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.

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.”

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.

The Rising Cost of Food, Part 2 of 2 24 March,2009Jennifer Maiser

  • Ron Hutzul

    The REAL problem is shortsightedness – imagine you’ve lost your job and putting a meal on the table is a struggle…you’ve got a choice between allocating a larger percentage of your increasingly scarce budget to buying “good food”, or falling into the trap of buying your food “on the cheap” and dealing with the repercussions to your health later on…

    Spending a greater percentage today, (not necessarily more – which is the point), is going to yield dividend’s later on…remember that dealing with your forthcoming health issues is going to be expensive, cause even though you’ve COBRA’d out, that only lasts so long…it’s kind of the “cheaper to keep an existing customer” argument…it’s actually LESS expensive to buy good food if you spend less cause it’s more fulfilling and has a positive impact on your long-term health and wellness.

  • brenda

    We Americans pay a fraction of what we used to pay for food as percentage of our personal budgets. We’ve gone from some 30% to now about 12% in the past couple of decades, while many other G-7 nations are still at the 20%+ level.

    Meanwhile, just as the percentage of our personal budgets spent on food have gone down with factory farming and mass production of foodstuffs, the percentage of our personal budgets spent on health care have ballooned wildly in recent years.

    I think it would be foolish to think that the two are completely unrelated.


Jennifer Maiser

“My passion for food began young.”

I am the editor of the influential website which encourages readers to support local farmers and producers.

I began my personal website, Life Begins at 30, in 2003.

I have been published in Edible San Francisco and Fine Cooking, write regularly for Bay Area Bites, Serious Eats, and have been quoted in many nationwide publications. Photography is a passion, and I have had photos printed in National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure.

I contributed to a Williams-Sonoma cookbook: Cooking from the Farmers’ Market, which was released in February 2010.

I live in San Francisco, California and can often be found at local farmers markets seeking out the best of what’s in season and chatting with farmers.

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