The High Cost of Food | Darra Goldstein

Lately I’ve been hearing dire economic forecasts about a slide into recession, with the sharp rise in us food and oil prices of special concern. I understand economic misery and am not going to suggest that we would all be better off paying more for our oil and for our food—or am I? The more we pay for oil, the less we’ll use. Or is that logic too simplistic, given our ingrained driving habits and desires? I’ll leave that determination to the energy pundits, but I do want to raise my voice in favor of higher food prices.

Like many others, I worry about the accessibility of food to all who are struggling. But I worry just as much about a nation that feeds itself so poorly that the population ends up malnourished. The low cost of non-nutritious food in the United States is ultimately hurting people, particularly the disadvantaged, more than it is helping them.

Whenever I go to Europe, I’m struck by the radical differences in our attitudes towards food. There, people pay for food that is good. Quality is important to them. They recognize and value the labor that goes into farming and gathering and producing; they understand that they get what they pay for in terms of both taste and nutritional value. The problem is not that we can’t find excellent food here in the us, but that as a nation we have been schooled to believe that food should not cost very much. Cheap is good. Fast and cheap is even better. Thus the wholesome, more nutritious stuff ends up in fancy stores beyond the pocketbooks of most consumers, who are left to buy ever more highly processed foods—now often labeled as “organic” or containing added nutrients as “functional foods” to make up for their lack of natural goodness (see Gyorgy Scrinis’s article on “nutritionism” inside this issue).

Perhaps the real problem is that we have not taken the time to educate ourselves sufficiently about taste. Instead, we’ve been suckered by synthetic sweeteners and flavors. Ours is a culture of denial, in which we spend billions of dollars on artificial diet foods instead of recognizing the pleasure that flavorsome, high-quality foods bring. Real foods may sometimes be high in cholesterol, or fat, or whatever the latest demon is. Therefore we need to practice moderation—but not denial. In this regard we remain far behind Europe in our government’s understanding of what is needed to keep our national body—not to mention our psyche—fit.

I’ve written earlier in these pages about the Council of Europe, which stands at the fore in promoting awareness of the importance of food not only to individual health but also to the health of the collective, whether a nation or a culture. Following the publication of Culinary Cultures of Europe: Identity, Diversity and Dialogue, the Council has broadened its thinking to include issues of health and their impact on culture. Thus, as part of the 2007–2008 Europalia festival in Brussels, I recently participated in a roundtable that celebrated the riches and benefits of Mediterranean food—the heart-healthy fats, the reliance on plant sources instead of on animals, the glass of wine with dinner.

Like the Europeans, we must begin to value food and its producers. And what better time to do so than in this election year? The New York Times reports that our presidential candidates are talking a lot about diet—but only in terms of their own efforts not to gain pounds on the fried-food-strewn campaign trail. Why aren’t they seizing this opportunity to focus on the sources of wholesome food, to promise support for the American family farm, to find ways to make fresh foods available to all, even in blighted neighborhoods where local stores carry only highly processed items?

Our politicians try to get cheap votes by promising cheap food and generous farm subsidies. But do we need more corn syrup? When our leaders bemoan the high cost of health care, they rarely mention that cheap foods are an underlying problem. Nor do they like to explain the long-term truth: that although good food may initially cost more at the farmstand or grocery, bad food exacts a far greater cost. Food is an intimate issue, a family issue, one that touches our deepest nerves. But it is also a crucial societal issue. Our candidates should seek to inspire us, to change the national mindset, so that Americans will begin to see food not merely as fuel but as a meaningful product in its own right. Is that really asking too much?

It’s only human nature: if we pay a high price for something, we tend to value it more. That’s precisely what we need to do with food: move it from the realm of the cheap and undervalued to a respected place at the table, where it will be recognized for the life-nourishing gift that it is.