I doubt if many people really believe that the recent spike in food prices will, as a New York Times piece put it, “make organic food more accessible” and force people into healthier eating patterns. (I wrote about this topic in a recent Victual Reality column.)
For those who do, I offer this remark from Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist from the University of Washington, quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
The food crisis will make obesity and attendant diabetes even more rampant. Fruits, vegetables, and fish are becoming luxury goods completely out of reach of many people. Consumption of cheap food will only grow … Obesity is the toxic consequence of a failing economy.
Food prices are rising, but we haven’t managed to revalue food in our culture. Indeed, as Drewnowski suggests, agribusiness giants are consolidating their grip over the food system. Most of the Big Food industry has seen profits surge with the jump in food prices (save for the industrial-meat giants, who are struggling with high corn prices).
The infamous “externalities” that prop up these companies’ profits — rampant abuse of the environment and labor — rage on, off of corporate balance sheets.
Meanwhile, as of 2006, 11 percent of U.S. households lack food security, which the USDA defines like this:
[T]he food intake of one or more adults was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.
As wages decline and food and energy prices ramp up, surely that number has grown since 2006. The Inquirer article ably gathers up the implications of higher food prices on the food-insecure:
A recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that women in poverty were roughly 50 percent more likely to be obese than those with higher socioeconomic status.
In U.S. households making less than $15,000 a year, 31 percent of the women are obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In households with more than $50,000 annually, 17 percent are obese.
University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist Shiriki Kumanyika and other investigators found that poor 15-to-17-year-olds — black or white, male or female — were 50 percent more likely to carry excessive poundage than nonpoor teens.
And a study by Drewnowski last year showed that obesity rates in poor Seattle neighborhoods were 600 percent greater than in rich areas.
“Cheap food,” in and of itself, is not the problem. We need to figure out ways to make healthy food truly accessible to everyone. The concern isn’t merely altruistic. Obviously, a sustainable-food movement that remains cosseted within a broad and disastrous industrial food system can never deliver on its considerable environmental promises.
Proven grassroots projects like Brooklyn’s Added Value, Oakland’s People’s Grocery, Milwaukee’s Growing Power, Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Community Action — along with dozens of others — point a way forward. All they need to reproduce and reach the next level is more resources.