Why is that so Cheap?: A brief philosophy on the cost of food.

True confession: I worked at Burgerville in my teen years. Also, I really like Burgerville. It's very definitely fast food, but it's fast food that's trying to be just a little bit more. They have their local beef (which is actually beef), their seasonal Walla Walla sweet onion rings, local hazelnut chocolate shakes and other delightful goodies to satisfy a strange intersection between locavorism and quick, cheap eats. 

I find that when I have told people of my love for Burgerville, one of the most common things I hear is, "that place is so expensive." And, it sort of is, for fast food. But in order to be the sort of fast food joint they are, with their locally sourced treats and actual beef, they cannot also be priced like the old standby's.

In recent years I've become the sort of person that is more likely to ask why something is so cheap rather than why it is so expensive. I realize that asking this question is something I can do in part because of privilege. I am in a position to be able to afford to look at the labels when I shop, eat the occasional meal out, and on that basis somebody might consider me elitist or a snob to suggest that food, on the whole, is priced artificially low. 

That's why I felt it was time to lay out, as briefly as possible, a philosophy on the cost of food.

The Cost of Production

I am not suggesting that all food is priced artificially low. The price of food has a relationship to the cost of production, though skewed at times by government subsidy. What I am suggesting is that applying the logic of free market economics to food production, (i.e. focusing almost exclusively on efficiencies and increasing supply to make food that costs less) and then assuming things will work out well in the end has been disastrous for the land, farmers and for consumers. As a result, we have created a world where food produced well appears expensive.

Wendell Berry said it better than I ever could: 

Competition and innovation have indeed solved, for the time being, the problem of production. But the solution has been extravagant, thoughtless, and far too expensive. We have been winning, to our inestimable loss, a competition against our own land and our own people. At present, what we have to show for this "victory" is a surplus of food. But this is a surplus achieved by the ruin of its sources, and it has been used, by apologists for our present economy, to disguise the damage by which it was produced. (written in 1989)

We have reached this point, in large part, by basing our food system on economic logic that has led us to favor productivity over all, which has in turn led us to crown monocultural efficiencies as king (I do realize this is a simplification of very complex dynamics). The current mantra in agriculture is "go simple, go big, or go home." The government rewards this approach, as does the market. It results in cheaper food, but at the cost of the land, and more than just the land. 

I am not a socialist or communist. I think free market capitalism has merits and to butcher a quote by Winston Churchill, is "the worst form of economics, except for all the others." But capitalism without conscience is exploitation. Maybe worse, it is exploitation that is not self-aware, but the result of ignorance, because of a loss of communal knowledge of how to steward the land for future generations. The default then is to dominance of the land in service of productivity and to treating farming like a mining operation. As a result, some are predicting that the world has 60 years of fertile soils left if we continue like this. 

Because of the Locavore movement, Farm to Table, Organic labeling, and the like, there are an increasing number of examples of farmers working on a smaller scale in diversified systems, with land stewardship as the modus operandi. Many also keep an eye to efficiency, using the best of what modern technology has to offer, economies of scale, and the need to produce affordable food. There is a larger appetite now for the realities and cost of producing food in the context of stewardship.  But not large enough, because our stewardship hasn't yet gone far enough to stop or reverse the damage being done to the soil.

The fact remains: the culture has gotten used to the price of food produced by monocultural efficiency unmoored from good stewardship of the land or ethical treatment of animals and humans. This continues to make the transition to food that reflects the cost of a genuine relationship to the land feel jarring. And, the result is that it's fantastically difficult to produce ethical food and remain financially viable

It Hasn't Always been this Way

100 years ago, the percentage of income dedicated to food was closer to 40% if you can believe it. Now, Americans spend around 6.5%, less than any other country on the planet. At this point, that feels normal, where historically it's exceptionally abnormal. It's a dynamic that has been created by modern industrial agriculture. Where 100 years ago our agricultural system was still based on networks of smaller producers using historic knowledge of land stewardship, our food supply now comes largely from a small group of hyper efficient industrial producers (as a note, the modern version of the old agrarian is considerably more efficient than 100 years ago, and can become more so as more people practice it). Becoming disentangled from that and reintegrated with the way of the agrarian is not exactly easy, especially if we're not aware of it. 

