In the last installment of this story we reviewed the prices charged at the OB People’s Food Co-Op. Our examination showed that the common perception of the Co-op being expensive was not true, especially when it came to basic foodstuffs. Now it’s time to put the Co-op (and other alternative food sources) into perspective. (Here is Part 1, also, if you missed that.)
The production and distribution of food is the foundation of all civilizations. Once humans moved past the hunter-gatherer mode and learned to farm, store and distribute food, all the other elements of what we call civilization emerged. Not having to constantly forage allowed humans to multiply faster, fostered collaboration, spurred the development of arts, crafts and tool-making and, ultimately, the earliest attempts at governance. The domestication of animals increased the prosperity of early societies, allowing them to further increase agricultural production, trade with others and make war on a large scale.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution spurred one other aspect of economic development: an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, who were able to utilize these riches to influence society in ways that suited their goals and purposes. A central tenet of the history of modern governance has been the struggle between the wealthy and the not so wealthy about re-distribution of this wealth for the benefit of society. Over time the wealthy have learned to “game” the system so that governmental programs that appear to be designed to provide a safety net for the not-so-wealthy are actually support programs for corporations that cover the indirect costs of production, thus enhancing their profitability.
Out of the New Deal era programs of the 1930s a vast system of corporate welfare has emerged, paid for in large part by taxes imposed on working Americans. The carrot (seemingly cheap food) and the stick (the threat of foreign competition, communism, terrorism, etc.) have been effectively utilized to mislead the citizenry into believing that these programs are in their self-interest. When public relations efforts have been unproductive, as is the case with the current health care debate, the wealthy have resorted to fear and intimidation through mob-rule.
Nowhere is this corporate welfare system more established than in the business of industrial agriculture. Hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes are used to pay farm subsidies, maintain trade barriers, provide marketing support, clean up environmental degradation and pay for a plethora of other costs that agribusiness giants are all too glad to pass on. Many industrial agriculture practices are harmful to the health of people living near large farms and the health of consumers who eat the food they produce. Residents living near farm factories suffer illness resulting from contaminated water supplies and air pollution, while consumers are exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, pesticide residues and outbreaks of food borne diseases. Factory farms do not pay the hospital bills to treat any diseases from contaminated food and water, instead, they are passed directly to the people who miss work when they are sick, and to the taxpayers who help finance the health care system.
Tax dollars are even used to pay for advertising to convince us that we’ve got it good. More than any other factor, we’re told, cheap food accounts for American prosperity. We spend less of our annual incomes on food than any other nation… …and more of that income on nutrition-related health issues. So what we save at the grocery store buying processed food, we lose when we start paying for the treatments to mitigate the health consequences of the hormones, additives and endocrine disruptors present in our food. It’s a giant shell game designed so that we’re always the losers. Oh, and, by-the-way, if we’re all getting obese, it’s our fault, too. And one of the mega-food corporations will be glad to sell you some “diet” products (that don’t work) so you can try to take off a few of those pounds.
So what is the true cost of our food? The Sierra Club has produced a video that makes up for its rather crude production values with a concise explanation of the true cost of food. It’s well worth the fifteen minutes of your day to watch!
That $5.98 a pound steak on special at the mega-mart requires a gallon of oil, 2500 gallons of water a day, and ten pounds of grain to produce a one pound piece of meat. Then there are the other costs, like disposing of the 291 billion tons of cow manure produced each year by the cattle and dairy industries, the fertilizer and pesticides used to grow the grains that feed the cows, the $14 billion in industry subsidies, and the chemical laden top-soil run-offs that are killing our waterways, even after we spend $15 billion a year on water treatment systems related to agricultural production. So the true cost of that steak might be $815 (that’s not a typo) a pound. Nobody really knows for sure, but I think you can see what I’m talking about.
Holy cow crap! It’s enough to make you want to go vegetarian. Except when you learn that our factory farms are using an average of three pounds of pesticides per person to produce foods that are beautiful to look at, but nutritionally suspect. Agribusiness is working on that one, though, so you can expect, with a little gene-splicing here and there next year’s tomatoes will be chock-full of what ever nutritional supplements are the current fad.
Our local food co-op has (understandably) chosen to go the vegetarian route and that’s just scratching the surface of what thought goes into the foods that they sell. Visiting the store and browsing the labels can give provide a great deal of insight into just how much they do to make sure that their products are healthy and wholesome. The social and environmental costs of products sold at the Co-op are considered before they are offered for sale.
By joining forces with other co-operatives around the country, the OB People’s Co-op is able to use their joint buying power to stimulate demand for products that are socially conscious. Food co-operatives are a fast growing segment of the economy, as more people are becoming aware of the true costs of buying food. Nationally, consumer grocery cooperatives account for close to $2.1 billion in sales revenue and over $252 million in wages and benefits paid. By buying produce locally—a stated goal—they are able to lessen their (and our) carbon footprint in the food distribution chain which gains significance when you consider that, on average, conventional fruits and vegetables produced in the US travel about 1,500 miles before reaching the point of sale.
Finally, there is the impact that buying at a locally owned store has on our immediate community. More money stays in the community. For every dollar spent at the co-op, 45 cents remains in the community. Every dollar you spend at a chain store only returns 15 cents to the community. Co-op members have the opportunity to insure that purchasing practices reflect community values. And the potential for progressive social networking can be a powerful tool in countering the omnipresent propaganda of the corporate welfare state. Sadly, I think this last part is woefully under-utilized. The role of the People’s Co-op in the community will be among the items we focus on in the last post of this series.
As always, your comments ands insights are appreciated. Let the dialog continue!