The Price of Food

America is the richest nation on the planet and we spend less of our income on food than any other country.  In 1949, the average American spent 22% of our income on food.  Currently, we’re spending only about 10% of our income on food. This is historically unprecedented.

Some might say, “How is this a bad thing?” Now we have more money to spend on computers, entertainment, education, travel, or any number of things. Perhaps, if your goal is to “have it all.” I’m not so sure that’s a great goal. I’m also fairly convinced that those extras we want to spend money on are not more valuable than the health of our planet, ourselves and the people and animals who provide our food. Some might also say now everyone can afford food because it’s cheap. Let it be known that I care a great deal about food security for American families. But we need to become more concerned about making food fair (to animals, the land, and farmers/workers) and affordable instead of cheap. Will that mean spending more money on food? Most likely. When someone makes more money each month (a fair living wage/salary) then food can be affordable instead of cheap.

The current food system doesn’t reflect the “true cost” of producing it. For example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, a group of tomato pickers (they pick around 1/3 of the nation’s tomatoes), is fighting for a penny/lb of tomatoes increase in their pay. They barely manage on their current pay and live in poverty. A penny/lb pay increase might raise their standard of living to acceptable, but the CEOs and executives don’t think they deserve fair pay. That’s why our tomatoes are so “cheap.” Someone else is paying the price.

Frankly, we’re not putting enough of our resources to providing good quality, humanely raised, healthy food for everyone. That is, we’re only putting 10% of our monetary resources toward food which is not enough! An alternative theory is that companies are pilfering off too much in profits and that’s where we could find the extra money for a fair food system. It’s tough to prove, but it’s a good thought and certainly corporate profits do get in the way of affordable food. The pervasive goals of cheap food and high profits drive policies and procedures that don’t mesh with the greater goals of a truly fair and sustainable food system.

If the rest of the world spends a higher percentage of their income on food, regardless of annual income, why can’t we? Why is America so special that we can only spend 10% of our income on food? I’m not so sure it’s that we feel special, it’s just that as far as priorities go, food doesn’t get much respect. I think it’s about time we get back to the basics and put more money into a fair and responsible food system.

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