Essay

The Expense of Good Food

by Christiana

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We live in a rural area where our restaurant choices are basically fast food chains or the local bar that serves $1 tacos on Wednesdays. With few choices to tempt us, it’s easier to stick to our commitment to eating healthy.  We grow much of our own vegetables and berries for at least part of the year.  We buy our meat and milk from local farms, and I make most of our meals at home.

In the wintertime, however, I’m often shocked by my grocery bill. A half cart full of fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy reminds me that eating well isn’t cheap.  So, I look for lower prices and commiserate with my hard-working friends who are either aided by WIC and food stamps or who live in that strange netherworld of making too much for assistance but not enough to afford many of the more healthful options.

When we lived in Washington DC, I was shocked to learn that some lower-income neighborhoods didn’t have access to grocery stores. This is not unusual. In rural areas, single mothers and families are trying to survive. Often they haven’t been educated about healthy food or are forced to choose more filling meals that are covered by their assistance programs.

Real, unprocessed, healthy food is too expensive to splurge on.

But, I watch my farmer husband work his tail off all year, picking out just the right seeds and plants, searching for organic fertilizer, caring for grass-fed animals, mulching and pruning, weeding and picking and weeding and picking by hand while a customer complains that she can get cheaper blueberries at the grocery store (which by the way, were shaken off a tree by a machine and are NOT organically grown).

Farmers have earned more than they usually get paid especially if they have to do the extra work to keep up their organic practices.

There is the tension: between knowing that good food is too expensive for many to afford and knowing that the farmers who provide good food need to make a living (which is very difficult to achieve for small farms who depend on local customers).

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver and her husband Steven L Hopp address the criticism that food grown in sustainable ways (local and often organic) is more expensive than “conventional (industrially grown) foods.” They point out that we as taxpayers “subsidize the petroleum used in growing, processing and shipping these products,” that the costs to our long-term health are more than the short-term money spent, and that these conventional practices ultimately cost more because of their environmental effects on the soil.  Hopps says that, “for a few dollars up front, it’s a blue-chip investment.”

To those of us with the luxury of funds to make this choice, this could be a wake-up call.  After all, in the US, we spend “a lower proportion of our income on food than people in any other country, or any heretofore in history,” putting our disposable income instead toward all manner of entertainment, social media devices, vehicles and name-brand clothing.  Kingsolver skewers our priorities that favor raising children who look good over children who are healthy.

But to those without this luxury of choice, these responses must seem unsatisfying. Because the truth is, there are still many people on the fringes who cannot afford healthy food.

And so I’m left only with questions.

How can we provide good food and engage in a food culture so that everyone has enough?  Not just enough to buy Lunchables or processed food.  But enough to get what’s good for our bodies?

Everyone deserves access to good food. Not just those of us who can afford it.

Do you understand this tension? What are your stories? Have you seen ways to eat healthy food on a tight budget? 

DSC_0003Christiana is the manager of this collaborative blog. She has postgrad degrees in theology and creative writing from St Andrews University in Scotland. She lives with her family in intentional Christian community in rural Illinois. While her husband farm manages, she writes, sings, gardens, cares for their two kiddos, cooks, preserves food and attempts to homemake. She also blogs at thebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com.

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2 thoughts on “The Expense of Good Food

  1. I really struggle with these questions. I hate how crazy our food industry has gotten – focused more on profits than on nourishing people. I agree that paying more for organically grown produce is often the best choice, both in terms if its health benefits and the consequences for workers…but it does become a struggle when the competing tensions of budget and sustainability compete for center stage. We’re definitely in the bracket you mentioned where we don’t qualify for government programs but don’t have much financial wiggle room. We do the best we can with what we’ve got. A couple things that help us are planning ahead and buying in bulk. We might spend a little more up front, but the cost savings over time can actually be quite substantial. This also means that we have to (get to) make more things from scratch than we used to. I keep a schedule of what needs to be made when, so we don’t run out of snack and lunch items, which goes back to the idea of planning ahead. It’s not as easy as opening a Lunchable, but much healthier and really, not all that much harder. I wish I had more answers about how to change the larger food system so that more people have access to healthy, sustainable food. My hope is that, over time, enough people will advocate for change that something will happen. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but I think it starts with people voting with their dollars and finding ways to volunteer or lobby legislators or provide education to their friends and neighbors about alternative, healthy choices. I’m excited to hear what other people think and what they do to facilitate change!

  2. Thanks Jocelyn. I hope other people comment too on their ideas for facilitating change. Fixing our food system seems like an overwhelming problem. We buy in bulk from a co-op too. It does help and as you said, the up-front cost saves over time. You help remind me to be better about planning ahead. I’m not always great at that. It can take a lot of work to eat healthy but once you get in the habit, it becomes, well, habit. And you forget you did anything differently.

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