This winter we became aware that a large scale food distributor is trying to develop a “local foods” section in their offerings.  I’ve mentioned before that we have questions and reservations about how this would work out as far as local, sustainable farm production capacities and “fair trade” pricing for producers.  At a recent MLUI event, there was some discussion about the cost of local food that was interesting and I thought I’d share. 

Nick Welty of Blackstar Farms brought up the issue of “invisible externalities” involved in cheap food.  One may pay less at the register, but the associated costs to the environment and our health care system that are usually minimized or ignored add staggering amounts to each unit price.  I learned that this generation of kids is the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents–due to obesity and it’s related conditions.  That’s a pull-you-up-short thought.  You can support the total cost of your food up front…or in bits and pieces later. 

Chip Hoagland of Cherry Capital Foods mentioned the idea of a “local premium” for foods.  Besides the issue of government subsidies (your tax money) to big, corporate farm entities (another invisible externality), there is a monetary value to fresh, high quality, wholesome food.  According to Don Coe, the recalls of possible salmonella contaminated peanut butter products in Michigan alone is costing our state government (who pays them?) a lot of money.  Wouldn’t you rather pay that money to someone like “Nuts Up North” in Lake City, MI to produce good quality, SAFE peanut butter?  Besides, the local producer and local distributor will likely spend that “premium” in their own back yard, thus stimulating our own local economy in effective ways. You get what you pay for.

Lastly, Chef Eric Patterson of Cook’s House talked about the real cost of food from a restauranteur’s point of view.  He stated that because Cook’s House and Wellington Street Market strive to buy locally produced food.  Sometimes customers make comments about the cost of the food served, but he explained that it simply reflects the real cost of real food produced with pride by local farmers.

Should local food be outrageously expensive?  No.  But expect it to reflect a “fair trade” wage to the farmer/producer.  Can a national, low-cost-high-volume distributor provide “fair trade” local food?  Perhaps.  The jury is still hearing the evidence.