I am slowly but surely (during meager lunch hours, when I can) meandering my way through Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an investigative book dealing with the food industry today and how it is — and isn’t — something we need to aspire to. He is exploring where our food comes from, why it comes from there (vs. other sources), the methods and reasoning behind them for growing, harvesting, packaging, and marketing the food, and attempts to answer the question, “In this modern world, with so many food choices and choices of where that food comes from, how do we properly choose our food?”
I’d like to share a particularly poignant passage that I read today, as it got me thinking:
As a society we Americans spend only a fraction of our disposable income feeding ourselves — about a tenth, down from a fifth in the 1950s. Americans today spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world. This suggestion that there are many of us who could afford to spend more on food if we chose to. After all, it isn’t only the elite who in recent years have found an extra fifty or one hundred dollars each month to spend on cell phones (now owned by more than half the U.S. population, children included) or television, which close to 90 percent of all U.S. households now pay for. Another formerly free good that more than half of us happily pay for today is water. So is the unwillingness to pay more for food really a matter of affordability or priority?
I have wondered about this for a long time, because the fact is, we DO spend an awful lot more on things other than food, and we get really upset when the price of, say, ground beef goes up 30 cents, even though its been birthed, grown, finished, slaughtered, clean, cut, ground, and shaped into a convenient package for us, all for a few bucks per pound. Bananas are up? Oh lord! Never mind the fact that they just got done traveling a few thousand miles to your grocery store, mostly unharmed.
I think part of it is price habit. As adults, we all have a list of prices in our heads for, say, milk, bananas, meat, bread, and cheese. Deviate much from those defined levels and we get all put out. We like our traditions, in a sense.
I also think that we, as consumers, don’t really know what we should be paying for food — so we pay what the majority of the market says we should pay. Maybe we should be paying $10/lb for good meat, but if the majority of the market says, “We have perfectly fine meat over here and it’s only $3/lb” and everyone ELSE has it for $3/lb, your mind tends to think that $10/lb meat must be exorbitant! Ritzy. Overpriced.
And finally, we look at things like food as constant necessities and, much like toilet paper, we haaaaate paying more than we must for something that we have to buy All. The. Time. Most people feel like they spend the great majority of their time sleeping and eating, let alone having to go into a grocery store and buy food. Paying more than you think is fair, or what everyone else is paying, simply grates on one’s nerves when you have to do it over and over. It’s bad enough paying for $3.60/gallon gas, must we break the bank for food, too?
And yet……YET….we probably have our priorities out of whack, like so many other things. We spend an awful lot of hours in our beds to not be shelling out top dollar for the best mattress money can buy, given that we spend on average almost 122 DAYS out of a year in bed! That’s a full 1/3 of the year in bed and we still think $1000 for a mattress is akin to slavery.
Are we simply just really, really screwed up?
Of course, I’m not advocating spending $30 per person, per meal, 3x a day. But is it the first thing we should skimp on when the budget is tight? Should we be so quick to pass up that organic chicken in favor of the Walmart bulk-pack Trough Pack™ of chicken breasts, just to save a buck or two? Need we feel so guilty when we buy local and pay twice the price?
Instead, should we be focusing on how healthy the food is for us, what chemicals and compounds were used on or in it, how it was raised, what sort of people in what sort of conditions harvested and prepared it, and….god forbid the audacity of it, how it tastes??
Far be it from me to be a food snob, or a tree-hugging environmentalist, or a food industry fear monger, but, at the same time, I wonder: Are we being smart about this?