Allison and I have been on our own slow and steady journey of "disentanglement," which began about 8 years ago when we decided to start making our own bread with some friends. Beginning to make your own anything has a strange effect. You immediately start thinking about what you are making it with. Your ingredients matter when you are trying to cook healthfully for your friends and family. 

What started with bread resulted in an increased awareness of where our food was coming from and how it was produced. Gradually, we began getting more of our food direct from farmers. Then, at some point, we became farmers ourselves. 

One of the very first things that changed for us as we started this journey, were our expectations around the cost of food. We still don't spend lavishly on our groceries, in fact we are operating in the mid range of the USDA's recommended food budget for a family our size (take a look at the chart, you may find it illuminating), but we do spend a higher percentage of income (about 13%) than we might if we hadn't made this change. As you can see if you look at the chart (or use common sense), percentage of income will not go as far as the family grows, making this challenging for a great many people.

Yet, I believe that at least one key point in making a transition to more sustainable food production is a widespread change in expectations and greater education around the cost of food and the priority it should have in the household budget. It means us becoming the kinds of people who wonder why a thing is so cheap, and not only why it is so expensive. 

Remember the Poor (and anybody with a larger family)

Having said all this, the reality that many struggle to afford food, let alone good food, is very real and that's an important part of this conversation. Food inequality is an injustice that has to be included in whatever it means to go from here. 

How do we bring healthful, non-exploitive, truly sustainable food to those with limited resources or access, instead of only the upwardly mobile and savvy? This is a question many are actively thinking about. There has to be a way to make green the food deserts of our urban centers, where access to these kinds of resources are scarce. There are some truly creative and workable solutions that are coming to the fore, but that's another post.

Many would say the answer to food inequality lies in larger and larger food production systems. Bono himself is currently getting behind such Monsantoized schemes in Africa. The impulse is good, to provide affordable food to the poor. But the answer to world hunger does not lie in the centralization of food production power into the hands of a few behemoths. At least not if we want to have land to farm in 100 years. 

Rather, I believe the answer is in the democratization of food production, where many more people recover the knowledge of how to garden, and produce some food for themselves and their friends and family. It lies in part with producers, to include the poor in their models of business. It lies in part with government, to make walls to access shorter than they now are. It lies with churches and local communities, to recognize the needs right in front of them and maybe tear up some lawns and put in some fruit trees and vegetables. And, it lies with you and me, to vote with our dollars, create genuine relationships with our producers and thus with the soil, whose fertility we depend on. 

Small Steps

The shame of not being able to change everything will often prevent us from changing anything. Take very small steps toward changing your food supply. Deciding you just need to go buy everything that says Organic can get very expensive very quickly and doesn't do as much good as we might hope. In fact, many Organic farms are major offenders in the destruction of soil. 

Instead, we would encourage bypassing the middle man wherever you can (like the super market). Go to your local farmers market (there is one in almost every community now) and get to know the producers in your area. Ask questions, make friends and slowly start to buy more of your food from local, diversified farms that use good stewardship practices and aren't trying to gouge customers (those people are out there). 

Then, once you've started doing that, think about growing some things. Not too many things, just a few. Then a few more. One day you might find that you're buying less from the store than you ever thought possible. If you don't know where to start, there's a class for that. And, if you know your thumb will never be green, find somebody with a green thumb, buy some seeds with them and make a communal effort out of it, include your children; everybody will be better for it.

I should say that in order to eat this way affordably, it will almost certainly mean eating less meat. Americans consume an insanely unsustainable amount of meat. One way to fix that problem is to start eating ethical meat. It will cost more and you will eat less of it. The beef and pork, goose and duck, that Allison and I raise or buy as whole animals are the only meat we eat for the year, with the exception of the occasional fish (which we try to trade for from fisher friends) and a chicken once in long while (neither of us love chicken). This may be one of the most difficult changes for people to make as it often means learning to cook more vegetarian meals

We have found that the longer we eat this way, the cheaper it's become. We have our go-to people now: a source for beef, a source for pork (ourselves), a number of sources for vegetables (ourselves, farmer Tom, other local farms, and the occasional trip to the store, especially in winter). We've figured out things we like to make ourselves (like mustard and pickles) and things we will probably always buy from the store or local producers (like cheese). We are working toward producing most of our food ourselves, but we're not there yet. It takes a long time to get there, and that's really, really, ok. In fact, never getting all the way there is ok. That's why we need each other.