Our Broken Food System

Picture of shopping basket A friend of mine from Texas recently posted a photo on her Facebook page and asked “Does this really look like $100 worth of food?” take a look at the photo on the left, what do you think…Does this look like $100 dollars worth of food? The reality is that over 63% of our daily calories come from processed foods, and eating healthier costs about $550 more per year for one person. (1) There is no doubt about it, our food system is broken, and we as consumers can help fix it.

Why is processed food cheaper?

The reason processed food is cheaper then healthy food is because current food policies support inexpensive but high volume production, and favor easily manufactured and processed foods that provide more profit per unit for the food industry. The main ingredients in processed foods are; wheat, corn, soy, and dairy. The US government heavily subsidizes these commodities making these foods more profitable for manufacturers. One friend posted in response to the $100 question; “Insane society where animal products, and junk foods are subsidized by the government, but healthy, cruelty free, and eco friendly foods are not.” – I couldn’t agree more!

Why is healthy food more expensive?

Picture of shopping receiptOne reason healthy food is more expensive than processed food is that Federal policy works against bringing healthy options to our plates.(2) – but is that the only reason? In looking at the photo my friend posted of the contents in her grocery cart, I noticed that she had organic baby spinach from California, lemons from Florida, and grains from Idaho. The one thing all of these items have in common is that they came from far away. My healthy friend lives in El Paso, Texas and those three items alone traveled a total of 3,916 miles to her grocery store. Here is the breakdown:

  • Baby spinach from California = 1,104 miles
  • Lemons from Florida = 1,738 miles
  • Grains from Idaho = 1,074 miles

Not only did her food make and long and expensive trip but it had to be harvested, processed and packaged before it was delivered. Along every step of the supply chain there are other costly inputs; labor, energy, water and food waste.

What about Health Care Costs?

As I was writing this post, a young lady sent me an instant message and shared that she recently became vegan along with her husband and four year old son. She went onto say that she initially became vegan for “ethical” reasons and that switch to a healthier diet had “saved her husbands life”. She said before becoming vegan her husbands diet consisted of “…fried chicken, wings and hot dogs”. She went on to share that “as result of his diet, he suffered from; gout, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes and he’s only 35!” Since switching to a healthier way of eating he has lost  weight, his gout is gone, his blood pressure is normal and they are waiting to see if his diabetes is gone – my guess is it will be.

photo of Fruits and VegatablesThe point to this dialogue is that eating processed foods makes you sick and that costs you money for doctor visits, medicines and lost wages from missing work. It is estimated that if we “increase our consumption of fruits and vegetables (we) could save more than 100,000 lives and $17 billion in health care costs each year.”(3) If you consider those facts, then the healthy food option is easier to digest…pun intended.

So what can we do?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we can fix the broken food system. Here are few things we can do:

  • Eat local / eat seasonal – The growth of local and regional food systems not only helps local economies; it also promotes healthier eating. People who shop at farmers markets tend to come home with more fruits and vegetables in their shopping bags as compared to a trip to a conventional market. Expansion of local food systems could ultimately help reduce health care costs from obesity and other health problems linked to a diet dominated by processed foods.(4)
  • Support your local farmers market – 8,144 farmers markets now are listed in the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory, up from about 5,000 in 2008.(5) According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “Farmers markets are an important public face for agriculture and a critical part of our nation’s food system,” Vilsack said. “They provide benefits not only to the farmers looking for important income opportunities, but also help fill a growing consumer demand for fresh, healthy foods.”(6)
  • Encourage your elected officials to support local farming – Two barriers to market entry for local farmers are 1) the inability to access affordable crop insurance and 2) and not being able to participate in commodity programs that allow them to use program acres for the planting of fruits and vegetables.(7) The current farm bill moving through the federal government can correct those two issues and encourage farmers to grow more local fruits and vegetables.
  • Grow your own – Not only does growing your own food save you money but it teaches you and your family where food comes from. Last year I grew a crop of beans, cucumbers, kale and fennel. Not only did I enjoy the getting my hands in the dirt and planting my own food but the harvest saved me over $800 in grocery bills!
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables – Just look at the internet or go to your local library and you will read that eating more fruits and vegetables improves your health, is less expensive than animal based proteins and is better for the environment.

As consumers we control the demands on our food system. If we continue to eat processed foods that make us sick we will never fix what is broken with our food system. Support your local farmers market and include more fresh fruits and vegetables on your plate. You will notice that by eating healthier you will feel better, make less trips to the doctor and help the environment at the same time. Please share your thoughts.

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