Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Real Cost of Food

FoodVibe readers might have read Michael Pollan's recent article on food policy in The New York Times magazine. The article was written as a letter to the next “Farmer in Chief,” then unknown. However, in a pre-election interview with Time Magazine Barack Obama cited Pollan’s article:

"I was just reading an article by Michael Pollan,” he said, “about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and that are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs..."

Obama merely cites the problems Pollan exposes. But Pollan's article also offers an "elegant solution," which involves the following initiatives:

1. Resolarizing the American: returning to the sane roots of agriculture: diversified, sustainable crops, nourished by the energy of the sun.

2. Regionalizing the Food System: emphasizing local foods.

3. Rebuilding America’s Food Culture: early food education; leading by example.

It’s heartening to know that Obama is aware of Pollan’s ideas. Perhaps an Obama administration will attempt to implement its own elegant solution. But Pollan’s article speaks to me not only as a government solution, but a call to action—a call to support sustainable, local food with my wallet.

Of course, many people and organizations have been sounding this call for years. But now, in the face of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, the call to support sustainable, local food is more important than ever.


Because sustainable, local food is more expensive than conventional farmed food.

It’s more expensive because it’s rare. It’s more expensive because the farming techniques are laborious and time intensive. It’s more expensive because many small-scale organic farmers do not receive federal subsidies.

Pollan cites a provocative justification for the added expense:

“It will be argued that moving animals off feedlots and back onto farms will raise the price of meat,” Pollan writes. “It probably will — as it should. Paying the real cost of meat, and therefore eating less of it, is a good thing for our health, for the environment, for our dwindling reserves of fresh water and for the welfare of the animals.”

To me, the phrase that sticks out here is “the real cost of meat.”

To my taste a $.99/lb turkey simply sounds suspicious. At Whole Foods Market, this season’s turkeys—free-range and free of antibiotics and hormones—cost $2.49/lb. The difference is significant, especially in these lean times. But what, really, are you getting when you buy a $.99/lb turkey?

Likely, it has been frozen and preserved from the prior year. Likely, its been farmed conventionally, meaning it DOES contain antibiotics and hormones. Likely, it has lived in filthy conditions, unsuited for any being, let alone one that we might eat--and where there’s filth there’s disease

Good food costs extra money, yes. But it is food, after all.

This is how the Free On-Line Dictionary defines food:

1. Material, usually of plant or animal origin, that contains or consists of essential body nutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals, and is ingested and assimilated by an organism to produce energy, stimulate growth, and maintain life.

According to this definition, a McDonald’s Cheeseburger is not entirely food. Yes, it consists of essential nutrients that might keep one alive. But what does this livelihood look like?

Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger produce energy?

Why don’t we ask Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian who made Super Size Me, in which he demonstrated the health effects of McDonald's food by eating nothing but McDonald's three times a day, every day, for 30 days? Some of Spurlock's claims about McDonald's the company have been challenged, but no one has challenged the depiction of how McDonald's food actually destroyed Spurlock's body: he gained 25 pounds, suffered liver dysfunction and depression and extreme, crippling fatigue.

Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger stimulate growth? Maybe so, but not the type of growth we expect from food. Pollan noted in a recent interview with Terri Gross that the hormones fed to McDonald's cattle before slaughter might have devastating effects on young children and unborn children:

"...even microscopic amounts at a certain moment in the developmental process," he says, "whether in the fetus or the child, can have a dramatic effect."

Does a McDonald’s cheeseburger maintain life?

In a very, very limited sense. Spurlock's physician, after all, compared Spurlock's diet to a severe alcoholic binge.

Does anyone eat McDonald's every day. Of course not. Spurlock's example is exaggerated. But FoodCrack, which is not entirely food, exists everywhere. The majority of American families, for example, eat inexpensive, conventionally raised meat. With this meat, they might also be consuming their fair share of antibiotics, hormones, and filth.

Is this food? And is this food really cheap?

Pollan writes:

" food is only cheap because of government handouts and regulatory indulgence...not to mention the exploitation of workers, animals and the environment on which its putative “economies” depend. Cheap food is food dishonestly priced — it is in fact unconscionably expensive."


In the wake of 9-11, George W. Bush implored Americans to go out and buy things. His implication was that spending was our patriotic duty. Regardless of your political beliefs, I think it’s true: what we buy identities a part of our character.

Our spending decisions matter. When we buy a locally grown apple from a small farm, for example, we are announcing not only the type of produce we prefer—fresh picked, ripe, seasonal—but the type of agriculture we support: small scale, local, with minimal impact to the environment, and maximum impact to our good health.

