Friday, November 4, 2011

Food pricing + health

I recently participated on a panel at Hunter College's School of Public Health to discuss food pricing and obesity. I was up there as a farmer, but also brought my public health experience to the table. Others on the panel included the UN Food Rapporteur; someone from the NYC Mayor's Office on food programs; advocates from NYC's Food Bank, an environmental justice group and an organization that brings farmer's markets to low-income communities; and a financial analyst specializing in commodities futures. We had a very interesting discussion that touched on injustices in food access, rising food prices and the connection with revolution and citizen unrest, the federal Farm Bill, conventional vs organic food production, and links between food pricing and health.

I received comments afterward saying they were so happy to have a producer on the panel who sees the links between injustice, food pricing and health, because so often the producers are pegged as the bad guys - stirring up an image of a wealthy farmer on a tractor, sitting on hundreds of acres of land, producing corn, soybean, wheat or cotton only to receive subsidies from the federal government. The reality is, only a small fraction of farms are responsible for the majority of our food production. Overall, 91 percent of farms in the U.S. are considered "small family farms" (with sales - not profits - of less than $250k per year), and those farms produce just 27 percent of U.S. agricultural output. The remaining 9 percent or so are huge operations which dominate the production and distribution of food and commodities in this society, operating on U.S.-beloved principles of economies of scale and deregulation.

But I think small-scale producers like us are on the rise. The growing new farmers movement is committed to natural or organic practices and is politically active in re-negotiating the federal Farm Bill (up for renewal in 2012), raising awareness on commodity pricing and the use of commodities to produce fuel and food products, advocating for local policies to conserve farmland and link farmers to affordable land, and changing how people eat by offering fresh and local produce at farmer's markets and other food stores across the nation. And most local farmers I know believe that everyone should have access to affordable, healthy food, and institute programs, such as a sliding-scale CSA shares or accepting Food Stamps at farmer's markets, in order to ensure equitable access.

While food pricing is still beholden to the market, and, yes, organic still tends to cost more than non-organic (due to many reasons related to labor, land use and farming practices), the price differentials are closing. As our culture of food shifts away from food products (e.g., anything produced with high fructose corn syrup, comes wrapped up in a package, has ingredients listed that you can't pronounce) and begins to recognize the health benefits of fresh, pesticide-free whole or natural foods, our food purchasing practices will shift the market. And our unrealistic expectations for cheap food may begin to come out of the clouds and back down to soil-level.

We're all part of the movement, whether as conscious consumers or conscious producers.


  1. Great post, and interesting panel. Yes, health, but don't forget the other reasons for people to move towards whole foods, since I think people sometimes get tired of eating things because it's the healthy thing to do: taste/quality, cultural reasons (community, connections with older ways of food preparation), and ecological benefits (from climate change to biodiversity)... One thing that has to happen in order for all of this to go further: structure of work has to change so people have time to cook these foods. In cities, new street-food cultures and changes in restaurant purchasing can get some of the way.

  2. One example of the time squeeze issue: