Cheap food and food deserts?

SWMBO sent me an article the other day which got me thinking about corn, subsidies, and a conversation we’d had on the farm a few months back. First the article. It’s a short one.

Conservative article on corn, ethanol, and the change in the political climate.

This article got me thinking about some visitors we had a while back who toured the farm. While they were here they talked about some of what they are working on and a large part of their current focus was on “food deserts.” First, if you don’t know what a food desert is, take a look here to get up to speed. Our guests assertion was that food deserts are bad, which they are. They also asserted that food deserts are a symbol of oppression for poor people and blighted areas and that we need to do something to solve the “food desert crisis.” As a purveyor of farm raised fresh food, you’d think I’d be in agreement but my answer was surprising to our guests. I said that there was no such thing as food deserts, at least in the way they portrayed them, in my opinion. Let me share why I think that is.

The unspoken premise behind a food desert is that real and fresh food is somehow taken away from poor areas by some malevolent force. However the reality is that fresh food isn’t in these areas simply because there isn’t a sustainable market for it. It’s simple market economics. Without the demand, there is no supply. It’s no different from the number of Starbucks coffee shops in my home town of Garner (zero) vs the number of Starbucks in my neighboring town of Cary (three). Cary is an affluent town and can support a number of coffee shops. People there will pay $5-7 for coffee. Garner, not so much. It’s not that Starbucks corporation has something against Garner, it’s that it takes a certain clientele to support a product and a business. In urban areas there are many factors for why grocery store may not stay in business while McDonalds thrives but at it’s most basic analysis it comes down to the profitability of the business. Obviously McDonalds is making a profit in a smaller footprint, with a higher volume, and with fast, fattening, convenient food. A grocery store selling items that need to be chopped, cooked, and prepared isn’t finding a customer base that will support their investment. If there was a market that would offer a profitable demand, someone would put a store in and start enjoying that profit. Trust me, I know grocery store executives. The are constantly looking for areas with a good customer base and little competition.

So as our conversation progressed we switched to why it was unfair that poor people cannot afford real food and have to eat processed food due to their economic situation. Again I had a contrarian view and proffered that in reality, real food is what food really costs. “Cheap” food is actually more expensive, but is subsidized by the government and therefor by the taxpayer. I’ll not get into the economics of cost, amounts of subsidies, etc. You can find actual reporters who get paid to do all that work. Just for this little blog stop and think about how many products in the grocery store, or in the fast food restaurant, that contain subsidized corn, soybeans, wheat, etc. The government pays farmers a subsidy to grow these staple crops, which then in turn allows industrial buyers to buy at less than true market prices. For a current, but not perfect example, look here about rising milk prices (this is an old article and the link has been removed from the source site, so I’ve removed it here). How can milk triple in prices because the farm bill hasn’t passed? Doesn’t milk cost what the farmer charges for it, plus the cost of handling and distribution? Nope, not even close.

So buyers get corn for less than market prices and are then able to make cheap food to help poor people. What’s the problem? The problem is that we’ve artificially made processed, factory produced food cheap, which makes real nutritious food appear to be expensive. We even subsidize their purchases of cheap food with the SNAP program. And the companies selling this industrial food have national advertising campaigns to get you to buy a happy meal. When’s the last time you saw an ad for a carrot? A head of lettuce? Real food ends up being expensive, cumbersome, tedious and not attractive. Cheap food is fun, fast, and convenient. As a special bonus, it’ll kill you but that’s way later so don’t worry, go ahead and supersize that meal.

So the end result is the grocery store carries less and less real food and more food in a box. People over time eat less real food and more food in a box. Then the cycle continues and the boxed food is too much work, why not just stop for fast food? The end result is you have a blighted area with no grocery store but plenty of convenience stores, fast food stores, and liquor stores. Of course there are people who would cook real food in that area, but not enough to support an entire store. And viola, you have a food desert.

So what do we do? Here’s where I personally differ from most people. The cause of this problem isn’t food costs, food deserts, people’s eating habits, the industrial food system, advertising to children, or whatever. The problem is that the government got into the food system business in the first place, with all the best intentions in the world I’m sure. You know what they say about the road to hell though, right? If government action has put us into this situation, is it realistic to expect government action to get us out? No. Get the government out of the food business. Stop subsidies for growing products that are killing us. Not overnight, but over time. Allow the free market to work and you’ll see real food and local farmers come back into their proper place.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

This topic reminds me of a story I heard once. An American (this was first hand, I was talking to the man myself) was sitting at a dinner with some people from Africa. This American told me he spent the entire dinner apologizing for being American to these African’s because…. Can you guess why? Our support for the South African white government? Our people buying blood diamonds? No.

He apologized for the charity that we sent to Africa because he had tried and failed to open several businesses in Africa and each time he would slowly build a customer base and have a good business going and then foreign aid from America would show up and give away for free what he was selling. Suddenly everyone would take the handout and abandon their local vendor.

Each time it would put him out of business. Then the foreign aid would stop and there would be no source either foreign or domestic for the product and people would suffer. This African said that there would never be any economy in his country as long as there was foreign aid and that American’s were keeping African’s poor by their generosity. Think about that for a minute. 

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