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Food may be cheap, but is it a bargain?

August 26, 2009 |  8:00 am


There’s been a lot of talk lately about how cheap our food is, what with “value meals” and discounts galore. I recently spotted a 5-pound container of peeled garlic from China for $7.99; at a farmers market a few days later, garlic was $1 a bulb -- and I had to peel it myself!

Similarly, almonds were about $8 a pound from the farmers market, $3.49 at Super King Markets.

If you’ve got teenagers at home, you might be spending a small country’s GNP on food, but even considering last year’s food price increases, Americans spend less of their disposable income on food, about 6%, than the citizens of other countries. Considered another way, we spent 18% less on food in 2007 than in the 1970s, Ellen Ruppel Shell writes in her new book, “Cheap,” which looks at the cost of consumer goods.

But is cheap food the bargain it seems? Naturally, it's a complicated question.

For all too many of us, all that cheap food is making us fat -- and obesity is no bargain. Estimates are that obesity and its attendant diseases will cost more than $100 billion a year.

But many people have come to consider high-quality fruits and vegetables fancy, elite products available at Whole Foods or farmers markets at high prices, Shell said. “What’s gotten lost” is nutritious food at affordable prices.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, noted that over the last quarter-century, fast-food prices have decreased while produce prices have increased -- at comparable levels. “There’s no question that they are relatively more expensive,” and so people with less money buy food that’s less nutritious, she said.

And if Americans are growing increasingly uncomfortable in their jeans, some people are as uncomfortable with the state of our food affairs.

“Food is too cheap. But it depends. If you are a poor guy in a Bombay slum, it’s too expensive,” said Hans Herren, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Millennium Institute, which promotes sustainability and issued a report this year on the state of agriculture.

Cheap food has a “huge environmental cost that everyone has to pay for,” including polluted wells and dead rivers, Herren said in a telephone interview from Northern California, where he was vacationing.

A rapid increase in agricultural productivity over the last century or so “is a very good thing for human welfare, which doesn’t mean it was free,” said Daniel Sumner, director of the Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis.

That growth is in part a result of new knowledge and technology. In addition to improving irrigation systems, for example, farmers have learned that Napa Valley is better for cabernet sauvignon and Sonoma Valley for chardonnay, “to use some of my favorite examples,” Sumner said. California no longer devotes 1.5 million acres to barley or cotton; instead, it grows more almonds and pistachios, he said.

Industrial agriculture, government protections, billions of dollars in subsidies and world markets all play a role.

When 2-liter bottles of soda can cost the same as a smaller bottle of unsweetened tea, and school lunches too rarely contain fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s no wonder consumers can be confused about what’s cheap and what’s a good value, Shell said.

Getting takeout all the time means we “really discount our time,” Shell said. The driving, the waiting in line for the food is rarely considered part of the cost of a cheap takeout dinner, she said.

“We have to think about another model,” she said. She cites the Eastern supermarket chain Wegmans, which she said tries to use local products at reasonable prices.

Governments need to support farmers, Herren said. The question is which farmers and under which circumstances. He cited a program in Switzerland, where farmers who provide “eco-services” get subsidies. For example, the more diverse the flowers in their fields, the more government money they get.

“We need to connect the dots between food production and over to nutrition and health of the environment and health of the people,” Herren said. “Everything is connected in the system.”

-- Mary MacVean

Photo credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times