No such thing as a free lunch

I’ve been backing off on the food policy / environmental posts lately, mostly because I really haven’t had that much to add on the subject of late. There are a thousand things I could point to as terrible examples of what, precisely, we’ve done to render our planet (and particularly, our country) a slightly less hospitable place, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s worth arguing about and what’s worth letting go. Because you have to make choices, really, about things you can do something about, and things you just don’t have time to do justice to. Right now, I don’t have time to do justice to anything. Not in a bad way, though — work is going, trips are forthcoming, and life is more exciting than it’s been in a while.

But I still keep an eye on what’s going on — an old habit from my newspaper days, though now my daily read is limited to the NY Times and whatever is in my Google Reader. This week, Kim Severson’s article on rising food prices caught my eye. See, it’s been rolling about in my head of late, because I’m not quite sure what to think of the question the article attempts to address.

On one hand, yes, food prices have been (and yes, still are) artificially low, thanks to government subsidies on certain commodity crops — the same crops that are seemingly ubiquitous in every ingredient list in the grocery store. If the cost of these junk-filled food “products” goes up, while healthy stuff — like fruit and veg — change relatively little in comparison, then maybe America will have an incentive to eat better.

On the other hand, I’m not so sure I can rejoice just yet. Aside from the fact that the various hypotheses she’s presented are only now beginning to be put to the test, I will say that I was a little disappointed that she didn’t talk to a single family on food stamps — you know, someone actually experiencing the shock of seeing prices on staples like milk, eggs, and flour shoot up so quickly that even Stop & Shop feels it has to apologize. As someone who’s received school lunch on the government (thanks to my parents’ oh-so-low graduate student stipends) I have to wonder what the adjustment period actually looks like for people who were barely scraping by in the first place. Maybe they were buying high fructose-filled junk because they liked it, but maybe, just maybe, they began that habit because couldn’t afford the healthier stuff in the first place. Because they had no safety net to begin with

The rising prices will require more food stamps, more government-subsidized school lunches, and more hand-wringing decisions about what exactly to do when the grocery bill climbs ever higher. Along with it, a rise in the cost for supporting all these programs will be passed on to all of us, in one way or another. And with it, I think we’ll see a rapid increase in the ever-widening divide between the haves and the have-nots in this country, which our government really hasn’t bothered to address properly, and which so many of us would like to wish away.

And before you think this is all an esoteric chain of seemingly invisible events, let me tell you this: there is a direct relation between changes in the economy and crime rates in my little town, and this problem is not unique to New Haven. As we devolve into a society that looks more like a third world country than future world empire (oh, as Bush would have it, in his wildest dreams), I think we might look back and realize exactly how much of a mess we made of things. Maybe we’ll start to understand that artificially cheap food prices help nobody but, say, the likes of Con Agra and other agro industrial giants in the first place. That won’t make the transition any less painless.

For now, some of us will happily pick up our fresh, gorgeous vegetables from the farmer’s market, comforted by the fact that “yes, they accept food stamps,” with very little knowledge of exactly how far those stamps will go. And the rest? Those who can afford it won’t change a thing. And those who can’t will hope they can still find some other way to scrape by, perhaps by skimping on luxuries like health care and rent. I only hope I’m being entirely too pessimistic for my own good.

For more information about how rising food prices are affecting people in need, see here, and here (slightly more dated, but helpful).



Filed under food prices, politics, poverty

10 responses to “No such thing as a free lunch

  1. It’s the same problem here in Australia unfortunately. =(

  2. liz

    yah, I know — James’s family is in Perth, so we get reports… it sucks, for lack of a better phrase!

  3. You’re right. It seems peculiar to talk about people on food stamps rejoicing just because produce is marginally cheaper these days. (My guess is that a gallon of milk will more than make up for that difference.) Even if fruits and vegetables are getting cheaper, I can’t imagine that they’re cheap enough to make a diet out of on $3-4 per day, which is what food stamps will get you. (That’s less than the cost of a head of lettuce at a certain farmer’s market, as I recall…)

    I’m also not sure I believe that rising costs for “bad guy” foods will actually lead to more exposure for organics or locally grown food. More likely, ConAgra and the likes will find a way to cut costs, and not in one that’s necessarily based on consumers’ health.

