Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Cost of Food

A couple of interesting stories today about the price of food.

First, Tom Laskawy at Grist argues that it makes no sense to tax "sin" foods like soda without simultaneously subsidizing the stuff we want people to eat--stuff like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The telegraph:

There’s no free market in food. There’s only the stuff we subsidize and the stuff we don’t. And I’m not talking simply about cash subsidies paid to corn growers. I’m talking about a system that drives the wholesale price of corn and soybeans (the raw materials in all processed foods) to well below the cost of production. Meanwhile, fruits and vegetables don’t get that benefit—they’re expected to sell at a premium (even if in some cases the premium is small). ... . It’s nice that we are finally willing to start taxing unhealthy food. But without doing something about the good stuff, we’re only fighting half the battle.

In somewhat related news, the AP reports that cash-strapped consumers have started turning to "cheaper" food products--things like Dinty Moore stew, Kraft mac and cheese, and SPAM.

SPAM? Dinty Moore? Really? I know that time is money, blah blah blah, but I can whip up 8 servings of mac and cheese--using this recipe, for example--in about an hour for less than $7, easy. The same quantity of Kraft Mac and Cheese might cost a little less and take a bit less time, but instead of real cheese, here's what I'd be eating, according to the box ingredients: Whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, calcium carbonate, sodium tripolyphosphate, citric acid, sodium phosphate, lactic acid, milk, yellow 5, yellow 6, enzymes, and cheese culture. Yum!

Similarly, for the Safeway Club price of $2.99 for 12 ounces of SPAM (ingredients: chopped pork shoulder, ham, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrite), I could buy a three-pound pork shoulder blade roast that would taste like meat, not a gelatinous mass of hot dogs molded into a ham-shaped loaf.

Part of the problem here is education--I'll wager that most American meat consumers wouldn't know what to do with a whole pork shoulder, much less how to unit-price it next to a can of SPAM--and part of it is our obsession with convenience. If it's quick, it must be good, and if it's "cheap," all the better. But if the cost of all that seemingly cheap food is our health, isn't it worth it to take a moment and learn how to make smarter choices? And ultimately, shouldn't the government spend a little of its food promotion budget educating children about how to make healthy choices, instead of serving as pushers for cheap, processed meat and dairy products?

Photo by Flickr user Grumbler.

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