The real costs of food
To the Editor:
Recently, a social media post asked why the corn at the Co-op costs more than the corn at Trader Joe’s. It’s a common question. I’d like to flip it around and instead ask: why is the corn at TJ’s so cheap? “Cheap food” makes me wonder: who in the supply chain was exploited? Because certainly, someone was. Let me ask this about TJ’s corn: Is it coming from a different region/state/country? At TJ’s the answer is most often yes, but their clever private labeling ensures that the true sources of their foods are closely guarded secrets. Is it grown under different conditions with negative environmental consequences? Maybe. Even if the corn is organic, if it’s being shipped from, say, Chile, the carbon footprint of this “farm fresh” produce is significant. Is the farmer that is growing the corn being paid fairly and equitably? Such that he or she can continue farming or leave the farm to their children? Can they support their family without resorting to off-farm income? Often, and sadly, no. Big retailers have notoriously driven down the cost of food by squeezing already hurting farmers. Let’s talk about Pennsylvania dairy farming someday...
So, what are the hidden costs of cheap food? More importantly, who is profiting off this “cheap food”? It’s probably not farmers, it’s not you, and it’s not your community. Unlike TJ’s, whose profits probably leave the U.S. (though TJ’s touts itself as “Your Neighborhood Grocery Store,” it’s actually owned by Aldi Nord of Germany) and make rich shareholders richer, the Co-op’s profits stay here to be reinvested in the store and in the community (the Food Truck-a-thon doesn’t run itself). When you buy at the Co-op (or any of our wonderful owner-operated small businesses in town) more of the money you spend stays here. Upwards of 80 cents on the dollar are reinvested into the local economy, in fact. When our employees can use their paychecks at HOM or Indigo or any of our other great locally owned businesses, that supports our neighbors and our local economy. The local economy is also strengthened when local farmers can reinvest in their farms and in their communities.
And though TJ’s produce section might be littered with “Farm Fresh” or “Local” signage, it’s anything but. Ironically, even if TJ’s sold Linvilla corn, while you might think that you are supporting a local grower, in reality you are investing into the food retailer’s corporate structure and ultimately your investment undermines that same local grower by shutting them out of the market or squeezing their already thin margins to get the cheapest price, thus hollowing out the local food system further and further until it disappears.
I invite you to read Jon Steinman’s Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants for a critical analysis of how corporations have distorted our food system and our own perceptions of food. Conveniently, you can pick up a copy locally at the Co-op!