Monday, July 15, 2013

The True Cost of Food

I've been in a civil disagreement with another blogger (gardening/recipes blogger Leaf+Grain) over the past week or so about prices at the farmers' market.  She's experiencing sticker shock, and I understand. 

Her argument is that prices at the farmers' market are too high for the average American to afford.

My counterargument is that "afford" is a relative term, and that if it's truly not sustainable to produce food the way we've been producing it over the past few decades -- that is, lots of soy- and corn-based processed foods, meat from feedlots, produce from large monocultures -- is unsustainable, then we don't have much choice but to recalculate what portion of our food budget needs to go to food.

We Americans have experienced cheaper and cheaper food prices over the past hundred years.  Industrial food is cheap food.  Our great-grandparents put a quarter of their income toward food -- and that was in a time when very few families ate in restaurants more than a few times a year.  Today the average American eats five meals a week in a restaurant, and still we spend only 9% of our household budgets on food.  This leaves us a lot of money to spend on nonessentials, and we've gotten used to that. We expect it.  When food isn't cheap, it feels overpriced.

Unfortunately she shut down the comments on her blog post, calling me a food elitist.  I don't think I'm an elitist.  I think I'm a realist.  If cheap food is truly unsustainable -- that is, if it's impossible to continue producing food this cheaply forever -- then eventually the era of cheap food will end.  If we haven't prepared for it, we'll be in much worse shape than if we had.  And I believe part of preparing for it is educating ourselves on the true cost of producing our food.

Here's the blog post.  I'd be interested in hearing any comments, either privately or publicly.

http://leafandgrain.com/farmers-markets-pricing-out-of-middle-class/

-->

8 comments:

Amy said...

This is not an easy topic. It is frustrating to realize that the quality food we really want to purchase will cost more than we set aside. Americans are over-committed, over-worked, and in debt, and balk at any suggestion that they could afford better food. I saw a billboard once that said "Live Your Wage". Food is not the whole problem, as you mentioned Valerie). It's that we live beyond our means in other areas of our lives (house, car, clothes, vacations, dining out, etc) and don't put quality food high on the priority list. It has to do with how we entertain ourselves in our free time.

People don't believe they have choice in how they spend their time. If more people chose to spend their free time growing a garden and cooking fresh meals, there would be less time to overcommit to too many clubs/organizations/sports teams, social engagements, eating out, etc. By default, this would save money. Leaf+Grain is a great example of someone who is trying to make it work by growing 80% of her own produce. This is an amazing milestone that few people have achieved. We are doing the same on our homestead, and sometimes we falter, but we are always finding ways to plug the holes in spending and reevaluate our priorities, which health and food top the list.

The average household has $15,000 in revolving debt. Homemaking with good food (growing, purchasing, preparing) is the way out because it will take up as much of our free time as we give it, lessening the opportunity for impulse consumerism.

Everyone has special circumstances and excuses, I was the queen of them just 5 years ago. Through social media I connected with others (locally and virtually) who are also making this a priority/transition, and feel I supported in my journey. There is always a starting point, we just have to be brave enough to choose health and quality of life for ourselves, and by default we fulfill our other goals of supporting local farmers and protecting the environment.

Valerie Taylor said...

Amy, I do understand why there's sticker shock over what food truly costs. For families who feel as if they're just scraping by as it is, the idea of paying more for food is pretty daunting.

My feeling is that one way or another, cheap food is going to go away eventually -- the ecosystem just won't support it forever. Whether it takes the honeybees and antibiotics with it is the part of the equation we can still affect.

penny said...

Americans allocate the smallest percentage of total household expenditure to food of any other country.
In 2009, Americans spent 6% of their money of food, while citizens of the UK spent 9, the French spent 14, Brazilians spent 25%, Indians spent 35% and Kenyans spent 45%. The prices of food are artificially low and the value placed on the food -our willingness to pay for that necessity which nourishes and sustains us- is overlooked.
Perhaps the "overpriced" goods at the farmers' market serves as a well-timed reality check?

stats from: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2012/01/america-food-spending-less

john said...

Much of the sticker shock is due to the nature of the modern farmers market as convenience store. Since few americans cook, yet every american eats, most farmers markets have positioned themselves more heavily to the consumer that eats. Prepared foods and cooked meals are featured heavily, while one must hunt the edges and outskirts of findlay market for things like fresh broccoli, corn, carrots and apples to cook at home. The same 'sticker shock' is present at Kroger should you buy a fresh loaf of bread or lasagna instead of make it.

9Vols said...

We're going through these "adjustments" with a family of 9. Yes, it's more expensive. This post presents a very interesting side of the equation that I appreciate. People will have to wake up to this reality sooner or later and I'll be interested to see where it goes.

The Belvedere- Alyssa said...

Eat well- be well, as heath is wealth. I couldn't agree with your statements more. The American way is to except to get high quality food for cheap. We think we 'deserve' it. The general public is being duped into thinking all of the processed goods and things on our grocery shelves are in some way good for us. We're nutritionally starving ourselves while caloricly gorging ourselves.
To spend a little more and be able to eat more locally and healthfully isn't exactly an added burden. You're paying now to save later on your health costs. I fully believe more people should breakdown their budget and see what % of their money is going towards food. Thanks for the great points and great post!

KristopherBurgess said...

The link to the blog post won't work, was it taken down?

I'd like to read it before commenting further.

Valerie Taylor said...

Kristopher, sorry for the delay in responding. I believe she took the post down; I don't think her blog really deals with the subject of local food in general. She deals more with recipes and gardening, and I think she decided it was off topic for her blog.