The Cheap Food Conundrum

Community food work sparks a lot of interest among media and the public, particularly these days with so many great initiatives like the Dartmouth North Community Food Center, Common Roots Urban Farm and the Mobile Food Market.  Not to mention countless more.  If there’s one thing that all of these projects have in common, it’s that they’re trying to ensure that healthy, affordable food is easier to access, for everybody. And invariably, whenever people want to know more about these initiatives, there’s one question that I find always surfaces:

Why is healthy food so expensive and unhealthy food (ie. Processed and fast food) so cheap?

chipsFirst and foremost, it’s important to keep in mind that the relative price of different foods is exactly that- relative. So while healthy food may seem expensive compared to everything else, it has much more to do with how these prices compare to one another, as well as how much money we actually have to spend on food.

So here goes, let’s explore why “cheap food”, is so darn cheap.

One simple answer to this question is that processed foods aren’t actually cheaper; it’s just that many of the true costs of this food are hidden elsewhere.

Hidden Cost #1- Crop subsidies and industrial farming

popDid you know that almost every processed food product has some component of corn, soy or wheat? You may not recognize these things on the ingredients list, as they’re hidden in names like “citric acid (corn!), diglycerides (soy!), and edible starch (wheat!). Here’s why this matters: Crops like corn, soy, and wheat are often heavily subsidized, meaning billions of taxpayer dollars going to industrial scale farms to support the growing of these crops in excessive quantities. Instead of consuming them as the healthy whole foods that they can be, they get broken down (ie. processed) and sold to manufacturers as filler, preservatives and binding agents, which make up most of the ingredients in processed foods. Unfortunately, there’s a steep price to pay for this mass consumption of manufactured “food products”.

Hidden Cost #2- Individual and collective health

As many are well aware, many processed foods are high in calories, fat, and/or sodium, while being low in nutrients and natural fibre. The problem with eating these foods on a regular basis is that our bodies often respond with diet related diseases like heart disease, obesity and hypertension. This not only has huge impacts on our health as a society, but we also pay for this through individual health care costs, as well as through tax dollars that go towards  health care. In Nova Scotia, we spend a whopping 46% of our provincial budget on health care, very little of which (just 1.5%!) is spent on preventative measures like physical activity and healthy eating programs.

Hidden Cost # 3- Environmental degradation

Since the majority of processed foods are made from crops that are grown through industrial agriculture, there’s no argument that the environment pays big. Examples of costs that don’t get factored in to our food supply include the negative environmental impacts of chemically-intensive agriculture, soil erosion, extensive use of water and irrigation, and the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen. So what’s most important to note here? Not all food is grown equally. Don’t get me wrong, this fact applies to fruits and vegetables also, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to how your food is grown, and where it’s coming from, no matter what you’re eating.

In short, what we pay for foods at the check-out line often doesn’t come close to the actual cost of production, or the indirect and negative costs that we incur through poor health and environmental degradation. Healthy foods are generally those that are kept as close to their natural state as possible, are easily recognizable as food and often require some form of preparation (cutting, cooking, drying, etc.). The price per calorie may seem higher at the grocery store, but it’s because we’re looking at much closer version of the “true cost” associated with producing and consuming that food.

Before I wrap up, one important and inter-related question that can’t be left out, is this:

Why are there so many people can’t afford to eat healthy?

As a society we need to critically re-examine social policies that are creating food insecurity and allowing Canadians to go hungry, or be forced into situations where cheap, processed foods are the only option. Is it not fascinating to note that over 60% of the nearly 4 million Canadians experiencing food insecurity are also working? That means that precarious and low wage employment is a factor in accessing nutritious food, as are social assistance rates. People need to be able to afford food, and we also need to create the conditions for healthy food to be affordable.

I recognise that by no means do these answers represent the full story behind major price discrepancies in our food supply, or the social structures and inequities that the undermine many people’s ability to afford food.

As the very least, it’s good food for thought.

Aimee Carson, Senior Coordinator, Community Food

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