I buy free-range chicken, for example, because I support the idea of chickens roaming freely. I eat free-range chicken, on the bone, on the other hand, because my lust for deliciousness calls for the best meat, and because, as an anemic and a diabetic, I need a viable, healthful source of iron and protein, without the health-threatening additives--I need real food.

This is not an issue of elitism, as some might argue. As Pollan notes:

"It should not be difficult to deflect the charge of elitism sometimes leveled at the sustainable-food movement. Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry."

To me, food choices are political choices: when you buy food, whether it be from Whole Foods or McDonald’s, you make a political statement about the type of agriculture you support, the type of world you want to live in.

Perhaps this is an unreasonable assumption. Many families, for example, can only afford to buy foods that support out-dated, oil-based agriculture—who’s to say these families do not support something like Pollan’s notion of sustainability?

I’m certain many low-income households would love to eat better, to eat more healthfully and sanely, to support local and/or organic farming. There are federal programs, too, that support this type of lifestyle. Also, there are, certainly, inexpensive venues for local sustainable foods. As Nina Planck writes:

"Self-appointed populists point out that the mesclun at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City is $32 a pound. Yes, some farmers sell it for that. I don't buy it myself, but that's not the only kind of lettuce available."

Just down the street from where I live, a neighbor imports fresh produce from Lancaster. Recently, I bought about 60 local pears for $2.

To me, it's about effort: taking the time to find good places to buy real food. Whole Foods Market is not the answer--it's merely part of the answer, just as the local farm is part the answer, and the guy down the street.

It might be cynical to say, but it's true: a great deal of our ability to influence the world is predicated on how we spend our money. In America, we speak loudly with our wallet. Now that our wallets seem to be shrinking we might focus even more acutely on our expenses. We might not have extra money to waste on food that is not entirely food. We might need to buy the most energy-promoting, growth-stimulating, and life-maintaining food the market has to offer. In that case, real food is the only answer.


Stephanie said...

Wonderful analysis of Pollan's article, Seth. And isn't it amazing that Obama even read it and commented on it? I'm still pinching myself (that is because we have a president who READS!!).

You know I am in agreement with you about this. I don't find it elitist or obsessive to think carefully about everything I put in my mouth. I still get made fun of all the time, and that's fine. For me, it's more important to be conscious about my food than to choose to forget what I know out of convenience or feeling judged.

The bigger class issue here is availability. There are areas where the choices are so limited (like where Mark lives, for example) and the average family would have a very hard time making the 2 hour trek to the city to stock up on healthy and local foods. It's not only expensive (both in cost of food and gas), but time consuming.

You are so right that in a hyper consumer-driven economy like ours (that is currently failing), our purchasing power has more weight than ever. As Wendell Berry said, "eating is an agricultural act" too. Therefore I believe those of us who have access, should be using our spending power to change the agricultural landscape back from Walmarts to farms.

You already know what I'm having for Thanksgiving!

Jill said...

Pollan's article is quite interesting, and his book, Omnivore's Dilemma is even more so. He delves into why local and sustainable are so important. Organic has become an $11 billion dollar industry. Sure, organic farming is preventing tons of nasty stuff from being put out into the fields/food/our bodies, but many of the large-scale methods are very costly in other ways. Pollan also visits the "free-range" organic poultry farm from which he buys his chicken at Whole Foods. Chickens (and turkeys) are kept indoors for 5-6 weeks so they don't catch an infection. Then two small doors are opened at either end of the huge chicken structures so that the chickens, could, in theory, take a walk on the grass outside for their remaining two weeks of life. Only, they don't. So the free-range chickens we are buying are really just chickens with a choice. And much of the organic food at Whole Foods now comes from the large, industrial organic farms instead of local ones. It's just too expensive for them to deal with 20 small, local farms. And if something is out of season, then Whole Foods has to import it - a huge carbon footprint - to have a wide variety at all times. I am not panning Whole Foods - it has saved me since I cannot eat dairy right now - but it's important to not just blindly assume all that is green is good. Pollan talks about the stories on the labels at Whole Foods and how we want to buy into the stories...Supermarket Pastoralist. He's right. I want a free-range bird...but I am highly unlikely to research if my chicken actually ever took a stroll.

I prefer to buy local - even if it's not always organic. Many local growers use organic practices but cannot afford the certification. And many others don't need heavy duty chemicals because their farms are so small they can use better farming techniques.

I am also excited by the fact that our president-elect might actually be interested in how this topic affects many others (and yes, surprisingly, after 8 long years, reads!) I don't think most consumers, even those who try to buy organic or shop at Whole Foods or the like, really think beyond the shelf. This is an issue that needs to become as mainstream as buying organic and focus some attention on the outdated USDA policies that has enabled our food economy to be a corn-driven, diesel-fueled industry. Because really, like everything else, it's all just about money.

