Cheap Food and How We Can Better Value What Nourishes Us

We're off to Helena tomorrow to speak at a Grow Local event for the Helena Community Gardens with a few of our favorite farmer-friends.

So, for the last few weeks, we've been thinking and talking about what we're going to say. We want to talk about all sorts of things, but what's been heaviest on our minds as we prep for another growing season on our little farm is, in two words: cheap food.

We've been really struggling to figure out how in a depressed economy, when families are watching every penny, we can make the case for paying a little more for locally-produced food. And, how do we ensure that local food -- food that's produced ethically and with community and health in mind -- doesn't just become, for lack of a better descriptor, designer food?

In our own small world, we've recently been feeling some pressure, from let's just call them false CSAs. As you might know, CSA stands for "Community Supported Agriculture" and this type of direct-marketing has blossomed in the last 10 years as a wonderful, sustainable way to sell and support local food. Basically, you "buy-in" to the farm at the beginning of the season and you reap the benefits when the farm starts bearing fruit. It connects farmer with eater.

Because of the popularity of CSAs, false CSAs have started to pop up -- programs that package like a CSA, but source the produce from all over, including globally, and dramatically undercut both the economics and the spirit of the CSA concept.

One recently moved into our community and we've definitely seen a drop in interest in our CSA and have been just flabbergasted by the quick popularity of the other program. But, it's not hard to see why -- their boxes are year-round, often featuring produce we can't grow locally and are about half a much as ours (although their organic version is priced about the same as ours.)

We've been struggling with how to approach this competition because while we can compete on quality, freshness and knowing your food (there's no comparison in these regards), the price is something we just can't tackle.

And, if price is the only thing people care about, then whammo, we're in the wrong business.

Basically, if we can't produce the cheapest food (which we absolutely can't -- we can't compete with the "efficiency" of our modern food system, year-round growing conditions abroad, cheap labor, etc.) what is our value proposition? Nutrition? Community? Environmental health?

To that end, I've been just fascinated by looking at this within a framework of household spending. We're now paying less for our food than any other time in the last century and I believe we're all suffering for it. Our health, our communities and our environment are all suffering for it. (See this recent piece from Time Magazine that explores the "High Cost of Cheap Food.")

Yet, when we budget our money, we're happy to pay $120 a month for cable packages or $500 for an iPad, but an extra $10 a week on groceries -- to pay for something we actually need to survive -- is sometimes where we draw the line.

This graph, showing the share of family spending per category over the 20th century, from this recent Atlantic article that illustrates this point well. (More in depth on how this happened here.)

Now, I'm not saying that food shouldn't be affordable. It certainly should be.

But, we need to more fully explore the difference between "affordable" and "cheap."And, I would posit, that we also need to think about not only the monetary value we put on food, but also the nutritional, social, environmental value as well.

Still, as much as I believe all of that, we're really struggling with how to make the case to a family who is strapped for cash (and especially because we are certainly in that category) that the cost of their food shouldn't be their only concern.

That is to ask: How can we make local food "affordable" for all, but more importantly, how can we change the way we all see and value the food we put on our tables?


  1. I would love to see this, or something like it in the Independent-Observer.

  2. Great topic. I will try to do my part by not buying an iPhone and instead paying more for healthy food for our family. An almost bigger factor is how quickly the food can be prepared. I would pay for healthy food that is quick and easy! It seems like different geographic areas are willing to spend different amounts. I imagine that both Bozeman and Missoula have better markets for higher cost but locally, sustainably grown food. Good luck with your talk!

  3. I attended your talk this week and it was wonderful! Incredible slides! I appreciated that each of you were articulate, passionate, and thoughtful about your farm and the food we eat. The topic of cheap food is a soapbox I've stood upon for years. While I've tempered trying to change others, healthy, local and whole food is something to which my dollars are commited! I'm so thrilled to have a share of your CSA. (along with some other friends and family.)Keep up the great work! It's important.

    Oh, and where's the Helena pick up for CSA boxes?

  4. Hi All. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Deanna, we need to get together soon -- when both of us aren't so busy! :) Amy, we're still working on the where and when for Helena pick up, but it's likely going to be Thursday evenings at 422 Hayes Avenue. Pick ups will start early June. I'm so glad you made it Tuesday!

  5. Brilliant! Wish I could have been there to hear the rest. Good for you for doing this.


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