The Rising Cost of Food, Part 2 of 2

eggplants at farmers market

Two weeks ago, I mentioned the rising cost of food around the world. It's been a hot topic lately, and reports are becoming more grim. Costs are starting to hit home in our supermarkets, and warehouse retail chains are even beginning to restrict volume (20 pound) rice sales due to supply issues.

Most sustainable food activists believe that the price of food does not reflect its true price, and that subsidies for crops like corn and soy create artificial prices that keep the price of junk foods and processed foods artificially low. This means unsubsidized, whole foods like farmers market products are more expensive but that they are actually the real price of food.

In an article in the New York Times recently called "Some Good News on Food Prices," Michael Pollan and Alice Waters made the argument that rising food prices will equalize the playing field that is our food system -- organic, local, pasture-raised foods will become feasible options when all food prices are high. "Higher food prices level the playing field for sustainble food that doesn't rely on fossil fuels," said Pollan in the article.

As most know, I am an active voice for voting with your fork and making conscious decisions about where your food dollars go.

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However, I have trouble with this argument. And I especially have trouble with Waters' claim that food budgeting in this current climate is simply a matter of reprioritizing:

"It is simply a matter of quality versus quantity and encouraging healthier, more satisfying choices. 'Make a sacrifice on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,' she said."

While many of us are privileged to be able to make that budget decision or reprioritize, we, in the sustainable food movement, are only alienating those who cannot make those choices with statements such as Waters'. Many are having to make very difficult decisions about their food budgets at the moment, and now may not be the time to make them feel guilty about the decisions that they are facing.

I'm not the only one who was rankled by this article. Tom Philpott, in an article at Grist, called the Pollan and Waters argument an oversimplification.

"I have a hard time imagining people who are struggling to put food on the table rambling off to the farmers' market on Saturday to fill cloth bags with the sort of fresh, local, organic produce so beloved by Pollan and Waters (and me). Indeed, higher food prices are likely to send many time- and cash-strapped people in quite the opposite direction."

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I agree with Philpott. Now is the time for sustainable food activists to make sure that there is great access to farmers market, great promotion of CSA's, and to continue to talk about sustainably sourcing our food. But it's not the time to bask in the fact that our nation's food prices are reaching crisis levels.

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