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.