Friday, December 06, 2013

Something interesting & a little food politics

I follow some stuff about urban farming. I really feel that one of the keys to long standing success in the urban environment is going to be some measure of independence on the food supply. As such, I support things like planting fruit bearing groves of trees where it is possible. I am always in favor of gardening.

Then there is the really interesting stuff like this. The thought of having a direct grow to market situation in the heart of the urban sprawl strongly appeals to me. I worry, however, that it will become something terribly expensive and only available to the upper classes. It's not just the upper classes that need healthy food.

Just like math literacy is important and programs to encourage it need to be supported in the impoverished regions of the country (especially the city!) a program that encourages food independence and an urban friendly form of living off the land needs to be instituted. This isn't a matter of doing what is trendy. It is a matter of equality.

Yes, you read that right. I said it is a matter of equality. Access to clean and healthy food is increasingly becoming the 'right' of the upper classes of society. Problems like the obesity epidemic have been proven time and again to be the 'fruit' of the poor eating 'habits' associated with prepackaged and processed foods. It is also apparent that a larger percentage of the obese population is in the lower end of the economic spectrum.

Now, some people will breezily say that the solution to the problems can be found in 'changing their eating habits.' I argue that economic disparity and scarcity of those 'good for you' foods has more to do with the problem then someone's preferences. If you go into a store and the vast majority of the products available to you are boxed mixes of some sort, then you are going to wind up buying predominantly prepackaged and processed foods. If you go into a store and the fresh greenbeans are more expensive then the canned, and you only have enough money to get a small amount of food, you're going to go with the less expensive version because you can buy more of it for the same amount of money. This isn't because of laziness, it is simple economics.

Now, one may wonder why fresh food is so bloody expensive. The answer is fairly simple. Fresh food is perishable. It requires specialized equipment and techniques to maintain it at a fresh state and those techniques and equipment will only work for so long. After that, the food will rot. Getting food from the farm to the store isn't as simple as picking it out of the ground and lugging it in the same day. There is a process in place that requires transport, sometimes for considerable distances. (Avacados from California coming to New York, for example.)

Transport takes time. This time is going to lessen the length of time that fresh product is going to be on a shelf. Simple logistics at play here, there are only so many hours in a day. So, let's say it takes four days for your avacado to ripen. If you pick it on day one and transport it day two, you are left with two days to sell it. Now one of the tricky things about selling fresh produce is that people will assume that produce that 'looks bad' (not like it is just before or at peak ripeness) are bad food. In many cases, looks can be decieving.

Mavis Butterfield talks on her blog about food waste in this country (the USA). She has a lot of really good information there and is really one of my heroes when it comes to thrifty food management. That said, let's go back to that hypothetical avacado. Now, we've got a four day period of time that the avacado takes to ripen. We've used one day to pick the fruit and one day to transport it. By day four, your avacado looks over ripe and no longer is considered 'good'. This isn't saying that the hypothetical avacado is bad. It is no longer an attractive product.

Attractive products are what makes stores and agri-business money. This is why they wax apples (not just for freshness, though it helps some with that) and why there are different 'grades' of agricultural products. "A" grade or "Fancy" grade produce are the ones that look just like the advertisements. They are in no way 'better for you' then the lower grade produce 95% of the time. But once a product is no longer that attractive thing sitting on the shelf, it's sales drop off steeply because modern American consumers operate under the false assumption that if it doesn't look 'perfect' then there is something wrong with it.

While the "A" grade hypothetical avacado may be sitting in your grocery store in the produce aisle, the lower "B" grade ones were used to make that nifty little tub of gourmet guacamole. The even lower grade ones were used to make the cheaper little tub of guacamole. All three avacados have the same nutritional content and can be used in the same fashion. It's just the "A" grade ones look better.

So, how does this shorter shelf life impact the price of your avacado? It's again, a really simple thing. If you have a product that expires quickly, you can not get more sales by having a supply of them on hand that is big enough to sell for the full three days that the avacado takes to ripen. You need to have a refreshing supply of avacados that will maintain the image of 'perfect' produce. This keeps them attractive and the customers interested in purchase.

This makes the expense go up per avacado. No longer are you merely paying for the farmer to pluck it and the trucker to drive it to market. No longer are you merely paying for the store to keep it in the proper climate controlled environment to make it stay attractive. Now, you are also paying for the plethora of avacados that don't make the cut on the store sales floor. Stores need to dispose of the produce that is past the sale by date. Which costs money.

