Devaluing our food dollar
BY RUSSELL POWELL
IF IT IS TRUE THAT WE “are what we eat” and “get what we pay for,” why are we so penurious with our food dollars? According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, Americans spend just over a dime of every dollar they earn on food (10.9 percent), compared with 15 percent in France, nearly 18 percent in Italy, Germany and Japan, 21 percent in Israel and Spain, 33 percent in Mexico, and 51 percent in India.
This statistic is touted as evidence of our efficiency at producing food. The champions of American agribusiness also celebrate, rather than lament, the fact that only 2 percent of our population now produces the nation’s food. Though it provides the very stuff of life, farming, we are told, is a hard way to make a living, so the fewer people needed to do it, the better—even though this fundamentally alters our communities and alienates the vast majority of Americans from the food that sustains them.
Efficiency is a matter of perspective. As Michael Pollan points out (page 8), our cheap food supply depends upon enormous quantities of fossil fuel, whose long-term impact on our soil’s fertility may increase costs in the future. There’s also pollution to consider, even our global strategy, including a sizable military needed to guarantee uninterrupted supplies of the precious oil that fuels not just our cars and trucks but our arms and legs as well. For all this, fossil fuel is not inexhaustible; eventually we will have no choice but to wean ourselves from this expensive environmental dependency.
Perhaps these indirect costs will remain hidden from us as we enter our grocery stores, oblivious to the industrial subsidies and economic engineering that underwrite cheap food. Yet even on a small scale, on the local level, efficiency is a relative term. Mechanized harvest of almost any crop—essential for all but the smallest full-time farmers–leaves behind hundreds of pounds of perfectly good food, potatoes and cucumbers left to rot in the sun. Tons of carrots, too gnarly and twisted for our uniform aesthetic and vegetable scrap-ers, end up as cattle feed. Acres of apples and strawberries sometimes go unpicked because harvesting them would cost too much. Despite our desire for efficiency, nature is decidedly inefficient, scattering millions of seeds to ensure survival of a species, producing an excess of fruit and genetic material for future generations as a hedge against threats like climate change or disease, and we exploit and manipulate this overabundance.
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WHEN IT COMES to food, “convenience,” like “efficiency,” also depends on one’s perspective. The same forces that boast of America’s agricultural efficiency promote the convenience of megastores and one-stop shopping. Today’s industrial supermarkets combine not only the traditional produce stand, butcher shop and bakery, but also the florist, café, bank, book store and wine shop. We can buy orange juice or paper towels when we pick up our Prozac or Lipitor, and purchase our groceries at the same place we shop for a shirt, vacuum cleaner or gun.
Forget the hidden costs of this convenience, material and spiritual. On a purely practical level, is it really more convenient to circle a parking lot until a space opens up, walk half an acre to the store and navigate dozens of aisles in search of corn or tomatoes (that are at least a day old), than to pull off at the side of the road, walk two steps to a farmstand and drive off with fresh, flavorful ingredients for your evening dinner?
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PERHAPS BECAUSE we are so dependent on it for survival, we want our food cheap. But “cheap,” too, has multiple meanings: inexpensive, or poorly made. When it comes to food, we frequently, inexplicably, accept inferior quality in exchange for the lowest price. We’ll run up credit-card debt and take out enormous loans for colleges and cars, paying for them many times over to get the
quality we desire. But armed with our academic degrees and gas-guzzling SUVs, we take pride in shaving that food bill, driving 20 miles to save a nickel on a gallon of milk, refusing to pay an extra 50 cents for a box of raspberries, buying three bags of potato chips not because we need or even want them, but because they’re on sale. (Who can resist”buy one, get two free”?)
Many people can’t afford to eat well, it is commonly argued. It is elitist, this reasoning goes, to target people who have no choice but to go the cheap—inexpensive—route. But when “inexpensive” and “poorly made” are combined in the same product, as is often the case in our food aisles and fast-food restaurants, the choice is a false one. To say that I am better off consuming empty calories simply because I can “afford” them puts me at a permanent disadvantage to those who pay a little more for—and eat a little less of—food that provides real nutrition.
Everyone appreciates a bargain, and nobody likes getting gouged. Still, I can’t take comfort in knowing that we spend only 10.9 percent of our income on food. For one thing, the savings to individual consumers are greatly exaggerated by hidden costs. We are paying more for our food, just not at the grocery store. For another, the statistic reflects a careless attitude. We shouldn’t value the cheapest way out when it comes to our selves.
Russell Powell is editor and publisher of New England Watershed.