Thursday, April 10, 2008

Good News on Food Prices

Here's an optimistic way to look at the current rise of our grocery bills. Let's also note the fab description of the man who, if she's lucky, the Feminarian soon may be working with: the "defacto leader of the food intellectuals." SCORE!

I do also have to say that I disagree with those who claim this is not an elitist diet. I think it is. The question is more whether elitism is a bad thing. But for Alice Waters (another Berkeley resident!) to say just forgo the cellphone or third pair of Nikes is rather snobbish; after all, I doubt many food-stamp single-mamas are really indulging in such luxuries. Yes, there are people who can afford it and simply choose not to eat that way; they are making bad choices. But there are lots of people who really can't afford to eat well, and are not being helped by government policies. We have to fix their situation. We have to get food stamps accepted at the farmer's market! (and they have to go farther than $1 per meal)

Anyway J and I have been having this discussion about elitism for a while now, because in his last dissertation chapter he's going to have to defend it as necessary (he believes Hume was an elitist for good reason). So you'll probably see me write some more about that issue. I go back and forth about it. I don't want to be elitist, but then if you define elitist as simply admission that some things are objectively better than others (iow, the world is not based on subjective opinion but there is right, wrong, truth, falsity, and actual standards in existence), then I would have to plead guilty. It's a fascinating question.

But on to the article...

April 2, 2008
Some Good News on Food Prices
(from the NY Times)

WHILE grocery shoppers agonize over paying 25 percent more for eggs and17 percent more for milk, Michael Pollan, the author and de factoleader of the food intellectuals, happily dreams of small, expensivebottles of Coca-Cola.
Along with some other critics of the American way of eating, he likesthe idea that some kinds of food will cost more, and here’s one reasonwhy: As the price of fossil fuels and commodities like grain climb,nutritionally questionable, high-profit ingredients like high-fructosecorn syrup will, too. As a result, Cokes are likely to get smaller andcost more. Then, the argument goes, fewer people will drink them.
And if American staples like soda, fast-food hamburgers and frozendinners don’t seem like such a bargain anymore, the American eatingpublic might turn its attention to ingredients like local fruits andvegetables, and milk and meat from animals that eat grass. It turns outthat those foods, already favorites of the critics of industrial food,have also dodged recent price increases.
Logic would dictate that arguing against cheap food would be the wrongmove when the Consumer Price Index puts food costs at about 4.5 percentmore this year than last. But for locavores, small growers, activistchefs and others, higher grocery bills might be just the thing to bringabout the change they desire.
Higher food costs, they say, could push pasture-raised milk and meatpast its boutique status, make organic food more accessible and spark anational conversation about why inexpensive food is not really such abargain after all.
“It’s very hard to argue for higher food prices because you are cedingpopular high ground to McDonald’s when you do that,” said Mr. Pollan, acontributor to The New York Times Magazine and author of “In Defense ofFood: An Eater’s Manifesto” (Penguin Press). “But higher food priceslevel the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely onfossil fuels.”
The food-should-cost-more cadre wants to change an agricultural systemthat spends billions of dollars in government subsidies to growcommodities like grain, sugar, corn and animal protein as cheaply aspossible.
The current system, they argue, is almost completely reliant onpetroleum for fertilizers and global transportation. It has led toconsolidations of farms, environmentally unsound monoculture and, atthe end of the line, a surplus of inexpensive food with questionablenutritional value. Organic products are not subsidized, which is onereason those products are more expensive.
As a result, the theory goes, small farmers can’t make a living,obesity and diabetes are worsening, workers are being exploited andsoil and waterways are being damaged. In other words, the true cost ofa hamburger or a box of macaroni and cheese may be a lot more than theprice.
“We’re talking about health, we’re talking about the planet, we’retalking about the people who are supporting the land,” said AliceWaters, the restaurateur, who has more than once been accused ofpromoting a diet that is either unaffordable or unrealistic for aworking person.
Urging others to eat better (and thus more expensive) food is notelitist, she said. It is simply a matter of quality versus quantity andencouraging healthier, more satisfying choices. “Make a sacrifice onthe cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,” she said.
Anna LappĂ©, founder of the Small Planet Institute, which studies foodand public policy, said that equating cheap food with bad food is anoversimplification, because food pricing is a complex process.Investors skew the volatile commodities market. And less money is spenton the actual food than it is on marketing, packaging, transportationand multimillion dollar compensation for the biggest food companies’executives.
“But it is really hard for people to understand speculations oncommodities markets and even how food companies externalize costs whenthey are going to the store to buy a gallon of milk,” she said.Besides, an intellectual debate on food costs might not be exactly whata cash-strapped grocery shopper needs right now. In fact, arguing formore expensive food seems, at the least, indelicate.
“Someone on the margin who says ‘I’m struggling’ would say rising foodcosts are in no way a positive,” said Ephraim Leibtag of the UnitedStates Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Even ifthe food budget isn’t an issue, there are plenty of people who viewlow-cost food as a national triumph.
“If you think that mass production and vast distribution predicated oncheap energy is a good system, then the dollar hamburger is a goodthing," Mr. Leibtag said.
Still, there are likely to be some tangible advantages to currentprices. For one thing, the relative bargains are likely to be found inthe produce aisle and the farmers’ market stalls. The Consumer PriceIndex for fresh fruits and vegetables is slightly lower than a yearago. That is good news for many shoppers, including the poor who usefood stamps and are experts in stretching a food dollar, said LauraBrainin-Rodriguez, a public health educator who helps the poorestpeople in the San Francisco Bay Area eat better.
“People here will take two buses to get to Chinatown to get cheaperproduce,” she said.
Policies meant to support local farms and urban agriculture programswill likely be strengthened, too. Shorter supply chains becomeincreasingly attractive as fuel costs rise, said Thomas Forster, aformer organic farmer and veteran of four farm bills who is workingwith the United Nations on food issues.
To that end, both state and federal governments have begun to encourageinstitutional buyers like school districts to consider geography andnot just price when seeking bids on food contracts.
“It could also lead to a move toward more local slaughterhouses andstronger regional meat systems,” he said.
In the category of meat and dairy, rising commodity prices could verylikely help the small but growing number of farmers who raise animalsthe old-fashioned way, on grassy pastures. With little or no need forexpensive grain, these farmers can sell their milk and meat for moreattractive prices.
That is welcome news to Ned MacArthur, founder of an organic,pasture-based dairy in Pennsylvania that sells milk, butter and otherfood under the Natural by Nature label. Unlike dairy farmers who feedtheir animals grain, people on the 52 farms in his consortium arelooking forward to the coming months, he said.
“The grass is starting to grow now so within the next couple weeks thecows are really going to take off,” he said.
Although prices for organic groceries are rising at least as fast astheir conventional counterparts, organic shoppers may soon find thatthey have more low-priced options. Tighter grocery budgets could drivethe expansion of less-expensive “private label” organic brands, assupermarkets and big box stores try to attract new consumers and keepestablished organic shoppers from walking away.
“Organics are still considered food for the elite, but private labelsmake organics more the norm in the market place,” said Gary Hirshberg,president of Stonyfield Farm and a board member of four other organicfood and beverage companies.
Of course, all of this is theoretical. If the American shopper decidescheap food is the most important thing, the intellectual musings of thefood elite might be trampled in the stampede to the value menu.
Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior research analyst at Mintel who has analyzedfood trends for 17 years, said it was too soon to tell.
“The main thing is that you need a little evidence before you sayeveryone is clipping coupons and eating dirt,” she said. “All we knowfor sure at this point is that people are going to the supermarket andnoticing butter is $4 a pound and not $2.”

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