    It seems like the food people might be applying the wrong thinking to food. Yes, high gas prices can cut down on how much people drive or lead to more fuel-efficient vehicles. But it’s not like people can do the same with food, except maybe resort to the still-cheap fast food crap.

  4. liz

    Your comment about milk reminded me of this: they talk about grass-fed milk, meat, etc, staying relatively cheap, but they fail to mention it is still as much as 3-4 times the price of regular supermarket milk at current prices. The prices of grass-fed vs. corn-fed milk are not going to equalize soon. Instead, I’m thinking that only those who are not in dire financial need and are already thinking of switching to grass-fed dairy and meat might be more inclined to do it. This isn’t exactly going to bring about a cultural shift ..

    And I totally agree — they’ll find a way to make junk food cheaper again. I’m sure they’re in the lab right now figuring out how to extract even more from all that corn. Or perhaps some mystery plant? Or plastic derivative? Who knows… All I know is health and nutrition are unlikely to be anywhere near the top of their list of concerns.

  5. Probably true. But you know, if you ever feel like selling out, isn’t finding new ways to make junk food cheaper the kind of thing you can do with a physics PhD?

  6. liz

    hehe… no, I think I should have taken a chemistry class for that. but if they need someone to irradiate food, them i’m the perfect candidate …

  7. This is such a complicated issue. I’m not sure what I think of the article.

    On the one hand, I feel a great deal of sympathy for those who struggle financially to feed their families. That said, I think there are distinct groups of people to consider. There are the poor (who struggle to make ends meet or miss bill payments) and there are the really really destitute poor (close to not being able to feed their family). Clearly, the destitute poor need as much government help as we can give them, and clearly, even if they wanted to, even if the prices normalized slightly, sustainable agriculture is not currently an option for them.

    But take the other group: people who struggle to make ends meet. I think most of the people we see at Stop n Shop in New Haven probably fall under this category.

    I grew up in a household where I was constantly told we didn’t have enough money. As a young child (who hardly ever purchased anything) there was a great deal of guilt surrounding any cost I incurred my parents. In fact, when I left the state, my parents sent me a bill for money that I had borrowed from them ages 16-19 (at 19 I was fully financially independent). It was a bill for things like summer school tuition, car insurance, cash help, etc, and it came to $6000. So in 3 years, that was all I cost my parents, but they wanted it back. This, from two adults who installed a Jacuzzi in their backyard and drive an Infinity I30. This, from two adults who had a custom $700 glass door installed when the lock on their old wood one failed, and who spend thousands of dollars on a custom designed metal banister for the stairs.

    Let me say, my perspective on money is one of relative worth. We afford what we wish to. In my family, that was $200 pair of jeans for my mom and an overpriced house in suburban hell. My parents feed me the exact line about organic food being unfordable, in the same breath that they spend $50 to have their tiny Maltese dogs professionally groomed and complain about how Bush is destroying the environment.

    I’m really bitter about the hypocrisy: their life choices represent those of many, many so-called liberal Americans.

    Greg and I had relatively privileged backgrounds and are fortunate to be financially secure today. Yet, we always take the free cell phone, we drive 17 and 23 year old beater cars, we don’t own any new fancy electronic gadget, and we also spend exorbitant amounts of our budget on good, healthy food.

    Am I elitist? I hope not, but I do know if I drove a sports car with a $300/mo car payment I would be less likely to raise an eyebrow than spending it on my grocery bill. Do I think other people would do well to make similar decisions to what we have? Yes, I do. I think our health, our planet, our consciences and our society would be far better off. So, yes, I do judge anyone who owns a brand new SUV and feeds their children high fructose, processed crap – food stamps or not, that is a damaging financial choice. For much of America (not all, but most by far), there is simply no excuse – we make choices about what we can and cannot afford, and food has taken the lowest spot on the list.

    So for the same reason that I rejoice a little inside when the price of gasoline goes up at the pump (it’s the only thing that will decrease how much we drive), there’s a small part that feels that the food issue is fitting for Americans to finally deal with. This painful transition can either come all at once – when one day our genetically identical crops will suffer fatal failure – or it will come in small fits and starts like it is now.

    What we need to really be concerned about, if anything, is how world food prices are affected. The cost of rice in Asia is an entirely different concern.

