Affordability, accessibility, local food

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Louisville has a great reputation for being food-centric, with lots of activists and enthusiasts in all imaginable areas — urban gardens, local food, a lively independently-owned restaurant scene and more. Often these communities co-exist amicably, but not always. The affordability of local, healthy food is a subject that tends to make passions run high.

Louisville has made strides, but many of us struggle with the morality of accessibility. I attended a dinner party one evening where one of the guests asserted she wouldn’t shop at a farmers’ market until the food was affordable for everyone. Really? And the logic behind that is. . . .?

Many shoppers and chefs blanch at the higher costs of local food. Indeed, cost is the first of a list of barriers that are commonly listed as reasons to avoid local products.

At the risk of sounding defensive, let me aver that fresh produce is costly everywhere, even at the supermarket. Studies show that the squash and broccoli in the produce aisle are more expensive per calorie than the Cheetos and Pepsi.

That’s because of subsidies. The government, through previous farm bills, has allocated money to the farmers who grow corn, soy and wheat. We spent $56.2 billion from 1995 to 2006 on corn subsidies alone, according to the Environmental Working Group, which used USDA figures and which can give you all the mind-boggling statistics you’d like at http://farm.ewg.org/farm/.

Michael Pollan reported on the work of researcher Adam Drewnowski, who took a hypothetical dollar into the supermarket to see what it would buy, and found he could get 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

Farm subsidies allow corn and soy (and corn syrup and soy oil) to be extremely cheap. Subsidies make Cheetos and Pepsi and fast food dollar meals extremely affordable.

How much are fresh produce growers and organic growers subsidized?

Oops. Not so much.

So while the poor are shut out of nutritious eating, it really isn’t the fault of the farmer who is hand-planting and picking strawberries to sell for a premium at the farmers market to support his family.

How a new farm bill might change any of this is anyone’s guess. Congress’s inability to make decisions has currently thrown farmers in to Farm Bill Limbo.

The issue of affordability isn’t just produce vs. fast food. Local beef, milk and eggs are also pricey.

But striving to make robust local food systems should require more nuanced investigations into local-food affordability, and raise questions that may get answered in ways we don’t like and have to adjust to. What is affordable? People around the world spend much more of their income on food. Should subsidies change? Subsidies were invented to guarantee farmers an income, even in the bad years, so they would stay on the farm and keep farming. What is a fair price for food, when are we paying for the ineffieciencies of small farms and how efficient and large is the perfect farm?

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