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The conventional food system makes it harder for local food systems to thrive, yet we are still here and growing. It has been especially exciting to see the recent surge in support for local food after Covid laid bare some of the shortcomings of the industrial food complex.
I’ve had many different jobs within the local food realm…a server at restaurants, farmers market manager, farmer selling at a farmers market, farm share coordinator, food hub manager, etc. At every one of these jobs, someone has asked me…Why is local food so expensive? The answer is complicated, as all food system questions are.
First and foremost, let me say: food is often an emotional choice triggered by our own chemistry. When we buy food, there are a lot of factors that contribute to how we assess its worth. Local food is, oftentimes, more expensive than conventional food, and sometimes local food’s reputation for being expensive clouds the fact that it’s not always that much more expensive. If you inventory the prices for organic produce at your standard supermarket, you may note that some items have comparable prices to the same items you see at the Grandin Village Farmers Market or the LEAP Mobile Market.
The difference is in where your money is going: either to the private coffers of a mechanized industrial farm (organic can be industrial) that relies on poorly paid, overworked labor (during the start of Covid, agricultural workers were some of the most vulnerable working in the least safe environments) OR to the people you share your land, water, and wellbeing with.
We all have to make choices about the ways we spend our money. Unfortunately, food has become a smaller and smaller part of the average Americans’ household expenses, and our expectations for what a fair food price is have changed a lot in the past century.
The tide is changing, and more people are seeing the important role local and regional food systems place in our lives. When people make a choice to invest in the local food system, the yields are mighty: more land staying in farming, more families able to make a living as farmers, more habitat for wildlife, more biodiversity, and more health for you and your family. What a difference that one choice makes!
When food is raised in a way that isn’t extractive or exploitive, the costs that are hidden in conventional food are included in the price. The price of peppers goes up when the pickers are paid fairly. The cost of carrots goes up when they are cultivated by hand to avoid compacting the soil with heavy machinery. The cost of cauliflower jumps when cover crops are planted to protect the soil and add green manure. The cost of tomatoes hikes up when the ground is treated with compost annually. Growing food for community is not the most efficient or cheap way to grow food, but it is a true labor of love.
So in the end, I often find myself imploring folks who have the privilege of accessing local food:Instead of asking why local food is so expensive, let’s start asking why conventional food is so cheap.
-Kelly Key (Program Director) & Sam Hedges (Support Services Director)