Paying A High Price for the Food We Eat


lettuce survived the snow just fine
Creative Commons License photo credit: annethelibrarian

According to Homi Kharas, senior fellow for the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution, when a U.S. consumer buys a box of cereal or a cup of Starbucks coffee, she is mostly paying for the packaging, marketing and attractive store fixtures. To which I would add the cost of transporting that food, both as raw materials and in its manufactured state.

Aside from the fact that to me most boxed cereals taste worse than the cardboard they’re packaged in—and I’ve seen research that rats can survive longer on the cardboard than the cereal—too many people are dependent on a food system that uses large amounts of oil to grow, transport and process food. When you add to that the crazy weather the world has been having, it translates to problems with the food supply.

The Chinese were able to feed their people for over forty centuries because they had a system of small local farms which grew a variety of crops that did well in their bioregions. The Soviet Union produced half its food from the small peasant gardens on its huge collective farms.  In WWII we had the victory gardens. Even the White House, under Eleanor Roosevelt, had a victory garden on the grounds (a custom Michelle Obama has revived). Roosevelt’s garden was planted, however, over the objections of the Department of Agriculture, which feared home food production would “hurt the food industry”. By the end of the war victory gardens were 20 million strong. But here’s the key figure: those victory gardens produced the equivalent of all commercial production of fruits and vegetables in the United States! Guess the Department of Agriculture had reason to be anxious.

The few seeds and plants I bought this year—not many, since I use open-pollinated seeds and save my own—cost me less than $20. I expect to produce close to $1000 worth of food from those seeds. If grocery prices keep going up at their current rate, it may be more like $3000. None of it will come in a cardboard box or be transported more than a quarter of a mile from field to plate. I’m not using commercial fertilizers; nor am I polluting the air, soil or water. My “attractive store features” include blue skies, babbling brooks, birds and wildflowers.

Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

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