The Low Cost of America’s Food

I recently came upon a thoughtful piece from Dr. Janet Chrzan of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and Founder of the Oakmont Farmers’ Market in Havertown, PA. Chrzan wrote about an experiment she did (as a mental break from her academic writing) about the cost of food. While trolling through old advertisements on the Philadelphia Inquirer, she found one from 1951 advertising Thanksgiving turkeys for 73 cents per pound. That caught her eye because it’s so much more than what they cost nowadays at the supermarkets. She assumed it was used as a “loss leader,” a retail term that depicts merchandise used to entice shoppers to step into the store and at a price that may not actually reflect the costs. She recalled that the price last Thanksgiving was 39 cents per pound, which she remembers because she tracks loss leaders, comparing them with the prices at the farmers’ market she runs.

Using an online calculator, she translated the old advertised price into 2011 dollars, arriving at $6.40 per pound, based on inflation of 3.68%. Conversely, 39 cents in 2011 translates into 4 cents per pound in 1951. “Wow,” she wrote, “that demonstrates just how much industrial farming has decreased the cost of food over 60 years…but it also puts into perspective the value of the turkeys that my turkey farmer produces, using methods similar to the methods used in 1951. He charges $3.50 a pound for pastured hormone-and-antibiotic — free birds, almost half the comparable price of the loss leader of 1951. And the turkeys taste really good.”

Chrzan invited me to her home to discuss this topic further. She reminisced about the first year her market offered pastured (free-range), non-kosher turkeys for $3 per pound from Axel Linde of Linderhof Farms in Lancaster County, PA, and she worried about her patrons’ welcome because Havertown is in a mixed-income district. To her amazement, they took in over 400 orders that year (2007) and patrons raved later about the taste of the meat.

The traditional cost of food (before the 20th century) was about 25-50% of a family’s income, which still holds for the developing nations. However, the U.S. government has a strategic policy of heavily subsidizing the production costs of meat, cooking oil, and sugar (through the soy and corn crops), to promote the purchase of consumer goods. Vegetables, even from large producers, are not subsidized. Altogether, the cost of food as a percentage of median income has dropped from 33% in 1910 to about 9% today — and that includes the cost of eating outside of the home and the spending of poor families. This statistic is lower than at any time in U.S. history and lower than anywhere else in the world. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. food prices have risen faster than at any time since 1990, but Americans overall still spent less than 10% of their disposable income on food. The irony is that despite our country’s capability to feed the world, we still have very high food insecurity in our own country.

Americans have come to expect food to be cheap, and that’s not a good trend, although it’s understandable in a culture that values getting a good deal (as in paying less money for our goods). The artificially low prices of loss leaders become the standard in people’s minds, and they expect low prices at other times and other places. Most damaging of all: When something is cheap, people do not value it and they tend to waste a lot of it. Chrzan quotes figures of a 30% loss before food enters our refrigerators and most post-production waste is because of commercial standards of quality (such as uniform size and bright colors). She recalls reading an interview with star chef Thomas Keller (of The French Laundry, Per Se, Bouchon, Ad Hoc, and Bouchon Bakery) who revealed why there is little waste in his establishments. When he was in training and was assigned to kill a rabbit, he mismanaged his knife strokes and was mortified to realize that he had caused excess agony to the hapless creature. He thus vowed that “no animal would ever die in vain.” Food waste is a terrible disrespect to the farmers and their work.

Food advocate Michael Pollan outraged the American public when he proposed that we pay as much as $8 for a dozen eggs, but “when you think that you can make a delicious meal from two eggs, that’s $1.50. It’s really not that much when we think of how we waste money in our lives,” he said in the Wall Street Journal in 2010. Food crusaders (modern heroes in my book) can instead focus on increasing people’s access to good, pure food, as Chrzan does with her farmers’ market, instead of getting the best bargain deal. We’re privileged citizens and we should acknowledge our blessings and share our bounty with others.

Hannah Lee shops at farmers’ markets to support her heroes in the fields.

How Do We Measure Sustainability in our Food?