  8. liz

    Rachael, your story about your parents sounds familiar to me, though things are a little more complicated in my case. But I know exactly what you mean about drawing the distinction between those who are actually in dire need (and who will be most affected by the price changes in the grocery store), and those who choose to spend money on, say, expensive cars rather than quality food. It’s one of the reasons that we spend a lot more money on food than we do anything else, even though we are on grad student salaries. And it’s perhaps something I didn’t emphasize enough in my discussion of the article.

    I do believe that those who can afford it (by cutting back on expenses they really don’t need — like expensive cars, over-sized houses, etc) should pay more for their food. The middle class in this country has gotten quite used to directing only a very small portion of their paycheck towards food, and I believe that needs to change. In that perspective, yes, I think rising food costs are a good thing in that regard, but I think it’d be naive to think that people are going to shift toward more local, sustainably-produced food in response to a rise in grocery prices. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but bottom line, I think a cultural shift has to happen in order for Americans to start thinking about where their food is coming from and actually paying producers what it’s worth, and while we are seeing that occur slowly, all around us (and that’s great!), I don’t believe rising grocery prices are really going to speed up that cultural shift.

    The point I was trying to make is that I don’t think the current structure of government aid in this country is set up to adequately address rising food costs for those who are affected most, and I think that’s an important question to address if we do indeed want to encourage Americans to start caring about where their food is coming from. I think it would help if we could actually get legislation going that prioritizes healthy, affordable, sustainably-produced food for those who cannot afford it otherwise, because, by doing so, I think we’d be sending the message that knowing where and how our food is grown / produced is a priority. And I think it’s a message that we, as a country, can afford.

    Other regions (Asia, as your example points out) are not so lucky. And yes, I think ultimately we need to start thinking about this as a global problem — especially since we’ve played a major role in creating it.

  9. I totally agree with everything you added. After reading Michael Pollan’s book, I was absolutely aghast with concern about corn subsidies. Where the heck are the spinach subsidies?

    Maybe my “non-disapproval” of high food prices in America is more of a knee-jerk reaction than anything. It is hard for me to see what will change the ideas surrounding food in this country… certainly books like Pollan’s (as much as I love it!!) only serve to alienate those who are not already interested in sustainable living. I think that understanding long term consequences of our behavior is important, but a difficult concept to motivate people with (global warming is a good example). Change will be slow no matter what, but sometimes it feels as if the only thing that truly incites people (more importantly at this point, government) to change is the bottom line: the dollar.

    So, the issue with gasoline prices feels fairly clear to me: high cost = less driving = sounds like europe = speeding up the day when we realize petroleum is truly a limited commodity to be treated with care. Yet in other ways, this is issue is no more clear than the food price issue: poor people who commute to work are the hardest hit. Is there any way to change the way the world works without it being painful? It hits the poor hardest, yet aren’t those the same populations hit worst with the same health care crises that cheap diets brought about in the first place? Ah, the mental debate to have about it – and even that gets nothing accomplished to solve the problem!

    In the end, I’m probably too judgmental or cynical about the economic priorities of this country (based on my childhood experience) but I just have a hard time seeing a solution : ( Making people realize that how they eat isn’t about being elite or snobby – that it’s about the real rise in diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, on top of some serious moral considerations – is a hard aim to achieve.

  10. liz

    I think the fuel price question is related, in a way, and I agree, they’re both difficult problems to solve. They’re also unfortunate side effects of the way our society has been constructed over the past hundred or so years. We’ve been raised with this idea that we have a fundamental right to cheap food and fuel, and we’re suddenly being forced to cope with the fact that this idea is completely false.

    The only possible approach I think will work in the long run is if we stop waiting for things like rising food and gas prices to change the way our country views both food and the environmental cost of fuel. I ultimately think we will actually have to get involved on a much larger (political) scale, and make the government aware that they have to prioritize healthy, sustainable food for the poor (and for everyone), and vastly improved public transportation systems (like they have all over Europe, as an aside). That more than anything might actually help absolve some of these uncomfortable decisions about whether to rejoice or wring our hands about the simple cost of a gallon of milk, or a gallon of gas.

    Of course, all of this is coming from someone who has been rather comfortably quiet about the issue outside of conversations with friends and on this blog, and is therefore ultimately part of the problem….

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