Food is Too Cheap

It’s the season of feasting, and food has been on my mind. At the co-op where I work the local produce on offer is of the hearty sort, cabbage and collards and late autumn squashes. It’s the food you come to want when the weather turns cold and damp and the sky is pearl white and the light of the day is gone by late afternoon.

Let’s bake bread. Let’s make soup.

Let’s figure out what to do with this rutabaga.

The other day I was in a local thrift shop looking for a set of salt & pepper shakers. As I contemplated little windmills (too dorky), little Buddhas (missing their corks) and a pair of ceramic Aristocats (too tall and unstable), I listened to a conversation between the owner of the shop and a customer who was complaining about the awful Thanksgiving dinner he’d been served at a nearby restaurant. “All they had on the menu was Thanksgiving stuff,” I heard him say. “Turkey and mashed potatoes. And it wasn’t even good. And the waitress was surly. Well,  it was late. They were getting ready to close. But still.”

But still.

Restaurant etiquette aside — you don’t go in when they’re about to close and expect them to be happy to see you — this man’s disappointment with his meal was hardly surprising. The meat came from a factory, the potatoes from a box, the gravy from a can. Yet that restaurant is a local institution, their tables full every day, and the tab for that turkey dinner was less than $10.

Meanwhile, one of my favorite local restaurants just closed its doors after five years, in no small part because the owner, who created her seasonal menus from locally-sourced meats, fruits and vegetables, couldn’t charge enough to cover what she needed to pay to her farmers, let alone to pay herself. Her plates pushed the envelop at $15 – $20, sometimes more. Not much by big city standards, but more than her rural community could ante up in numbers large enough to keep her going. She will be missed. But I hear she’s going to try again, in a bigger city. Hope springs eternal.

Like organic, local food is expensive. Right now the local food economy here is a boutique arrangement sitting atop an industrial food system that brings in 90% of our food from elsewhere to sell here for cheap.

At the co-op we sold freshly butchered Thanksgiving turkeys from a local farm. You had to order in advance and pick them up the day they arrived, because ours is a small store with no room in our refrigerators for more than a few 20-pound turkeys, and we had 50 or 60 coming in.

At $3.49 a pound, the birds averaged about $65 apiece. You can get a supermarket turkey around here for less than $20.

That $45 represents the gap we are struggling to bridge, as a co-op, and as a community, as those of us who care about such things try to figure out how to grow our local food economy. Right now that gap seems distressingly wide, a symptom of a two-tiered food system in which good food grown on small local farms is a luxury for most, not to mention hard to find, while food shipped in from far away is readily available and cheap.

People have come to expect their food to be cheap. They need it to be cheap. Money is tight, paychecks are shrinking, and people need to eat. At the co-op rarely a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me our prices are too high, that they can’t afford to shop there.

I know their pain. I can’t always afford to shop there, either.

Local food presents a conundrum, one whose solution, I suspect, lies outside the bounds of conventional thinking about food and economics. After all, those Freakonomics guys say the whole local food thing is misguided, that going local is inefficent, that a locally-based food system would cost more in fuel and resources than the global system in place today. Moreover, it won’t feed the world.

And yet.

Food is too cheap, writes Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, and he’s right. Our current food system is extractive, using more resources than it returns, and its costs are measured in lost topsoil and lost knowledge of good mixed-use land management and animal husbandry. But who’s going to tell that to the waitress making $2.30 an hour on a slow Thanksgiving shift?

Creating a resilient local food economy is not a sexy process. It requires infrastructure, ways to aggregate and distribute products, markets and retail outlets willing and able to accept those products, and end users who can afford them and have some idea how to use them. It’s going to be a slow process. And because it’s inefficient, and its goal is not to serve the bottom line merely, it isn’t on the agro-industrial agenda. We’re going to have to do it ourselves.

Rutabagas are excellent roasted, by the way. Peel them, cut them into pieces and toss them with a little olive oil. Roast uncovered in a shallow pan for 30 minutes at 425 degrees, stirring once or twice. They’re done when they’re nicely browned and you can pierce them easily with a fork.

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