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Our Public Food System

We hear from a lot of our roasting business customers that eating locally from small producers is expensive.  The Western Wake Farmer’s Market did a customer survey, the results of which they shared with vendors, and one of the main bits of feedback was that many customers felt market food is too expensive, comparing it to grocery store food, or produce from the NC State Farmer’s Market, which in my opinion is the WalMart of farmer’s markets.  In thinking about how to explain the price differentials, it occurred to me there is a perfect analogy for the food system in America, a good way to explain what’s broken about eating in the USA, and by inference, what the alternatives are: the analogy is the public school system.

Most people understand that no matter who they are, they pay for schools in the US.  If you’re a homeowner, and parent of students in public schools, it’s clear to you that you pay taxes so your kids can attend the public school.  Even if you’re a homeowner with grown chidren, or without children at all, you realize you pay for schools.  The idea is that having good schools is in your best interest, so you pay.  Even renters understand that landlords pass along the taxes in the rent, so renters pay for schools, too.  And if you opt out, by sending your kids to private school, or home-schooling, you don’t get out of paying.  Like it or not, you pay no matter what.

It’s less obvious, but make no mistake, we also have a public food system in the US.  And that no matter how you eat, you pay for the food in the grocery store.  You pay because your taxes are put toward agricultural subsidies.  For many commodity crops, most notably corn, farmers are paid a fee for every bushel they grow.  Obviously the net effect of this system is the production of more commodity crops, which can be sold at or below the cost of production.  For example (I’m going to make up the numbers but the idea is correct), let’s say that it costs $7 per bushel to produce corn.  And let’s say that a farmer receives a $2 subsidy for every bushel.  If they sell the corn for $5.50, they actually net $0.50 per bushel.  And that corn is then gobbled up by processed food makers and turned into, well, just about everything in the grocery store.  When you buy something made from corn in the grocery store (which again, is just about everything from Pop Tarts to farm-raised salmon), it can be sold for a low price, because part of the cost – the subsidy you already paid – doesn’t need to be passed along in the form of higher prices.

When you decide to opt out of the public food system by buying locally from small producers, you pay the actual cost of production.  It appears to be more expensive than grocery store food because nothing is hidden.  You pay what it cost, plus the producer’s margin.  That’s the long and the short of it.  You can opt out, but sadly you’re still paying for the food in the grocery store.

So you need to ask yourself – in which system do you want to participate?  Small, local producers aren’t trying to gouge you, nor is it likely that they’re making a ton of money.  They’re just being honest with you about what it costs.  So regardless of which way you lean, please try to be intellectually honest about the cost of the food you eat and how it was paid.

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  1. October 26, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Coincidentally, Mark Bittman made a related post on his blog today:

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