The true cost of food



Years ago I was a student in a small city in France. While I don’t recall much from my studies, I still vividly remember a gigantic strawberry tart my boyfriend’s grandmother made with berries we picked from the community garden in the center of her village. My new French friends were aghast that I did not know what a choucroute was. The town fishmonger, who insisted I visit him on Mondays for free fish, once asked me how much Americans spent on food. I had not a clue. He told me proudly, “The French spend 25% of our income on food!” 

My time in France was a food epiphany. Back home, I made closer connections to the source of my food. Opting out of cheaper supermarket food was about flavor and freshness and a way of life—I learned to cook, was a loyal greenmarket shopper and knew my growers. Still, I was a consumer and the way I ate was a “lifestyle choice.”

But that lifestyle has been growing ever deeper, and today I am running a non-profit farm, Common Ground Farm, just outside of Beacon, NY. Grappling with budgets at our farm and trying to pay our young, professional farmers a decent wage, I have come to feel the impact of “cheap food.”

Our farm produces food for CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), for farmers market and for low-income and senior members of our community, via our Fair Food programs. At market we sell vegetables and some cut flowers.

Our produce is grown organically, most picked the morning of market—it’s gorgeous and fresh. But it’s the flowers that sell out within the first hour. The same person who spends $8 on flowers will balk at $2.50 for a bunch of carrots.

For some, the money spent on food is limited by poverty, but for many it’s about “choice.” To finally answer my French fishmonger: Americans spend less than any other country in the world on our food, with only 9% of our income going toward food purchases and a mere 5.7% on food prepared at home. But behind the “choice” to pay less for food is a system dedicated to maintaining the illusion that the price people pay at the supermarket is the true cost of food. It’s not.

Embedded in that price are costs to the environment:  destruction from pesticides in the soil, rivers and streams, and the loss of biodiversity and soil erosion, all consequenses of factory farming.

Don’t forget the fossil fuel costs–as fertilizers, pesticides, and, of course, transportation. It takes supermarket produce 92 times more fuel to get to your table as locally grown food.

There are costs to our health—each American pays over $200 a year toward the Medicare/ Medicaid bill for obesity-related illnesses. More troubling still is the obesity epidemic among children. Most food contamination outbreaks originate from large producers supplying the major chains. This system also contributes to the loss of small local farms. Most subsidies go not to small local farmers but to the huge agribusiness producers for commodity crops like corn and soy. That’s another $200 a year in taxes that helps pay for our “cheap” food.

Eating from small-scale local growers empowers people and communities. It’s empowering to be able to ask a grower if she sprays her crops, and to visit the farm to see what goes into that carrot. It’s empowering to show your children how to pick that carrot from the ground (or even that it comes from the ground!)

Spending food dollars locally empowers your community. While spending $1 on food at Walmart translates into 15 cents circulated back into your community, that same dollar spent at a farmers market will net a farmer 85 cents on the dollar and circulate 45 cents back into the community.

Many communities have no choice but to shop at the large chain supermarket. As spring approaches the Hudson Valley region and we look toward the season of growing, we are lucky to have so many healthy “choices.” We have an abundance of farmers markets. We have more CSAs than ever before. Keep in mind that your food choices make a big difference in the kind of world we live in.

Lisa Jessup is president of the non-profit Common Ground Farm in Wappingers Falls, NY.