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The True Cost of Food: an essay by Apprentice, Laura Fisher

Posted 7/26/2011 10:14am by Laura Fisher, Apprentice.

The True Cost of Food

an essay by Apprentice, Laura Fisher


At Devon Point Farm, apprentices are doing more than just learning the mechanics of farming. Apprentices are exposed to the inner workings of the farm and are taught how to make a farm not only environmentally sustainable but also economically sustainable. Whether while weeding and planting together, or having dinner-table discussions, we have open dialogues about different issues relating to farming on a daily basis. This summer we hope to share some thoughts with you through a series of essays written by Devon Point Farm apprentices.

Sometimes it seems like everywhere we look, we are bombarded with advertisements for the next cheap deal, especially when it comes to food. Between $1 menu items at fast food chains around every corner, bulk food retailers, and inexpensive meat and dairy from factory farms, why would we expect to pay anything but bargain basement prices for our meals? Even accounting for recent rises in food prices, Americans spend less than 10% of their disposable income on food , a number that is much less than any other country. For comparison, other high-income countries such as Canada and the U.K. spend an average of 16% of their income on food, while middle-income countries spend 35%, and low-income countries spend 55% .


So how is our food so inexpensive in this country? The answer is our intensive industrial agricultural system, which relies on high-energy inputs and government subsidies (funded by taxpayers like you!) to keep our country supplied with cheap meat, dairy products, and processed corn products. Additionally, fruits and vegetables imported from countries with tropical climates and low labor costs help keep prices of fruits and vegetables low year-round. When you take a closer look at our system, it becomes apparent that the price we pay at the supermarket doesn’t reflect the true cost of food.


The hidden costs can be found in the current obesity and diabetes epidemic and the subsequently rising prices of healthcare, the pollution of our waterways from fertilizer runoff, the rising prices at the gas pumps, and the steady erosion of our nation’s farmlands. The list goes on and on, but the end result is that the price tag on the cheap food we have come to expect is misleading, and ignores myriad externalities.


One solution is transitioning to a smaller-scale farming system, one that utilizes sustainable levels of energy use and limited chemical inputs to produce healthy food for the local community. Food that is produced with natural and sustainable methods has gotten the reputation of being out of financial reach for the general public, but the truth is, the slightly higher cost of food produced in a sustainable system carries no hidden overheads; no crop subsidies, no massive energy costs, and no future burdens in the form of healthcare and ecological damage.


An additional advantage to a local system is ensuring that more of each dollar spent on food goes directly to the farmers, and not filtered through large agribusiness and transportation and processing costs. While farming has fallen out of the public eye, agriculture is the essential profession to human sustenance. Despite its necessity, farmers across the country are struggling to make ends meet. According to USDA reports, American farmers receive only 11.6 cents of every food dollar spent in the U.S.  As the worldwide movement for local food continues to grow, hopefully the farmers’ income will begin to reflect the massive amount of work that goes into sustaining such a system.


In the meantime, encourage your neighbors to buy locally and participate in CSA programs to ensure their money is used efficiently as possible to feed your community and to keep farms like Devon Point Farm running.


About Apprentice, Laura Fisher...


Laura Fisher just finished her Master's Degree at NYU in environmental conservation education, with a concentration in sustainable food systems and urban agriculture. She previously worked with 'Green Guerillas' a non-profit community group that uses a mix of education, advocacy, and organizing to help people cultivate and sustain community gardens. In addition, Laura has interned at the NY Coalition of Healthy School Food, has taught English as a second language in both the Galapagos and in Ecuador. Her hobbies include reading, cooking, hiking, and horseback riding.