The High Cost of Cheap Food

The problem with calling the food movement ‘elitist’

Back Web Only Jan 13, 2016 By Amber Stott

Last month, while serving on a panel, I was asked if the food movement is elitist. The crux of this question focused on the cost of food. Whether organic eggs that cost $8 at the farmers market or raising holy kale over the price of a Farm-to-Fork Gala ($175), it’s clear that these local culinary experiences aren’t targeting the hungry. Yet, the problem isn’t a two-sided coin of those who can afford high quality food and those who cannot. We’ve got to look deeper. What if those $8 eggs that today are too expensive for someone in poverty are ultimately the solution to poverty?

A farmer once told me, “We either need to make food way more expensive or make it all free.” In our current food system, we have both ends of this spectrum: food banks with free food and co-ops with $8 eggs. Yet, largely, we live in an in-between food system where food is inexpensive and eggs at the chain supermarket can cost as little as $1 a dozen.

Americans spend very little of our overall incomes on food, only 10 percent, allowing us more expendable income than people in many other countries. In France and Japan, they spend 14 percent on food, and in the Philippines they spend 40 percent. In a system where food jobs rely on the success of food sales, cheap food creates a vicious cycle of poverty. Not surprisingly, the adverse is also true: More expensive food can create better jobs.

As someone who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 15 years, I know first-hand how critical economic growth and job creation are to lifting people out of poverty. Jobs in the culinary industry are some of the easiest to obtain without a college degree, a history of work experience, or even with a criminal record. Organizations like Women’s Empowerment and St. John’s Program for Real Change find great success placing homeless women in first-time jobs in the culinary industry.

In fact, since Sacramento’s farm-to-fork effort was announced, the restaurant industry has seen major growth. Expanding even during the recession, California restaurant businesses grew 23 percent from 2010 to 2014. Since the end of the recession, nationally, the industry has added 1.8 million jobs.

As formal dinners like the Farm-to-Fork Gala draw consumers to the area interested in paying a higher price for food, it builds up the sector and improves the number of quality food service jobs that the region can support. It also improves the price point for small, local farmers growing higher quality, healthier produce.

Those $8 eggs turn into better jobs than those at the fast food joint. According to a study by Food Tank, more than half of people on public assistance are fast food workers.

In addition to restaurant job growth, agricultural jobs are growing. In California, there are nearly three million jobs in agriculture. In 2013, the sector saw more economic growth than any other in the U.S.

The High Price of Cheap Food

There are other high costs to a food system based on cheap food. Follow the trail of our country’s cheapest food, and you’ll find a very sad story. We pay a lot of back-end costs for it that don’t show up on our grocery store receipt.

According to a recent study by the nonprofit think tank, Food Tank, the costs of our current cheap food system show up as expenses in a host of other areas of our society. The study lists pollution, water shortages, loss of soil quality, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, poor labor standards, obesity and other preventable diseases as problems associated with inexpensive food.

When consumers look for economy calories, they will largely find them in processed foods. When healthy fruits and vegetables seem out-of-reach financially, consumers ignore them, unintentionally putting their health at risk. A recent study found that only 4 percent of American kids are eating their daily amount of vegetables. Yet, if Americans ate a healthier diet filled with produce, Food Tank’s study shows it could save $17 billion in healthcare costs annually.

Clearly, our current food system based on cheap food is broken. Yet, what about a food system where all food is free?

Even cheap food can be out of reach in a community where nearly 20 percent of residents live in poverty, a clear indicator of food insecurity. While the average American spends 10 percent of their income on their food budget, most low-income residents are spending 36 percent of their total income on food. Area food banks report a continual rise in use of their food lines.

Free food might provide immediate-term relief, but the enduring solution is in eliminating poverty altogether.

Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services Executive Director Blake Young sees poverty first-hand every day. Two months ago, a line of people stretched around the block in Oak Park, each person hoping to take home a coveted Thanksgiving turkey. The problem of hunger is very real.

Young recently announced a change to the focus of his food bank. He wants to get folks out of the food line for good, which means growing programs that lift the poor out of poverty. His new plan (which he’s calling a “revolution”): Educate people living in poverty through technology, job training and language classes. While these are services the food bank has always provided, the nonprofit will be putting more resources into making the programs stronger.

“It’s our goal to provide periphery resources for folks to get them out of the food line,” says Young. “Giving them [free] food won’t do it. Education and other family services will help them be self-sufficient. We’re addressing hunger, but to be a long-term solution people have to be able to provide food for themselves, and the only way is to have education and be employed.”


Visitor (not verified)January 14, 2016 - 10:29pm

Thank you for the excellent article. Our hope is to educate our clients and empower them with the tools they need to go from dependency to self sufficiency. I believe we can accomplish this by providing the proper tools, resources and education to our clients. Collaborating makes us all stronger. Keep up the great work you're doing!