Food Choices and Food Dollars

Many of us become interested in growing some of our own vegetables out of a desire to eat food that is both fresh and organic.  If I were to purchase only organic vegetables for my family, I think I would be looking at a very hefty grocery bill.   Without my garden, those beautiful summer salads that we enjoy almost every day would not only be expensive, but would also involve either a drive to the Farmer’s Market in Kingston or a trip to the local grocery store for imported greens that are almost always grossly overpackaged.  With my garden, my vegetable food choices always seem to be easy to make.

But when I look around me as I walk down the aisle of a grocery store, I know that in many ways food choices have not changed much in the past 20 some years.  Kingston still only has a small percentage of health food stores or local and independent groceries.  Local, organic, minimally packaged food is a drop in the commercial food bucket.  As much as many of us would like to see a revolution in food and agriculture, things often appears to be getting worse, and not better.  One must also take a look at government policy if one wants to truly understand the make-up of our food choices.

I think it is very important that we understand the way in which government policy affects the availability and cost of the foods that we buy.  When one talks about buying and eating locally, one must decide what products one wants to focus on finding a local source for.  In my experience this can include vegetables, fruit, eggs, meat, honey, maple syrup, some dairy, and a very limited amount of grains and legumes.  For me, almost all of it is purchased outside of the grocery store, from local farmers, small butchers, a small cheese factory, and one small independent food store.  I see very few local products at Loblaws or Foodland.  Buying policies and government regulations affecting processing facilities make it almost impossible to sell local foods to big stores.  If we look at meat, most large groceries will only buy from federally inspected abbattoirs.  There are fewer and fewer small, provincially inspected abbattoirs in Ontario that process local meats and the regulations for a federally inspected abbattoir are so costly that these facilities must be large in order to be economic.  Similarly, new rules affecting cheese factories will probably spell the end of what few local ones remain in Ontario.

If we go one step further and look at agricultural policy, the picture gets even gloomier.  The U.S. Farm Bill doles out some $25 billion in agricultural subsidies a year.  The bulk of these subsides go to mega farms that grow wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton.  As a result one American food dollar will buy 1200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. It will also buy 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.  If we want those carrots and the orange juice to be organic, well, hopefully you have a very small appetite.  We cannot begin to make large scale changes in our agriculture unless we address government policy.  We also cannot hope to come to terms with issues such as obesity and diabetes,until we insist that the interests of quality of food, versus quantity and centralized profit, are given priority.

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