The True Price of Everything

groceries.jpgThere is a lot of talk these days about rising energy prices, but many U.S. agricultural sector websites still insist on telling Americans that they live better than anyone else in the world because their food is cheaper. Calculating from a base of the percentage of one´s annual wage that is dedicated to food expenses, the statistics are quite astonishing. According to the USDA/Economic Research Service, the percentage of family income spent on food in the United States has dropped from 24.2% in 1930 to a mere 9.5% in 2004. A UC Davis education site puts the figure at less than 9%, adding a eulogy that Americans should be truly grateful.
According to Food Check-out Week, another site published by the California Farm Bureau, in 2006 “the average household will earn enough disposable income — that portion of income available for spending or saving — to pay for its annual food supply in only five weeks”. Five weeks compared to nine weeks for the French, thirteen weeks for the Japanese and a whopping seventeen weeks for the Mexicans.

What the California Farm Bureau isn´t giving statistics for is the comparative nutritional value of the food purchased in each of the countries it lists. What Americans are paying so little for, and consuming so much of, is not so much food as processed commodities. If the percentage of family income dedicated to food purchases has dropped by one half since 1930, the family consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, a common additive in cereals, soft drinks and processed foods, has increased from barely nothing in 1975 to more than sixty pounds per capita in 1997 while the incidence of obesity and type II diabetes soared. For Tom Philpott´ s thorough exposé on the economic absurdity of corn subsidies and how they have endangered American health, head to the Grist Magazine archive.
In his book “The Ethical Gourmet,” professional chef and cookbook author Jay Weinstein lays out the ethical problems of choosing exotic, imported fish and produce over local varieties. For him the transportation costs and excessive packing involved in bringing exotic food to the American table constitute “hidden costs of instant gratification”. Weinstein also describes the thriving U.S. network of community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms and gives information concerning how to locate a local network. “The Ethical Gourmet” also addresses one of my pet peeves, the allocation of grocery shelves to long-haul produce when delicious local varieties are in season, a problem as annoying in many parts of Europe as it is in the States.
veggie2s.jpgWeinstein goes to the root of the modern consumer dilemma and how it was created:
what he refers to as “the internal mechanism in all of us that tends to prioritize dollar costs above all other costs”. It is precisely this internal mechanism that we need to change.
Food industry analyst and insider Clarisse Douaud sums it up in a recent article in The Food Navigator when she asks the question “Why not save both industry and consumers the time, money, hassle and environmental resources and go right back to where healthy eating began – in the garden and market?”
How to do this is what a panel of experts, from two-time Green Party vice-presidential candidate Winona Duke to award-winning writer Wendell Berry, discuss in a recent edition of The Nation. For a charge of positive energy, read how the International Slow Food Movement is collaborating with the Ojibwe Nation to protect North American wild rice, how women in India staged a satyagraha to protect local mustard oil against international soybean lobbyists and what you can do as a consumer to protect biodiversity.
Jenni Lukac

5 responses

  1. What about the fact that our taxes subsidise the farming industry? Wouldn’t that raise the real cost of our food?
    Another hidden cost, the high price of health care for all those people fed on high-fructose corn syrup.

  2. What these statistics do not reveal, is the type of food people buy. These statistics are misleading because, like you mentioned Jeni, they might mostly refer to processed food. As a european living in the US, I often get visitors from Europe. They are all puzzled by the cost of food here (I live in California!), especially what they buy the most in supermarkets: fruits and vegetables (about double from the european prices), fish and meat -chicken and beef of lower quality might be the only comparable items in terms of price; with similar quality it is higher too.
    The other part of the equation might simply be that the purchasing power of the US consumers is still much higher than any other country which would explain why the price of food remains a low percentage of income to compare with other countries.

  3. Great comments. Farming subsidies here in Europe have very similar results to subsidies in the States. The European Union has promoted higher eclogical and ethical standards throughout Europe, but it has also made life easier for multinational lobbies. They just aren´t as visible to the wide European public in Brussels as they would be in dozens of different capitals lobbying for things like GM foods.
    People here in Spain would like to believe that they follow a healthy, Mediterranean diet, but it is no longer true. Junk food is a staple and there is corn syrup in canned vegtables and chocolate breakfast cereal hawked to children, just like in the U.S. Organic food is scarce and expensive, which leads to Maryline´s comment. Food is an expensive commodity relative to salaries. Less so in the richer nations, such as Sweden, but becomely critically expensive in countries like Spain, where most salaries have stagnated at there late 1990´s level.
    When I came to Spain six years ago, everyone joked about fat Americans. Now nobody is joking and doctors like heart specialist Valentin Fuster admits that, “We aren´t treating heart conditions, we´re treating obesity”.
    But there´s hope in the rural areas. I´ve just returned from a visit to Berge, in Aragon, a village of 250 people where Isabel Rebello, a fantastic woman, has just opened a five room hotel, “La Posada de Berge.” The posada is a lovely renovation of an old stone village house, complete with solar installations and equiped with a handicapped access room -a really special feature in Spain. The tomatoes, peaches and other delights that I enjoyed there were straight from the garden, and totally organic. Now if only I could get delivery here in Barcelona…

  4. how much does it cost for one person to eat for one year in california? How about all the average costs to live for one year for one person – does anyone know where I can find this info?

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