozen meals that might need a microwave/oven. I'm unsure about instant ramen, since I can hardly imagine enough people consuming enough ramen to create economic pressure on the rest of the food industry. Anything requiring attentive cooking disqualifies, so e.g. pasta is out.
Having some experience in preparing food for groups of people of up to 50, I could easily observe economies of scale working, driving the price per meal down as the number of participants (and thereby meals) increased. Roughly speaking, I'd spend about 3\$ on a meal for myself, 2\$/meal for 2-3 people, 1\$/meal for 10 people, and so on.
EDIT: I should emphasize I'm not asking about a specific price, but rather use them to show the difference between expectation and reality.
So I would expect companies preparing hundreds or thousands of meals per day (i.e. restaurants) to sell meals at comparably low prices. Now most restaurants don't work like that and prepare every meal when it's ordered and I'd assume customers pay because they value the experience more than the food itself.
But why aren't there any places selling decent meals for .5\$? My explanations don't quite satisfy me:
- They do exist, it's called McDonalds. The prices aren't that low because there is an organizational overhead, at some point the number of people required rises linearly with the food that can be distributed. I'm not quite satisfied by this, because if it were driven by economics of scale, I'd expect similar concepts for better quality meals.
- They do exist, they are called soup kitchens. At some point, the prices are just so low that demanding the actual price causes people to question it's quality. I.e. when selling food for .1\$/meal, people start wondering what's wrong with it. The only way people accept these prices is by acting as a charity, giving the meals away for free and generating money through donations, rather than meals sold. But wouldn't that mean there should be something like for-profit soup kitchens? I know a pay-as-you wish restaurant in my city, they rely heavily on economics of scale, and still invest about 4\$/meal.
- Rent is the essential problem. A restaurant can only seat so many people, and prices would drop drastically enough only at higher numbers. In that case, wouldn't bigger restaurants or restaurants owning their venue offer cheaper food?
- In the thought of all of the above, the solution are frozen foods. Prepared in huge quantities at industrial scale, they may be shipped anywhere and are storable, even selling in stores is possible. Then again, the cheapest frozen food I know still costs around 1\$/serving (and is by no means a full meal). There is actually a company sponsored by the red cross delivering frozen meals to elderly people, which has prices starting at 3\$/meal.
- People just don't accept cheap food. Though possible, there is a much stronger social component to eating, driving people to avoid low priced food as to avoid a status-penalty. But there are cheaper places (e.g. cafeterias) in existence, already associated with a status-penalty, so why would even cheaper food result in unbearable status penalties?