Seth said...

Hi Jill,

The Whole Foods here in Philadelphia offers organic, free-range chickens from Lancaster, which is a mere 1 1/2 hour drive from Philly. Only thing, Whole Foods first sends the chickens to Massachusetts for "processing." The chickens are then sent all the way back to Philly for sale. Quite a carbon-footprint, for a "local" bird. (Whole Foods doesn't designate the chickens as local, but still.)

That said, Whole Foods has its place. The store offers a positive voice for both the local and organic movements. Many small-farmers in the Philly region survive because of Whole Food's generous support of local agriculture.


One telling fact: I work at Whole Foods (major disclaimer) and I hardly ever shop there for produce during the late spring, summer, and early autumn months. I always, always prefer local to organic, and we have abundant local produce during these months.

Then, winter. And I have to shop at Whole Foods--that is, if I want organic fruits and vegetables.

Jenni said...

Wow! I want to learn more about this. I'm intrigued. I want to eat "real food". My mouth is watering.

jen said...

What did you do with all those pears?

Steve said...


Nice to see you here. I was wondering if you would stop by. I know Pollan's writing and ideas are dear to you.


This is a call to action indeed.

I recently looked into the kosher grass fed, locally raised, humanely slaughtered meat options in NYC and found them to be almost nil. I figured as much.

Then Stephanie from hooked me up with a great organization run by a friend of ours up here in the Riverdale section of The Bronx:

Maya, the person who runs it, is actually a talented pediatric neurologist who focuses on food and diet options as an alternative to medication based treatment. We even took Zev to see her for a while. Good stuff.

Unfortunately the wait list is really long and she is running into some snags with the slaughter houses she uses so it'll be a while for us to get on the list, if ever.

In the meantime I'll be enjoying my factory-farm raised meat, full of filth, antibiotics and hormones galore.

I've got a great recipe for avian bird-flu gravy if anyone wants.

xysea said...

Seth, I really enjoyed this post by you - still looking at the different links which are jam packed with information!

But yet, I think real food is what's required - and a return towards some level of self-sufficiency.

Suzanne said...

Excellent post, Seth. I read Pollan's article and am glad to hear that Obama did too.

It is disheartening to see how such basic societal needs (food, health, education) have become big business in the US. Big food companies have just about as much lobbying power as the big pharmaceuticals, which is a big reason why eating local and organic is so expensive and therefore perceived as elitist.

I imagine a smug government official facing his staff of aides who have come to inform him that the people have no real food to eat. 'Well', he responds, 'let them eat McDonald's.'

danielle said...

Hey Seth,
Really great post. I couldn't agree more!
Our society is not used to paying the true price of food as a result of subsides. I worked at a market as a temp over the holiday where a twenty pound turkey was a mere twenty dollars. It was disappointing on many levels: one, that we have modified and transformed the turkey into a meat-producing-machine so full of dangerous growth promoting hormones...and two, that people EXPECT prices to be low and disregard the true cost of food.

I can't help but wonder if the government played a larger role in providing American's with health care, there would be increased support for legislation friendly to the local/organic farmer and less for refined corn etc. products.

A Twinkie will most likely cost less than an apple. How did our priorities get so distorted?

Seth said...

Hi Jen,

I never answered your questions about the pears. What did I do with all of them? I brought them to my dad's place in Brigantine and basically shoved them down everyone's mouth for three straight days. I personally ate two per day. Then I went home and made a pear chutney.

Seth said...

Hi Danielle,

Thanks for your comment. I like your Twinkie analogy. Think about it, though. What's the real cost of a Twinkie? If you count the discomfort to your body, the fatigue, the general ill-health--a Twinkie is quite expensive.

Jeffrey said...

Hi Seth,

I have read your blog with interest and agree with you wholeheartedly about how much is food worth.

How much is an animal's life worth? I think we take it for granted.

It's sad: food prices are kept down by over production, feed lots, intensive farming; perhaps prices should be increased by under production, or even better, just get it right production.

What happens to the hidden waste, the 50% of the lamb, beef, chicken, fish, vegetables that are unsold? Quietly snucked away, we don't want to see all the lambs and chickens slaughtered in the name of capitalism--their only claim to fame the "reduced now" price on them as their use by date came up.

There is a sad immorality in this.

If you kill it for food you do it respectfully, and you eat it. To kill an animal disrespectfully and then not eat it is...?

In Australia our fish stocks are under pressure (thanks to the Japanese) but I know that half of what I see displayed will never be eaten. It's a real shame. I don't know the solution, a little bit of shortage may not hurt though, we've been living in a fool's paradise I feel--the sadness of buying two chicken drumsticks on special, for a measly dollar, and one of them turns out to be broken at the bone, shame.