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We all pay the price for cheap food

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Food is too cheap. It's a bit nervy to claim that food is too cheap. Slow Food (slowfoodusa.org), an organization I belong to and support, has gone on record claiming that food is too cheap. Needless to say, such an elitist claim has been denounced as being, well, elitist. After all, poor people, here or in the Third World, can't afford [your favorite sustainably raised, flavorful, known only to the few, food here]. I think that, in fact, food is too cheap. I think the price of cheap food is too high.

First of all, food can't be too cheap unless it is cheap. And, here in the United States, it is. We spend less, as a percentage of income, on food than any other country now or at any time in history. Roughly, 10 percent. And that cheapness is a bad thing.

Let's look at the 10 percent figure. We spend 10 percent of our income on food. But who are "we"? As you might guess, food expenditures are not uniform across the population, varying across regions, ethnicities and ages--but class, or its surrogate, income, is the great determiner. Low-income households can spend up to 48 percent of their income on food. Middle-income households spent about 13 percent, and the wealthiest households spent about 8 percent. (Similarly, poor countries in Eastern Europe and Asia, for example, tend to have percentages in the high 30s, even into the 50s.) But that doesn't mean that food isn't cheap; it means that some people don't have enough money. (This is related to Amartya Sen's famous observation that famines aren't caused by food shortages.)

Of course, higher-income households spend more than poor households in absolute amounts, though that extra spending isn't devoted to calories but to a mix of quality, convenience and pretension. If you're poor, food is, because of its cheapness, not exactly cheap, but affordable. But that affordability comes at a price. Part of that price is bad food.

It isn't that affordable good food doesn't exist. But it isn't what kids learn about at school cafeterias, it isn't what billions of dollars in advertising are spent promoting, it isn't what many people know how to deal with efficiently (and neither the government nor Rachel Ray is telling them). And it isn't what our entire food system is geared up to supply.

What it is geared up to supply, what it does supply in vast quantities, is fat and sugar. Fats and sugars make up half of the calories consumed in the United States. It wasn't always thus (see, for example, my story about the corn syrup industry: "Not so sweet"). The American diet has become more and more calorie-dense. It had to.

Food demand is very inelastic. When you have more money that doesn't mean you buy more food. In Western Europe, another well-fed, well-off place, they spend, with some country-to-country variation, about 15 percent of income on food; their demand for food is slightly more elastic than ours. That's a way of saying that Western Europeans would rather spend money on good food than on home entertainment systems. But that 15 percent is pretty much the top for a well-fed, well-off place.

That's a problem if you're in the food business. To sell more you have to take money away from some other food business. Moreover, you have to convince people that either they need to eat more (supersize it), eat easier (nuke it) or eat better (organic, flavorful or exotic).

The eat-more strategy grew out of the birth, in the 1930s, of the modern supermarket and was honed, from the '50s on, by the fast-food industry. If you're dealing with cheap ingredients, then selling twice as much of something is almost pure profit. Supermarkets operate at absurdly low profit margins--about 1 percent of sales. (Not Whole Foods, which plays in a different league and makes about 4 percent of sales.) They make it up in volume. But that requires little room for error, great uniformity, shelf-stable products and dependence on a huge but streamlined distribution system. Not much room for the small farmer raising interesting varieties of fruits, vegetables and animals. No room in the store for butchers (i.e., real butchers, not people in white aprons putting plastic-wrapped trays into cases) or anyone who has any knowledgeable connection with food. Add convenience to the mix and you have the "valued-added food chain." It's a humorous term, as it usually entails value-subtracted.

Here's what all that means by the numbers. From 1900 to now, the percent of the labor force working on farms went from 50 to less than 2. Sixty percent of that 2 percent hold other jobs. Meanwhile, 17 percent of the labor force works at "adding value"(e.g., salt, corn syrup, fat, stabilizers, emulsifiers, artificial flavoring, natural--i.e., artificial--flavoring, etc.) to the food coming off the farm.

Now we're entering the territory of why cheap food is not just bad for its consumers, but why it's more generally bad. It's that high price of cheap food that I mentioned--the hidden costs.

First, there's the obvious: bad health. There really is a public health issue here; as surely as contagious diseases were a scourge of the poor at the turn into the 20th century, obesity (and diabetes and heart disease) is our 21st-century environmental disease. Recent immigrants to the United States, notably Mexicans, are much healthier than equally poor citizens; as they assimilate, their health declines. The Statue of Obesity bids you welcome.

Secondly, only 20 cents of the food dollar gets back to the farm, from whence it goes to seed companies, fertilizer companies and oil companies--fertilizer is a petrochemical product, as is the fuel to run tractors and combines. And that other 80 cents of the food dollar is up to its knees in fuel costs--apple juice from China, collards from California. Did I mention the plastics that go into packaging? We pay for petrochemical consumption in military budgets and lost lives.

And how do farmers make money, given that mere 20 cents on the dollar? Well, market farmers, who drive a few miles to sell you fresh produce, keep more than 20 cents. And Big Farm lives off your tax dollars. All that sugar is subsidized. Half of farm net income is government provided. And it isn't evenly sprinkled across our arable land; it goes to farmers with clout. So the government pays farmers enough to make it reasonable to grow enough corn to make high-fructose syrup cheap enough to make it a virtually universal additive in processed foods.

Cheap food depends on cheap labor. Labor is a major part of the food dollar because it takes a lot of labor to grow, harvest, process, package, transport, shelve and sell. Practically everyone doing actual labor in that long chain (perhaps not the unionized truck driver) is poorly paid. The meat-packers union was broken a long time ago. If you want cheap food, you want low labor costs. Cheap labor is why it is economical to bring apple juice from China to your supermarket shelves.

Have I mentioned pollution? There's air pollution from all the needless transport and runoff from mass production farms. And, as farms get more "productive" and centralized, farmland gets cheaper and thus more available for conversion to sprawl.

And now we're getting to more abstract costs. There are the cultural costs--a country in which most food bears no trace of its origin as a farm product, where people have little idea what real food is like, where it comes from and how it's made; a country of homogenized tastes. A country in which farming is a disappearing profession.

Suppose you were a bunch of malevolent Martians with gastronomic designs on the human population of the United States. And suppose that you had a laissez-faire, benign (relative to your ultimate intentions) attitude toward human husbandry. But you did want to fatten up the herd. You'd invent our food system.

For a Slow Food slant on helping New Orleans, visit slowfoodusa.org/new_orleans.html.

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