Why Is Locally Grown Food So Expensive? The Federal Government Is a Big Part of the Reason

Dec 22, 2016

On the Local Food Report we’ve been thinking a lot about the why: why we make this show every week. Since we started in 2008 we’ve learned a lot about our local harvest, activism, and traditions. But we wanted to remind listeners why we’re interested in covering local food in the first place. So we asked co-hosts Elspeth Hay and Ali Berlow to give us their motivations.

In future episodes we’re going to talk about a wide range of reasons we think this subject is important. But in this one we’re just going to talk just about local food and economics.

EH: In 1790 90% of Americans lived and worked on farms. We shared a collective understanding of how food was produced, and an appreciation for the work of farming. 

Today, fewer than 2% of Americans are farmers. Most of us have no idea who is feeding us, or what has actually gone into the food we're eating.

AB: Since the 1930s the US has lost nearly four million farms. That has a deep economic impact on rural communities. It’s also worth mentioning that there are a handful of corporations like Nestle, General Mills, Pepsi-Co, Kraft, Coca-Cola and Kellogg who control much of the food we see at the grocery store—this a result of consolidation. For example, in 2007, just four corporations slaughtered 84% of the nation’s beef, 66% of the pork and 59% of the poultry.

But we have options. One is to buy from independently run grocery stores and markets that work with local farmers and fishermen, or, go right to the these folks directly. Because when you buy direct from a local farmer or fishermen through a community supported agriculture or fisheries program – a CSA or a CSF – or shop at a farmers’ market – this eliminates the many middlemen. The producers (the farmers, the fishermen) get full retail price, which is better than the wholesale price they’d get selling through a store.

EH:  I hear people say local food is too expensive. And the way our system is set up, for some families, that's true. Here's part of the reason why: the government spends about 20 billion dollars a year on agricultural subsidies. In fact, since 1995, 75% of federal subsidies have gone to only 10% of all US farms. That's right: 75% of Fed dollars to 10% of farmers. This is because the farms that produce most of our food are huge, and so they get most of the money. But the way these big farms are subsidized ends up giving them an economic advantage and squeezing small and mid-size farms out of business.

AB: For me, the economic ‘Why’ of this extends to who and what I support with my money. Who’s got eggs, meat, fish, chicken, cheese… and buy what I can from them first. I’m still a grocery store shopper but one of the reasons I buy at farmers’ markets is because it’s like the town center. It’s social. I get to know the people who are growing the food that I want to be able to cook and feed my family. If we don’t support them, then they’re going to go out of business and we all are going to be out of luck. That would mean less local food to choose from, a loss of traditions, and even productive working lands and clean waters. It’s all connected.

EH: Walter Goldschmidt was one of the first people to study this economic interconnectedness. He worked for the USDA in California in the 1940s, and he studied two comparable rural towns: Arvin, where large, absentee-owned, non-family farms were more numerous, and Dinuba, where there were more locally owned family farms. He found that relative to small farm Dinuba, large farm Arvin had a smaller middle class, more hired workers, lower family incomes, and higher poverty. It also had lower quality of schools and public services and fewer churches, civic organizations, and retail establishments. Arvin’s residents didn’t have as much control over public decisions, and they also had low civic participation. For the majority of citizens by almost every economic measure, life in small farm Dinuba was better. In response, the USDA fired Goldschmidt.

But today, his findings still hold true. A 2007 analysis of 51 similar studies found that 82 percent of the time still—most of the time—large, industrialized farms have a negative economic impact on local communities.

AB: I ask myself: what type of community/surroundings/environment do I want to live in? How can I support all the things that I love about this place, so they’ll be here in the future? And I end up answering those questions most often through my kitchen. Because that’s who I am. I want to do what I can to support the people who grow, raise, catch and produce good, fresh, healthy food that’s delicious. Food that I have faith in. That I love to cook, to eat, and to share. That might sound precious, but for me, it’s important and basic.

In coming months Ali Berlow and Elspeth Hay will tackle some of the other reasons they’re compelled to report on local food – things like environmental impacts, health, social justice, and seasonal cooking.