Unfortunately, most stores just throw this useable product away. Some folks, like Ms. Butterfield, will reclaim the produce and pick out that stuff that is useable. Other folks will 'dumpster dive', which is in many cases illegally doing the same that Ms. Butterfield does with the permission of the store.

Now, let's look for a moment at the whole difference between a big grocery store and a little corner mart (which is more prevalent in the urban setting). The first thing you can tell is that the big grocery store is going to have higher operating costs. You'd think that the big grocery store would be more profitable and have a better ratio of income versus expenses compared to that little corner mart by virtue of the fact that they carry more items and have the capacity to service more customers at a time. That they'd make their money on volume of service/sales versus quality of such.

I hate to tell you this, but proportionally speaking, you could argue that they're about the same at the outset. Then you start to factor in things like the costs of maintaining your produce department and your butcher's department. Suddenly, the big grocery store is facing down big costs that those little corner marts don't have. Partly because they don't have the space for those features, partly because they don't have the income to support them. The big grocery store is forced to set higher rates for equivalent items then the little corner mart to cover the cost of the additional expenses imposed by these other products.

The products with the limited shelf life turn into more expensive per pound then the boxed mix that will stay good on the shelf for a year. Why? Because each additional day of shelf life makes the product cheaper to put in the store. It makes the product cheaper to transport. When you put these cheaper, processed items in to the market and compare the price differences between the big grocery store and the little corner mart, suddenly that little corner mart becomes the most economical choice for shopping.

The other factor at play for people in impoverished urban areas is the fact that transportation of food supplies is difficult. If one were to take a bus to a grocery store and buy a week's worth of food, one would simply not be able to bring it all home. As such, you buy what you can carry. This measure of economic scarcity is relieved somewhat in the little corner store because it is closer to your home and you can purchase more food and bring more food into your home because the transportation cost and effort is less.

Thirdly, there is a great deal of ignorance about food, food waste, and healthful eating on a tight budget. The educational system is failing our nation in this respect. The days of the health class teaching people how to eat healthy and home economics classes teaching how to shop in a manner that you get the most for your dollar seem to have passed. Now, these things are brushed to the side as unimportant next to things like sexual education (in the case of health classes) or not taught at all (as some schools have dropped the home economics classes).

So, where does all of this leave us on the matter of food independence and such? I'll break it down to three points.
  1. Financial difficulties and scarcity make it problematic to acquire healthful foods.
  2. Ignorance about how to acquire healthful foods makes it difficult to do so.
  3. A lack of public awareness of this problem increases the number of situations where this happens.
I grew up on a farm. I don't have much in common with folks in the city. Except that I live in an apartment now and money gets tight for us here in town. I was taught as a girl how important it is to have a food safety net. We have about two to three weeks worth of meals put by. Most people don't.

As Nihilspawn said in a conversation we had a little while back, most of this country is about 3 meals away from food riots. Think about that for a moment. It is a terrifying thought. Here's another terrifying thought for you. There are people in this country that are starving. Not the colloquial 'I skipped a meal and I'm really, really hungry' but literally starving right now. Most of them are in the urban centers. With all of that food waste that goes on in this country for the sake of keeping up appearances, we should be ashamed.

When children go to school and the free lunch that they qualify for is their only meal for the day, we should be ashamed. When parents forgo eating so that their children might have enough so that they can sleep with out hunger pains waking them in the night, we should be ashamed. When people are scorned for taking what measures they must in order to have enough to keep body and soul together, we should be ashamed.

I didn't go to bed hungry as a child. But my Mother did. I've been sneered at for using foodstamps when I was clean and dressed neatly. I have been scorned for the fact that I make meals that are not the latest in foodie fads because I can't afford the cost or the potential waste that will come from if that meal isn't eaten.

So, this guy's idea of making urban farming more prevalent, I am 110% behind it. Because I don't want my children to grow up and be left wondering how they were going to pay for their next meal.

1 comment:

Andi Houston said...

This is where the economics of food get confusing. Canned vegetables are usually not less expensive than fresh vegetables- if you measure them by weight. A can of green beans, for example: the can may cost $1, but much of the weight is water and the can itself. When you can get fresh green beans for $3 per pound, which is more expensive?

These kinds of choices are influenced by education and marketing. Since most public school educations don't include silly things like home economics any more, people just don't think about the fact that yeah, that one-meal box of rice a roni is only $2... but for $4 I can buy a couple of pounds of rice, which will feed me for four or five meals.

This is a complicated problem with many, many factors and hopefully, many, many opportunities for improvement.