Good, environmentally friendly food does cost more. But which prices are tolerable, and which are inexcusable—or even harmful?
At 9:30 on a recent Sunday morning, the organic egg guy at my Brooklyn farmers' market was already sold out. "Come early next week," the attractively scruffy salesman said with a smile. "They're eight dollars a dozen."
I agree with the message trumpeted by food-reform advocates that good food does and should cost more. But eight dollars is more than five times the price of a dozen conventional eggs and more than double that of organic eggs at the supermarket. The sky-high prices threaten to exclude from the farmers' market anyone who isn't a hedge fund manager.
Let's be clear this isn't some rant about elitist farmers' markets. It's a warning that the "good-food-costs-more" argument is being taken to an extreme that puts at risk the goal of a mass food-reform movement, which is to make good food available to the greatest number of people possible.
My first instinct was that the egg guy was gouging people, like me, who have enthusiastically embraced efforts to build an alternative to our industrial food system. But it turns out that's what it costs him to produce his eggs. The farm, Grazin' Angus Acres, follows the gold standard of environmental practices: each morning, the chickens are fed organic grain, then moved to fresh pasture in a specially made chicken mobile. Owner Dan Gibson says the process is so labor-intensive that bringing down the price would be near impossible—and he's not interested in trying. "At eight dollars a dozen, you pay 67 cents an egg," he told me. "If your priorities are in the right place, that's a bargain."
Gibson has a point. But that argument, no matter how valid, won't be so persuasive to many people for whom convenience and cost reign supreme. At a market in Huntington, West Virginia—where my husband and I recently spent six months researching a book on efforts in that community to build a healthier food culture—I saw an elderly man scoff at a bargain bin of tomatoes priced at five for one dollar. "I'm going to [discount grocer] Aldi," he sniffed.
Of course, it would wrong to use the food cranked out by our industrial system as a baseline price. Big producers' costs are lower because of government subsidies, corporate tax breaks, and because they externalize the costs of environmental degradation and crisis-level rates of obesity and diet-related disease. And it goes without saying that it will cost more in New York and other metropolitan areas, where farmers travel greater distances to get their products to well-off consumers. Small farmers such as Gibson say they just want a level playing field, which means either shifting government subsidies to small, sustainable farms or cutting them to big agriculture—or both.
But such reforms are not realistic in the short term. Congress, currently obsessed by deficit reduction, lacks the gumption even to make what should be commonsense changes, such as stopping payments to farmers who earn more than $250,000 a year. Can anyone imagine a deal to subsidize fruits and vegetables instead of powerful corn and soy?
There is no magic bullet for producing good food at low prices. The solutions lie in the aspects of food-system reform that aren't as sexy and status-conscious as eight-dollar-a-dozen eggs, which tend to hog all the media attention. Things such as promoting food hubs, which aggregate small famers' crops and distribute them to grocery stores, hospitals, and schools; creating coops so that small farmers can supplies at the same discounts the big guys get; and supporting the baby steps forward that companies such as Walmart and McDonald's are making.
Without progress on these fronts, food revolutionaries will not have reformed the food system, but created two tiers: one for the privileged and one for everyone else. And that's not much of a revolution.
Image: John Loo/flickr