Is Food Cheap or Expensive? Could It Be Both?

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Food in the U.S. is cheap to buy at the market, though costs have been rising sharply. Oh, and if you think about all of the costs related to keeping the price of food low, food isn’t really cheap to begin with.

We all pay for cheap food. Literally, of course, in the prices charged at the grocery story. Indirectly, we pay far more than the total at the bottom of your grocery bill. We pay by way of industrial subsidies, environmental damage, and illnesses and health care costs related to unsafe, unhealthful foods.

Many food writers and public policy experts have made arguments along these lines, and Marion Nestle, in the SF Chronicle, offers a succinct explanation of why it is that cheap food can be so costly. Why don’t food producers spend a little more upfront to help society avoid all the “externalized costs” down the line? Well, spending more upfront would result in asking consumers to spend more upfront. Offering better wages to food industry workers, or instituting better safety measures will ultimately result in products that cost consumers a few more pennies, Nestle writes, and the folks producing food try to avoid any and every price increase. Even if the increase is a penny. Nestle writes:

Officials of one vegetable-packing company told me that the impressively comprehensive food safety system they instituted in the wake of recalls raised the cost of their products by only one penny a case (I’m not kidding about this, either).

Despite ample evidence from surveys that consumers are willing to pay more to guarantee safe food, large food producers perceive those few pennies as competitive barriers.

In theory, sure, who wouldn’t be willing to pay a little more to avoid unsafe foods? But I’m skeptical consumers really would consistently be up for paying extra. We live in a country with an absurdly abundant selection of food—basically the largest buffet on the planet—and yet the lines tend to be longer at the drive-thru, not the farmers market.

What’s also interesting is that in another part of the same edition of the SF Chronicle, there’s another story about how grocery prices are rising much faster than inflation, and that those costs will also inevitably result in higher prices at restaurants. In the upcoming months, restaurant menu item prices are expected to increase somewhere between 5% and 12%.

So our “cheap” food is costing us more at the supermarket and at restaurants, and it’ll continue to cost us in other ways rarely considered by consumers.

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