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.