By Hannah Lee


While attending the Hazon Food Conference at the University of California, Davis campus last month, I had the pleasure of leading a table learning and discussion at the Community-Wide Beit Midrash (house of study) program on Saturday morning. Sitting at separate tables in the large room, I was one of two people who lead sessions on non-Jewish rather than Jewish texts. The noise level was high but the energy level was fierce. My role was as facilitator, not lecturer, and I found it timely to present a topic inspired by a post in, which referenced a TED presentation by Frederick Kaufman called “The Measure of All Things.”

In the third video in the TEDx Manhattan series, Kaufman says that his purpose is to speak about the “retail face of sustainable food, the marketing of sustainability, and the great ‘green wash’ heading our way.” He introduces the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, an initiative based in Arizona and California. This Index focuses not on commodity crops but on lettuce, grapes, almonds, and tomatoes. It’s made up of farmers, food processors, large environmental groups and academics who are attempting to find consensus for a “measurement of a unit of sustainability” for conventional farming. This is self-regulation, aka “market capture” amongst economists. Their goal? A sustainability label.

Kaufman followed the tomato from the field to a jar of Ragu sauce at Walmart. He interviewed a tomato farmer, Frank Mueller, who claimed that the most important metric is how well the farm doing is economically. The Index learned from an earlier project, which was on peas, to use a minimum of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). Kaufman realized that they’re not measuring sustainability; they’re measuring money. “Our generation fell in love with the meta, virtual, hyper, the derivative product” instead of the actual food. So, instead of following the tomato, he decided to follow the Index.

Kaufman next headed for the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business, and spoke with Dr. Jon Johnson, the Executive Director, who is following 350 distinct sustainability indices. They cannot agree on which unit of measurement to use as a gold standard! So far, they’ve agreed that the nature of retail interface is a “sustainability speedometer.” (Cue the laugh track.) Kaufman’s conclusion: If we can do so, “this is the most incredible, intellectual, social, environmental and scientific achievement in our generation and the next and we cannot sell it short.”

This was ideal as a topic at the Food Conference Beit Midrash, because we were able to discuss all we wanted and without claiming to know the truth. My study participants argued vehemently about the need (or not) for a government standard for sustainability, a transparency and reversibility of the process, and the spiritual and economic nature of sustainability.

Hannah Lee’s shul is local, sustainable, and kosher (but not organic).





The Disconnect for Patrons at Farmers’ Markets

Flickr: ghbrett

I usually avoid a fight in which you’re bound to lose (because it is really hard to change a person’s opinion with your own opinion).  However, I do get riled up when people make uneducated claims about farmers’ markets and CSAs.  I’ve heard plenty in my three years as a CSA host. Then a few weeks ago, I was a guest at a luncheon in which people disparaged the prices at our local farmers’ market, including the statement, “The prices at my daughter’s farmers’ market are cheaper.”

On my way to the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market in Philadelphia on Sunday morning, I was still fuming about the conversation, so I decided to seek some knowledgeable answers.

Nicole Sugarman of Weaver’s Way Farm said that the label, “farmers’ market,” does not mean that everything sold is from a local farmer nor are the growing practices necessarily organic and sustainable.  A farmer from Lancaster County said that his neighbors have been known to truck in produce from larger farms down south, presumably with egregious farming and labor practices.  Finally, Katy Wich, the Manager of the Farmers’ Market program of The Food Trust, said that there are other complex issues involved.

First, what are a farmer’s labor costs?  The Asian research scientist of Queen’s Farm sells his wife’s lovingly tended vegetables and his young daughter helps him on market days.  Another farm employs college interns, who’re only paid a small stipend.  The Amish farmers often rely on family to plant and harvest.  I‘ve visited Tom Culton on his farm and, while he is touted as a “superstar” farmer, I saw how hard he works and under what conditions.

