April 6, 2008

Food is Expensive

Food prices are climbing.

U.S. consumer food prices normally rise by about 2.5 percent annually, but they increased by 4 percent in 2007 -- the biggest increase in 17 years, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data.

And, if anecdotal media reports are any indication, they are starting to cause some serious pain.

[Patricia] Norris must purchase only what is on her shopping list, to avoid spending more than she can afford.

"Sometimes I cry," she said, when she passes items on store shelves she can no longer buy.

But not everybody is crying. Among others, Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, in last Wednesday’s New York Times, suggest there is a silver lining to these increasing prices, at least potentially:

“It’s very hard to argue for higher food prices because you are ceding popular high ground to McDonald’s when you do that,” said Mr. Pollan, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” (Penguin Press). “But higher food prices level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.”

I have to wonder how accurate this assumption is. There is at least one example in the Times article to back it up:

In the category of meat and dairy, rising commodity prices could very likely help the small but growing number of farmers who raise animals the old-fashioned way, on grassy pastures. With little or no need for expensive grain, these farmers can sell their milk and meat for more attractive prices.

That is welcome news to Ned MacArthur, founder of an organic, pasture-based dairy in Pennsylvania that sells milk, butter and other food under the Natural by Nature label. Unlike dairy farmers who feed their animals grain, people on the 52 farms in his consortium are looking forward to the coming months, he said.

“The grass is starting to grow now so within the next couple weeks the cows are really going to take off,” he said.

But Tom Philpott at Grist argues that, despite some of this (potential) leveling of the playing field, this ‘higher-food-prices-are-ultimately-good’ thinking is wrong-headed.

I have a hard time imagining people who are struggling to put food on the table rambling off to the farmers' market on Saturday to fill cloth bags with the sort of fresh, local, organic produce so beloved by Pollan and Waters (and me). Indeed, higher food prices are likely to send many time- and cash-strapped people in quite the opposite direction.

Rising costs may end up increasing the allure of large entities with economies of scale, cutthroat buying practices, and experience in transforming low-quality ag inputs into stuff people like to eat. I'm talking about fast-food companies, which can likely absorb higher input prices and still churn out crap -- and rake in profits. If that's true, prices at the drive-thru won't rise quite as steeply as those in the supermarket line, giving people yet more incentive to abandon their home kitchens and flock to the Golden Arches.

I believe he has a very strong point. Contrast the reality of Patricia Norris…

"I don't buy anything I don't have to," Norris said.

or of mother-of-three Laura Miller from California (from the same Reuters article)…

She plans meals two weeks in advance and shops with the daughter who doesn't ask her to buy snacks. Miller's printed shopping list, organized by item and place of purchase, shows that she does the bulk of her buying at Wal-Mart.

"I won't pay $6 for a box of cereal when I can get it for $3" at Wal-Mart, she said.

with reality as it is perceived by Alice Waters (per the Times)…

“Make a sacrifice on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,” she said.

I think part of what Pollan and Waters and others might be discounting here -- aside from how most people outside of San Francisco live and make decisions about food purchases (probably Waters, more so than Pollan) -- is that the local/sustainable food infrastructure, at least in most places, is not set-up to leap into this alleged breach. Local, sustainbly raised food still has to be sought out, through Farmers’ Markets, CSAs, specialty grocery stores, etc.

And even for those willing to undertake such searches, a Tyson broiler chicken at Wal-Mart is still probably going to cost a good bit less than the pastured one from the organic farm two hours away being sold at the Saturday farmer’s market. And a tray of 5 or 6 steaks at Costco with a big Swift sticker on it is still going to be far cheaper, and more readily available, than grass-fed steaks from a farm just down the road.

And it’s not like it’s the fault of the family farms or organizations that organize farmers markets. They are doing their best with the resources they have available. They could sure use some help from the feds or the state government.

In Pennsylvania, this is what qualifies as help:

Governor Edward G. Rendell today announced a new $75,000 investment in farmers markets to improve consumer access to Pennsylvania products.

Development and expansion grants of up to $10,000 are available through the Farmers Market Development Matching Grant Program for eligible farmers, nonprofit organizations, local government units and businesses or associations that manage or operate farmers markets.

$75,000??!! I think Paris Hilton spent more on some fancy bagels for her bevy of personal assistants and sycophantic, hanger-on friends for breakfast yesterday morning.

And while the Farm Bill bouncing its way through Congress increases funding for conservation and organic programs, it still most heavily favors subsidies for commodity crops. And a handful of mentally, and I would argue morally, bankrupt legislators aim to keep it that way…

Farm-state lawmakers, for their part, refuse to pare $5 billion in automatic payouts that go out each year to farmers who have historically planted subsidized crops - regardless of price or whether the crops are still grown.

In short: Less talk about how high food prices are good. More talk about food policy that makes fruit, vegetables, pastured/organic chicken, pork, beef, etc. more affordable and available.

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