Its getting colder and I finally have time to reflect on the season and begin to dream up plans for next year! One of the bigger questions that continue to circulate in my mind is how we value food in our culture? Assigning value to our food in the form of a price is complicated and reflects many different things. As I look at the tight…tight..margins we work with and the high quality of our produce…I wonder what it would be like if more Americans were shopping at local markets and investing in organic systems of production?
In our first season I heard mostly supportive comments about our prices–that we had comparable prices to other organic produce, that the quality was worth paying a bit more for. Occasionally I would hear a less supportive comment from a passerby that may not understand the difference between what we offer on our table and what they might even find on a table next to us grown conventionally. It is my mission to be able to elegantly explain those differences, so I often wonder more generally how prices reflect the way in which we value food in this country.
It is clear that the pendulum is swinging a bit towards supporting more local producers rather than cheap imported produce with the surge of new farmers markets all over the state and country. BUT—the average American does not spend their food dollars locally. Why not? I suspect part of the reason is expense—often local organic produce can be a bit more expensive than produce shipped in (I think partially due to the smaller scale of production) and likely convenience…which brings us back to the whole value thing. If we valued food differently, perhaps we Americans would be willing to spend a bit more to support family farmers in their local community and supporting environmentally sustainable practices.
I strongly believe that We Americans perhaps have scarified more deeply than we are aware of for the sake of cheaper and faster food. Just when we thought we were ‘getting ahead’ with pre-made meals in a box, loads of flavorless conventional, cheap produce we have hidden the cost of this way of doing things by passing the buck.
There is a lot of research out there on how the price of most of our food does not include all of these other externalities. “Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The true cost of food is paid somewhere and if it isn’t paid at the cash register, its charged to the environment, its charged to the public purse in the form of subsidies, and its charged to your health. You do get what you pay for…with food, as with anything else” (Michael Pollen, Fresh).
How about nutritional value of our food today? Most conventional growers are selecting varieties of vegetables that are really great for certain things like shipping and may produce larger fruit really quickly but may not have the same nutritional value as the diversity of crops you may have eaten 50 or more years ago on the farm. What do the herbicides and pesticides do to the nutritional value of our produce? Michael Pollen discusses this in Fresh (a documentary I highly recommend) “As we’ve industrialized our food, we’ve made it cheaper, but we’ve also diminished it nutritionally. According to the USDA’s own numbers, if you look at fresh produce grown in 1950 and compare it with fresh produce grown today you will find that the key nutrients, vitamins, minerals has diminished by 40%.” Is cheaper food worth our own health and the health of our children and communities long term?
If Americans truly support families and want to maintain strong networks of families, why not ensure that everyone is paid a living wage? I’m not talking about middle class wages even…just enough to pay for the basics. If you look at what farm workers in this country are paid—I believe it should be called legal slavery. No wonder why family farms have virtually disappeared in this country (only 2% of our population grows food for the rest of us by using highly mechanized systems, chemicals, etc)! Its virtually impossible to survive!
So it seems to me that we could avoid a lot of problems in this country (environmental, social, health, economic, etc) if we spent more on our food again and spent it locally. Currently, Americans spend less that 7% of their income on food which is down from 18% in 1966 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1917726-2,00.html/ http://civileats.com/2011/03/29/mapping-global-food-spending-infographic/). Other industrialized nations spend more (France 13.5%, Germany 11.4%, Norway 12.9%) and I believe this in part reflects a different value of food.
It may at first glance seem like a mark of ‘progress’ to spend so little on our food—but its becoming clear that its not. What else is so important to spend money on that affects so many parts of our lives, including the building blocks of our own bodies? When $3 could go to an organic bunch of local kale, a coffee at starbucks, a gourmet cupcake, a couple of huge sodas, a hamburger and fries….what seems like the best choice when you multiply out the effects? These choices will likely result in hard decisions—if Americans are spending more money on locally grown food, they will likely have to spend less elsewhere. I believe this could be one great leap to help us rebuild our local economies and truly support families sustainably.