Second, what is the time frame for a crop?  When a farmer is desperate to get his produce to market such as before spoilage or a storm, he/she might resort to a farmer’s auction such as the one in Leola in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  There, the farmer is paid a pittance — such as $6 for a crate of eggplant — for his season of hard work.  There, middlemen buy the produce and re-sell it at a profit.  The customers at a discount store such as Produce Junction will save money, but at the expense of the farmers.  I also recall reading about the beleaguered dairy farmers in Japan after the tsunami this spring when they were told that they couldn’t sell their milk, because of radiation contamination.  The farmers spilt all of the milk because they had no market.

Finally, what should a vegetable cost?  How could we complain when we’ve never sweated for our food?  Recently on NPR, an anthropologist spoke about how our bodies have evolved for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, not for the sedentary life of a technologically-focused world.  We should be on our feet for several hours a day, looking for food.  The only looking we have to do is in the fridge.

I shop at a farmers’ market for the freshest produce, to keep within the season’s offerings, and to support our local farmers.  It is not to save money.  Remember the adage that we get what we pay for?  Where would we be, if we only had to rely on industrial farms?  A captive audience for the next E. coli outbreak, that’s where.

Hannah Lee writes from her home in suburban Philadelphia about issues that engage her.

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Smaller Plates and Bigger Forks Lead the Way to Healthier Eating Habits

Flickr: Sean Rogers1

Our daily need for food means that people who need to lose weight have a hard time, as we cannot simply withdraw from food’s siren song, unlike the non-essential addictions for cigarettes or alcohol. The most interesting research for me has been the work of Brian Wansink and his colleagues at Cornell, who’ve studied how and why we keep on eating “mindlessly.” I was fascinated by the description of their clever experiments in his 2006 book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think including the study in which unsuspecting participants eat soup from bowls engineered to automatically refill until the researchers called it quits — the soup eaters did not, as they saw there was still liquid in their bowls! Another experiment involved inviting college students for a free movie and handing them buckets of popcorn, the students gorged themselves on the snack, even though it was three days old. What they might have rejected otherwise as stale and unpalatable, was consumed uncomplainingly, because they were distracted by the movie and because they had been ingrained to eat at the cinema. Dr. Wansink taught his readership how easy it is to be fooled into over-eating by our circumstances.

After reading Dr. Wansink’s book, I switched my family’s dinner plates to a smaller size (except for Shabbat) and I now plate the food from the kitchen, allowing only the vegetables on the dinner table, as they are hard to over-eat (except by my husband). It’s harder to manage portion control when we have company for meals, but I know of one family who plates everyone’s food even for Shabbat and Yom Tov. This past Pesach, they offered pre-prepared menus to their guests who were advised to indicate their choice of entrée by placing a sticker next to their choice. (Their kitchen is large enough for the assembly-line plating, although mine is not.) Not only did they help their guests manage their intake of food, they told me that there was less waste too.

Last week, Peter Smith, a columnist for Good, reported on a forthcoming study in The Journal of Consumer Science, in which scientists at the University of Utah invited undergraduates to meals at a popular Italian restaurant. Over two days and four meals, they were served with “custom cutlery” — researchers had swapped forks that were either 20 percent smaller or 20 percent larger than the standard utensil. Their surprising finding? Students using the bigger forks ate less than those eating off the smaller ones.

Why should the results be so counterintuitive? The scientists reason that when one uses the smaller forks, each forkful hardly makes a dent in the dish. But with the larger forks, each bite makes a distinguishable difference in the amount of food consumed (note: it’s still the food remaining, not the amount consumed). Smith wrote, “fork size could be the quickest dietary fix since chewing.” The researchers claim, “[I]f we are not chewing longer, then consuming from a larger fork may actually be more helpful in controlling over-consumption.”

In another upcoming study in Food Quality and Preference, researchers Charles Spence and his colleagues offered Greek yogurt in two kinds of bowls to volunteers. Those given the yogurt in the heavier bowls rated their yogurt as “weightier,” — both denser and more expensive — than participants who ate the same yogurt in lightweight (such as Styrofoam) bowls.

The combined take-home lesson? Use a smaller plate — no take-out containers! — but a larger fork. You’ll feel more satisfied and eat less at the same time.

Hannah Lee does not use Styrofoam and she finds it easier to use a smaller plate than to chew more.