ABELLO: Loco for locavores



Oscar Abello

Cheaper is not always better. There is a difference between Keystone Light and Brooklyn Double Chocolate Stout. While Keystone might be applauded in some circles for increasing access to the costs and benefits associated with imbibing alcohol, there are also circles where imbibing alcohol is a more thoughtful affair than drinking games, love-making and heart-breaking.

When it comes to everyday food and beverage, consumers often find themselves encouraged to flock toward the cheapest foods. For college students, at an age when most buying habits form, cheaper food makes room for other amenities in the budget, like buying alcohol.

Few give thought to how that food became so cheap. This revelation may come as a shock, but there actually is an economic system bringing food to your local supermarket, restaurant and kitchen – and that system is flawed.

At the heart of that flaw is a government intervention almost 90 years old, born in the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era when many American farming families were struggling to feed themselves, let alone the rest of the country. As part of the New Deal programs, federal farm subsidies came into existence to support those families and the nation’s food supply chains.

Today, there is no Dust Bowl, and despite what headlines might read there is no Great Depression on the horizon; but the subsidies are still around. Not only that, but for the most part they no longer go to small and struggling farm families.

Seventy percent of federal farm subsidies go to the largest 10 percent of farms.

Consequently, they artificially lower the price of staple goods like corn, which artificially lowers the cost of beef and milk because cows eat most of the nation’s corn. More pervasively, high fructose corn syrup is in a large and growing percentage of things Americans eat and drink, distorting prices for those goods as well.

If you are wondering why 30 percent of American adults are obese, and why childhood obesity is skyrocketing, your search for answers should begin with the understanding that food is too cheap.

That is one hard pill to swallow.

Of course, it also matters what types of food consumers purchase, but healthier and tastier foods are costlier. Built into the price of the very healthiest and tastiest foods are the true costs of production, as they are likely grown local to your area and outside the mega-farm system that is subsidized by the U.S. government.

Cheaper is not always better, because prices are supposed to equate the true cost of production and the level of demand. The subsidized corporate foods of the typical supermarket have distorted prices that mislead consumers.

But consumers are fighting back.

Last year, ‘locavore’ officially entered into the English dictionary, meaning one who consumes only locally cultivated foods. Farmers’ markets are the most common avenue by which locavores obtain food. Philadelphia’s White Dog Café, at 3420 Sansom Street, is a landmark restaurant and tavern that strives as much as possible to serve only locally grown foods and beverages.

Owner Judy Wicks founded White Dog Café, 25 years ago, and the enterprise’s dramatic success has spawned an affiliated foundation, White Dog Community Enterprises, to help spread awareness of the benefits of a local food economy.

Critics of the locavore lifestyle will argue that it is elitist or perhaps entirely inaccessible for the poorest segment of the population; but obesity prevalence does not appear to have any correlation with income status. While there are certainly children starving in America, overall we are generally eating quite more than enough as a nation.

Cheaper is not always better, and in the case of food, distortions reverberate across the economy. Artificially cheap food inflates demand for all consumer goods-a subtle but very real factor behind the rising cost of living in America. Buying local would cost more out of our weekly budgets, but that would simply bring us in line with the true cost of food production. And it will taste better too.


Oscar Abello is a senior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].