Saturday, October 17, 2009

Eating Well, Part Two: Cheap Food Nation

"I pay more for my chickens than I would for store bought, mass-produced ones, but I don't pay too much. The farmer charges me only what it costs him to raise and dress my chickens plus a reasonable profit. He is a farmer who endeavors to operate in an environmentally sound, ethical way. Buying from this farmer, I support a food system that embodies my values---one that provides wholesome food, cares for creation, and provides a living wage to family farmers."
Marta Cleaveland, “You Should Pay More for Your Food,” Salt Magazine

At first glance, it seems like quite an achievement that Americans today spend less than 10% of our disposable incomes on food, especially compared to 1933, when spending was at 25%.
During the depression era, U.S. government hatched a relief program to encourage farmers to produce food as cheaply and abundantly as possible. Oil was cheap then, as were the pesticides derived from it, and as the chart above shows, we began to feed our families for less.

Perhaps that system fed our hunger sufficiently to allow us to focus on the specifics of how we have been feeding ourselves, and at what real cost to our long-term health and environment.

For generations, Americans have been offered food -- and consumer goods -- at artificially low prices. A fast food value meal may feed you for less than $5, but it didn’t cost $5. Your tax dollars already paid subsidies to the agricultural conglomerate who produced it, allowing them to remain profitable while selling you that meal at a dirt cheap price.

Even though our receipt totals don’t tally the real cost of our food, which also includes climate change…

“the way we grow, process and transport food uses more fossil fuel and contributes more greenhouse gas to the atmosphere than any other industry (17-34%)…”
and rising healthcare costs…

“Spending on healthcare as a percentage of GDP has risen from 5% in 1960 to 18% today. Of 2 trillion we spend on healthcare, 1.5 trillion is going to treat preventable chronic disease linked to diet.”

- Author Michael Pollan, keynote speaker, Georgia Organics’ 2009 Annual Conference

…we get what we pay for, whether it’s obvious to us or not. In Americans’ case, we pay with our tax money via farm bill subsidies to make processed food cheaper than real, whole foods.

“The real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (aka liquid corn – [made with high fructose corn syrup]) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.”

“Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?”

- Michael Pollan , “You Are What You Grow,” April 2007, New York Times Magazine

“Nearly 90% of all federal farm payments go to only five favored crops that include corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and rice, while fresh fruits, vegetables and organic agriculture receive little.” -- Environmental Working Group (EWG)
Then, many of us gravitate towards these heavily marketed products of industrialized agriculture, perhaps for “great value” or “great taste.”

“Energy-dense foods, many of them nutrient poor, are good tasting, readily available, and cheap...Simply put, as incomes drop and food budgets shrink, food choices shift toward energy-dense refined grains, added sugars and fats.”

– Adam Drewnowski, Director of Center for Obesity Research, University of Washington professor of Epidemiology and Medicine, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nov. 18, 2008

Sometimes we pay again, to treat the health problems we develop (i.e., obesity/heart disease, type II diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), etc., etc.) from our refined-grain, added-sugar, partially-hydrogenated-fat-filled diets .

“Americans are becoming more obese while spending a lower share of disposable income on food.” – Adam Drewnowski, “Fat and Sugar: An Economic Analysis”, American Society for Nutritional Sciences Journal of Nutrition, 2003
Good Intentions…

“While initially meant to protect farmers from the vagaries of weather and the fickleness of the free market system, the subsidy system now often rewards big growers over small- and mid-sized producers. Moreover, in recent decades it has tended to consolidate government payments in the hands of a few. Between 2003 and 2005, for example, American taxpayers paid $34.75 billion in crop subsidy benefits to farmers, but only the top one percent of farmers received nearly one-fifth of that amount.”
WATCH: “King Corn”

“EWG data shows that the largest 10% of farms receive almost 70% of total farm payments. Often, the large plantation scale operations use the increased capitol to outbid smaller family farmers for land.”
READ THE TRANSCRIPT: Farming Out Billions of Dollars, CBS Miami I-Team

“The [farm subsidy] payments are very concentrated in the hands of a narrow slice of agriculture. And it's important to remember that two-thirds of the farmers in this country are not on the programs at all.” - Ken Cook, President, Environmental Working Group (EWG), July 2007 NPR Interview

LISTEN: Groups Push for End to Crop Subsidies,

Real Food Revolution
Baby, who loves you? The owner of a huge industrialized farming operation, or a fourth-generation farmer who appreciates your patronage in helping sustain his family business? The system needs changing, and I’ll write a future post about political involvement, but in the meantime, we can vote with our dollar, and support food systems that are good for our families and our future. How about…
  1. We choose to pay more for real, whole foods, grown sustainably without synthetic chemicals. We frequent local farmer’s markets, co-ops and CSAs for affordable alternatives to supermarket natural food chains.
  2. Whenever possible, we buy from a local provider to keep responsible family farms in business, to reduce cross-country transport emissions and to ensure that our produce, meats and dairy are truly organic, free-range, and grass-fed.
  3. We make sure we know what is in our food. We read ingredients or ask about them (“What kind of sweetener is in your sweet tea?”).
  4. We make home-cooked meals a priority. We learn how to make quick fix meals from scratch, as well as stretch one cooking stint into several meals (check out Food Network’s Robin Miller’s Quick Fix Meals). We substitute real ingredients for the processed ones in a favorite recipe.
  5. When we eat out, we pay a little more at locally-based eateries that make their food from scratch with fresh, whole ingredients. Look for a future post on local scrumptious meals for less than $10-$15.
Take inspiration from Georgia Organics’ 2010 conference keynote speaker, Slow Food non-profit organization founder Carlo Petrini of Piedmont, Italy. Petrini founded Slow Food in 1989 to “counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat. We consider ourselves co-producers, because by being informed about our food production and making choices in support of good, clean and fair food, we become a part of the process.”

The time, energy and money we spend to eat well is worth our families’ health and future.

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