I live in the suburbs. I’ve lived in the suburbs most of my life, the only non-suburb time being the four years I lived on the campus of the university I attended in Downtown Chattanooga. For the most part, I love the suburbs. I love having a yard, I love the quiet, I love the mortgage payment (which is significantly lower than if the house we live in were located in a more urban area of Hamilton County). Sometimes, I love being far away from everything. It’s nice to live in an area where I pretty much never have to worry about any real traffic, and, as I mentioned before, it’s nice and quiet (except when the neighbors decide to drive their very loud dirt bikes up and down the road, or around New Year’s and Independence Day when they break out the fireworks).
What I don’t like about the distance, though, is the relative lack of access to local food in the near vicinity. There’s a farmers’ market at a nearby church on Saturdays, but right now, there’s only one vendor attending while the weather is cold. For a while, we were buying eggs from a guy who raises chickens in his back yard. They were half the price of the organic eggs I buy at the store that have been transported from who-knows-where, but it seems a little awkward to go to someone’s house to buy eggs and I kind of let that dwindle. Beyond that, the other farmers’ markets in town are about 30 minutes away, as are the more “organic” grocery stores (which still sell a pretty limited selection of local food)….so, I shop at one of the big chain grocery stores, and making my grocery list totally depresses me.
I love buying my food from sources I know and trust. I love being able to talk to the person who grew or raised the food. I love knowing that pretty much every penny of my food dollars is going back into the local economy. When compared to produce, meat, and eggs from the grocery store, local food can seem pretty expensive…but a book I have been reading really put this into perspective for me.
In his book Folks, This Ain’t Normal (Center Street, 2011), farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (featured on Food, Inc.), states, first of all, that potato chips cost an average of $8.00 a pound. How’s that again? So, processed junk may seem less expensive than whole foods….but would you ever consider paying $8.00 a pound for potatoes? I didn’t think so. I’ve never seen conventional or organic potatoes at a premium like that!
Next, Salatin breaks down the idea of government subsidies. You might think that subsidies would be meant for the little guys, but you would be wrong. Commercial, conventional food is highly subsidized-conventional meats, processed foods, etc.-while small producers receive little or no money from the government. In the chapter entitled, “You Get What You Pay For”, he puts it like this:
“Suppose the nation had five auto manufacturers and the government decided to subsidize four of them to the tune of $5000 per automobile. Would it be fair to scream at the fifth one about their high prices? Of course not. And yet that is exactly what people do when they accuse the local, ecologically based food system of high prices.”
In other words, those processed foods are artificially cheap. You’ve already paid for them once….and there’s a good chance you’ll pay for them again in the form of medical bills somewhere down the road.
In my neck of the woods, finding local food is not always easy, and I am sure I am indefinitely going to continue spending quite a bit at the chain grocery store…but I am determined to make more of an effort. Of course, I will continue my support of local restaurants, too. I realize that chains put money back in to the community as well by providing jobs, but local businesses are better for the economy and the spirit of the community. Can you imagine how life would be if we supported the local businesses instead of the wealthy, subsidized chains? The people who work for the chains-and may not enjoy it all that much-could go to work for the local businesses.
This is way more opinionated than I typically am, but I feel a lot of conviction about this right now. If we want local food to be affordable and accessible, we have to express a desire for it-by purchasing it….and we may have to change the way we look at our food costs. Sometimes cheaper…isn’t better.