In Pursuit of Affordable Food

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 22, 2015, by Philip Korman and Margaret Christie

In July, CISA launched SNAP and Save, a program that matches purchases made using food stamp benefits at 12 farmers’ markets in Hampshire and Hampden counties.

This program, shaped in partnership with Healthy Hampshire and farmers’ markets, benefits SNAP recipients while increasing the portion of federal SNAP dollars that go to local farm businesses. As one shopper said, “It helps me be able to afford veggies that I usually could not.”

The SNAP and Save program helps bridge the gap between the price farmers need to charge to stay in business and the price many consumers can pay for food.

Saturday is Food Day, a national day of reflection and action to change our personal diets and our public food policies.

On this Food Day, we ask, “How does price fit into the conversation around local food?”
Over the last century, the price Americans pay for food as a portion of our household budgets has decreased dramatically. In the 1930s, Americans spent a quarter of their disposable income on food. Eighty years later, less than 10 percent of Americans’ disposable dollars go towards food.

But families with incomes in the bottom 20 percent still spend a hefty third of their disposable income on food. Median household income declined 8.1 percent between 2007 and 2012. Adjusted for inflation, incomes are at their lowest point since 1996.

The wealth gap continues to expand, as the top 1 percent has recovered more quickly from the Great Recession than other income groups.

It’s no wonder that many of us worry about our expenses, including those for food. Also, since we buy food frequently, even those of us with comfortable incomes may be more sensitive to price fluctuations for food than for other items, such as appliances.

The cost of food depends on complex factors. The obvious one is the farmers’ costs of production, which includes labor, land, transportation, energy, feed and other inputs.

But pricing is also influenced by the going rate for similar items sourced from around the globe, and this is where it can get tricky. Very large farms reap more of the benefits of federal policies and subsidies, and are able to externalize more of their costs. This gives a handful of large agricultural businesses a lot of control over the market, from retail space in supermarkets to the price of goods.

But is local food more expensive?

Last year, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments compared the price of hundreds of produce items between the farmers’ markets in Greenfield and Turners Falls and supermarkets in the area. Overall, the study concluded that prices at farmers’ markets were comparable to supermarket prices. Importantly, when consumers buy directly from a farmer, every penny goes to that farm business.

There are situations in which far away food appears to be cheaper. Yet when we buy a head of lettuce harvested from California, the farmer receives only 71 cents on the $2.15 price tag, according to the National Farmers Union.

In addition, that head of lettuce has piled up additional costs not covered in its store price tag, such as the cost of irrigation projects that allow it to be grown in a desert.
When our food comes with hidden costs, we pay for them not through our food budget but in some other way: perhaps through our taxes that fund programs that favor large agribusiness, or through our health care costs. Or perhaps these costs are borne by someone or something else: farmers or farmworkers, our children, or our environment.

The old adage says that you get what you pay for, but sometimes we can’t even measure the true price of our food. A community is divided and broken when much of the food that it grows is inaccessible to many of its residents. Local programs that address these inequities, like food pantries and SNAP and Save, are important short-term solutions.

But it’s important to look past the plate of food in front of us, to add up the true costs of our food, and to advocate for change that will reduce the damaging price tag of our current food system. Massachusetts’ new Food System Plan (mafoodplan.org), released in draft form in time for Food Day, provides one opportunity to make your voice heard.

Philip Korman is executive director and Margaret Christie is special projects director for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.

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