On finding cheap food or better quality of life (for all)

This month, the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project welcomes UMass professor John Gerber’s contribution to its In Close Proximity column.

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was tying grape vines at a farm in Central California on May 14, 2008, when the temperature soared well above 95 degrees. Only a few days in the country, this undocumented field worker, who didn’t have easy access to water, shade or the work breaks required by law, passed out from the heat and died two days later.

She was 17 years old. The Centers for Disease Control reports that heat-related deaths of farm workers are on the rise in the U.S. This deadly trend is unfortunately one of the costs of cheap food.

Our industrialized food system consisting of mega-farms, long-distance shipping and big box-stores has driven down the retail price of food to the point that Americans, on average, expend about 9 percent of their annual income on food. The industrial food system in the U.S. produces cheap food, but at a cost. Fortunately, in western Massachusetts we can partially opt out of this exploitative system.

Most of us recognize that vegetables grown in the Pioneer Valley are of higher quality than anything shipped from a distance. We enjoy the freshness and flavor of the food available at our local farmers’ markets, farm stands, food coops and some regional supermarkets. Yet most experts agree that less than 10 percent of the produce purchased in our region is grown locally.

I suspect the reason that 90 percent of Pioneer Valley consumers don’t regularly buy local food is due to its perceived higher price and the convenience of shopping at major supermarkets.

Busy people treat food shopping as just another task, rather than a pleasurable social experience. Studies indicate that we have 10 times more conversations when we shop at the farmers’ market than the supermarket. I know when I stop in at the new All Things Local Cooperative Market in downtown Amherst, I always bump into friends and neighbors.

Shopping locally isn’t an efficient use of time in my task-driven life, which is one of the reasons I make the effort. For me, this is about quality of life.

Of course, some regional supermarkets do try to buy local products. The Big Y, for example, is a Springfield family-owned business and a major supporter of the UMass Student Farm, which grows organic vegetables for sale locally. When we have to shop at supermarkets, we can support local farmers by asking specifically for their products.

And what about price? How often have we heard the statement that local food costs more?

Certainly, local beef, pork and chicken cost more than meat raised in a factory farm. You just can’t beat the efficiency and scale of the industrialized animal factory for low price. The fact that local meat products are generally produced with less stress on the animals may not be worth the higher price to some of us. Of course, if we were concerned about our own health, the health of our community and the health of the environment, we might choose to eat less meat altogether and buy local. This would be an investment in a higher quality of life for ourselves, for local farm families, and for the animals we consume.

On the other hand, there is little difference in price between local and shipped vegetables, especially during our growing season.

But “cost” includes more than “price.” The industrial food system that produces cheap food does so at the expense of the workers in the food system, on farms, in factories, shipping terminals, big box-stores, and the fast-food restaurants serving the food. These workers earn near minimum wage. A federal minimum wage law that leaves families in poverty is part of the cost of cheap food.

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez’s death is also part of the cost of cheap food.

When we consider the quality of life we enjoy in the Pioneer Valley, we might also wonder about the quality of life of those who are working to produce, ship and sell cheap food. When we buy food shipped from long distances, we say “yes” to an exploitative system designed primarily to maximize financial returns of corporate shareholders at the expense of others.

It is true that relocalization of the food system may result in higher (but fairer) food prices overall. At the same time buying local food will create local jobs and build community. It is an investment in a higher quality of life. Is this an investment you can afford?


John M. Gerber is professor of sustainable food and farming at the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture, a member of the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project and one of the founding members of Grow Food Amherst, an organization of local citizens committed to helping the community become more food self-sufficient.

For information, visit www.growfoodamherst.org.

Original Post in the Amherst Bulletin

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