Want Some Cheap Food?

August 13, 2018

Has anyone else noticed that somehow cheap has slithered its way into many vocabularies as a positive adjective?


cheap: inexpensive because of inferior quality

synonyms: poor-quality, second-rate, third-rate, substandard, low-grade, inferior, vulgar


I'm not sure about you, but I can honestly say that cheap is not a positive descriptive adjective for our family's purchases, especially not purchases that have the potential to significantly impact our lives, or the lives of others. It's important to note that inexpensive and cheap are not always synonymous. I love a good deal. In fact, I would consider myself very intentional (and even frugal) about how and where I spend money. For example, our family budget for clothing and shoes (for a family of 5, with 3 growing children) is about $500/year. I rarely buy anything new, choosing instead to buy most of our clothes at secondhand stores, garage sales, or by bartering/trading with friends. At this point, the only new items I buy are socks, some shoes, underclothing, and an occasional sustainably-made item to support an ethical business. While I don't spend very much money on our family's wardrobe, I do take time to dig through thrift racks to find quality brands, brands that I know will last and are less likely to have utilized exploitative labor practices. Our clothes are inexpensive, but hardly ever cheap.


We also choose to drive fully paid for vehicles that are over 10 years old, to save on vehicle payments and insurance costs. While our vehicles are old, they are well-made and have been reliable. They were relatively inexpensive, but not because of inferior quality. I've discovered over the last 5 years that cheap things (those that are inexpensive because of inferior quality) are not only inferior, they can also be vulgar, as the synonym above suggests. The insatiable hunger that many Americans seem to have for consuming all things fast, easy and cheap is, in its mildest form, unfortunate, and at its worst, 100% exploitation. 


Ultimately, what we value most is what we will spend our money (and time) on.


Food is no exception. In fact, it is a prime example of how devalued food is in our U.S. society. According to the (2015) World Economic Forum, there are only eight countries in the world that spend less than 10% of their household income on food. Guess who the "winner" is? Yep, it's us. The U.S. spends the least with just 6.4% of household income being spent on food. On the surface, cheap food may seem like an advantage, but our obesity and dis-ease rates speak volumes as to the reality. And health is not the only negatively impacted area of life taking a hit from our society's obsession with cheap food. According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, “Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn’t paid at the cash register, it’s charged to the environment or to the public purse in the form of subsidies. And it’s charged to your health.”


In other words, we either pay at the time of purchase, pay later in the form of health and environmental expenses, or willfully allow someone else to "pay for it" through exploitation. I understand that millions of Americans live in food deserts and struggle with food insecurity. I can understand the allure that $1 burgers and super sizing would have when you're experiencing poverty. I truly do feel compassion for those doing the best they can based on what they know and the resources they have. What frustrates me most is that the US government is largely responsible for our cheap food epidemic--with its farm subsidies that have been largely responsible for high-fructose corn syrup, factory farming and much of the processed food that dominates our supermarket shelves.


It is no secret that fresh produce can be hard to find, whereas processed food and fast food are readily accessible. According to an article published by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) supports agricultural producers through a variety of programs that "tend to favor, either directly or indirectly, the production of unhealthful foods. These are the same foods that are implicated in the diseases that have steadily increased over the decades and now impose a significant burden on Americans." Between 1995 and 2009, the USDA distributed more than $246 billion in subsidies. Five commodity crops (corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice) received the vast majority of subsidies. Corn and soybeans are largely used as animal feed. Specialty crops (referring to fresh fruits and vegetables), on the other hand, do not receive subsidies. In fact, farmers who participate in commodity subsidy programs are usually prohibited from growing fruits and vegetables on the land for which they receive subsidies. This provision, enacted in 1996, "restricts the ability of both small and large commodity farmers from diversifying their crops and including fruits and vegetables as part of their production." [Source]


For those who are not moved by the personal health impact of cheap food, consider some of the additional factors. It can't be ignored that animals raised in confined animal feed operations (CAFOs) is a tremendous expense of the U.S.'s cheap food. Beyond the ethical issues arising from animals living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, is the antibiotics epidemic. If you are not already aware, as much as 80 percent of all antibiotics produced are used in agriculture--both to fight infections and promote unhealthy (yet lucrative) weight gain in animals. These practices are contributing to a serious problem involving antibiotic-resistant disease. Furthermore, pollution and soil erosion (among many other environmental factors) are additional costs of our "cheap" food supply. 


To truly understand the cost of cheap food, we must look beyond the totals on our grocery receipts. We must consider ALL the external factors. This wide perspective is known as an economic principle called true cost accounting. So far as we are able, we should be expressing our values through our spending. It isn't easy. There will be sacrifices to be made. Budgets will likely have to be revised. Priorities will have to shift. You can't optimize your health, steward the environment well, and stand against exploitation, all while enjoying cheap (meaning both inferior and inexpensive) food. However, there are some simple strategies to eating well and keeping expenses down. Although this week's post was very education heavy, next week on the blog, I'll be sharing some of our family's practices for expanding and maximizing the impact of your grocery budget while upholding your values (assuming you're convinced that "cheap food" is not a good thing).


Looking forward to helping you move from educated to empowered. Ultimately that is what we mean by bringing wellness within reach!

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