In Context: Affordable Food and Oneota

In Context: Affordable Food and Oneota

by: Lyle Luzum Oneota Community Co-op Board of Directors

In previous articles in the “Scoop” I discussed the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s definition of “Good Food”: food that is Fair (does not depend on exploitation of people), Green (does not depend on exploitation and degradation of the environment), Healthy (encourages health, not chronic illness or obesity), and Affordable (available to all, not just the rich).

Ah, affordability! There’s the challenge! Why is it that food that is Fair, Green, and Healthy costs more? Michael Pollan suggests turning that question on its head and asking, “Why is food that is none of those things (and that dominates the food production/consumption chain) so cheap?” Why have we as a society taken “cheap food” (read “cheap calories”) as our main goal?

As I pointed out in previous articles, the main reason food is cheap is because we have chosen to ignore real but hard to quantify costs — fairness to producers, impacts on communities when producers can’t make a living, environmental degradation due to unsustainable production practices and health degradation due to abundance of food-like products that are simply bad for us. The fact is that we have created an industrialized “food” system that excels at producing cheap calories because it is easy to create products from fats and sugars that tempt our taste buds. One reason this is possible is because our system is built on government subsidies for the building blocks of those cheap calories – corn and soybeans. The government does not subsidize vegetable production, and whole foods aren’t as profitable for industrial processors. As a result, a dollar buys several times as many calories in the form of junk food as in the form of fresh vegetables.

So, if our “affordable” food makes us ill, maybe our definition of “affordable” is topsy-turvy. Maybe we need to stop thinking “calories per dollar” and start thinking about a more difficult “nutrition per dollar” or “societal/environmental impact per dollar of food.”

One effective way to attack affordability is to buy whole foods and prepare them ourselves instead of going for the over-packaged, over-processed versions. Buying in bulk DOES allow more and better than pre-processed. Connecting with your food by making it yourself DOES make you more aware of goodness and taste, and eventually of the other things that go into the farm-to-fork chain. It’s a step-by-step process of changing one’s food values. Once a person realizes that “calories per dollar” is NOT the gold standard of value, how you view food changes.

Oneota Co-op specializes in providing access to quality whole and bulk foods. Our customers are not a rich elite! A great number, in fact, have simply learned that high quality whole foods, prepared creatively, produce greater nutrition and satisfaction per unit of food than “cheap” food. “Cheap,” it turns out is not inexpensive when the larger picture is viewed. If the idea of eating food that is Fair, Green, and Healthy resonates with you, then Affordable takes on a meaning that is more comprehensive than it seems at first.

Oneota Co-op does not fight for the “cheap food” mantle, but we feel that when all things are considered, people of all income levels can find a way to affordably eat well at the Co-op.

This is the end of a series of articles I began a year ago to try to put Oneota Community Food Co-op into context in the larger community and the world. I hope they have been enjoyable and thought provoking. The series is available online in one extended article at In Context Scoop Series by Lyle Luzum.