Not food, but a beautiful skyline shot of Kelowna from last summer.

It’s also Nutella Day today.  I thought to myself, “what the heck can I talk about on Food Checkout Day anyway?” and figured I’d create some Nutella ice cream for your dining pleasure.  Well, it turns out quite a bit can be said about Food Checkout Day, so I’m going to get all serious on your asses and discuss something that foodies hate to discuss: the cost of the food we love.  The whole cost. 

But first, I want to talk about the community of food.  We were the friends whose house everyone ended up at; the kids whose parents were pretty cool about the whole deal.  We, ourselves, were not the coolest kids, but in the end, you had our place or nowhere. We used to raid the kitchen and come up with these crazy snacks and dinners.  Mom let us, as long as we didn’t make a huge mess and didn’t actually waste the food. 

I need to talk about our table. My parents have this crazy, really old table that’s been refinished at least 100 times.  It has the nervous sweat of thousands of teenagers polishing it to a perfect gloss.  It has been scrubbed smooth with a million salty teenaged-girl tears.  How can a few planks of wood equal community?

Where is that community today?  The Missouri Farm Bureau says that “Food Check-Out Week, February 15-21, is a celebration of the U.S. food supply as provided by America’s farmers and ranchers.”  According to the Cobb County Farm Bureau, in Georgia, which celebrates Food Checkout Day,

According to the most recent information compiled by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, American families and individuals spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their disposable personal income for food. That’s the lowest rate in the world…

A quick internet search shows that in the United States, Food Checkout Day is associated with Ronald McDonald House, a worthy charity that provides support to families with children who are seriously ill.  I can totally get behind that. 

But since we’re talking about food checkout, and the cost of food, I’d like to get serious for a few minutes and talk about the true cost of the food we eat.  Americans may have the cheapest-per-income food in the world (don’t kid yourselves, Canadians, we’re a close second), but what is the true cost of that food?  As a serious foodie, there are some foods that I say I can’t live without.  I “try” to buy Ocean-Wise and make dolphin-friendly choices, but I have a serious weakness for foods like tuna tataki.  The trouble is, unfortunately very few of the foods we eat and enjoy are produced without a whopping price tag, in environmental cost, exploitation of labour, you name it. 

With Food Checkout Day in my mind, I was listening to The Current on the CBC on Monday, and what should air but a program about the true cost of food.  It’s billed on the website as follows:

The Value of Nothing

The next time you congratulate yourself on getting a steal-of-a-deal on a pair of shoes or a coat, stop and think about what that item cost to make and who put that price tag on it. Or think about food, the fast food sold by people on minimum wage grown by people who are going broke. And juxtapose that with news like the trader profiled in the Globe and Mail on the weekend who bragged about making 82-thousand dollars in one split second.

Raj Patel has been looking at examples like that. He’s an economist who has worked for the World Bank and the World Trade Organization and he’s come to the conclusion that we’ve entrusted our entire way of life to a system that doesn’t really know the value of much. He outlines his ideas in a new book called, The Value of Nothing: Why Everything Costs So Much More Than We Think. Raj Patel joined us in our Toronto Studio.

You can listen to the show at the CBC Radio: The Current website.  For those of you who don’t want to go to all of that trouble, Patel’s theory is as follows:

Raj Patel: Well, we pay $4 for a hamburger at our local burger joint, but Indian researchers looked at the environmental costs of producing a hamburger and came up with the figure that that burger should cost $200. That is just the environmental costs. But we [also] pay in terms of lost biodiversity, species that are lost through deforestation, [and] through increased climate change. There was a study a couple of years ago that did the math with the way that we over-consume today, and if you add up the excess debt, from the depletion of the ozone layer, to the migrations and mitigation costs of climate change, the costs in terms of emptying the seas, [and] increased desertification, then people in developing countries pay way more than we do. We owe them around 5 trillion dollars, with a very conservative calculation. [In addition] one in five health care dollars in the United States is spent on taking care of someone who has diabetes. Those are the costs that we pay not at the check out, but through our health insurance system. And that’s why in the book I say that cheap food is cheat food. The way that food is made cheap in the United States involves all sorts of cut corners from the environmental costs we don’t pay to the labor costs we don’t pay… But we all end up paying for it in the end, just not the corporations.

Despite what you might think, Patel is not advocating for more government control.  He’s hugely in favour of the free market.  What he’s really saying is that all of the costs that go into creating our food should be included in the information we receive about it, so that consumers can make informed choices about the costs that they’re willing to pay to have cheap food on their tables.  He talks about localized participation in the marketplace: food sovereignty by the very people who produce the food we eat.  It’s a complicated idea, but one that we’re going to have to investigate sooner rather than later.  As we keep hearing over and over again, our lifestyle isn’t sustainable.

So what do we do about it?  Most of us don’t have the luxury of 100 acres of arable farmland on which to grow and produce our own food sustainably.  Books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle provoke a certain wistfulness in me but at this point in my life, it’s not practical to pack up, move to the country and eat a lot of peaches. 

What I know is that food = community.  I live life as a giant potluck dinner; everyone has something amazing to bring to the table.  That means that my choice of what to eat should not interfere with someone else’s choice about whether they can put food on the table for their families, at all (rarely do I find myself espousing a Bush-sim, but we need to put food on our families!).

So again, what do we do?  I guess my solution is to buy as local as I can.   I watched the whole series of the 100-mile Challenge, and what I learned, consistently, is that it’s really, really hard.  If we’re going to make small changes, we have to be able to incorporate them into our everyday lives.  So, I shop around.  I try to buy organic-locally produced food from within 100 miles of where I live.  I try to avoid fast, packaged, and mass-produced foods.  I’ve become friends with my butcher, who brings in free-range and can tell me where my chicken and duck used to live.  As long as each of us keeps making as many of these choices we can, sustainable food will become more and more the norm. 

Some day, I really will move to the country and eat a lot of peaches.  Until then, I do what I can.

And maybe I’ll support the movement for food honesty by buying Patel’s book.  I’m just sayin’.

xx Eva