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High grocery store bill? It’s only the start of the true cost of food


Gene Jonas, who operates Hungry Bear Farm, in Mason, is presenting a program on “The True Cost of Food,” around the state, most recently online hosted by the Environment Working Group of the New Hampshire Network. Photo/Gene Jonas

MANCHESTER, NH – Consumers who are already griping about their grocery bills may be hard sells when it comes to seeking out organic alternatives, but a local organic farmer is urging New Hampshire residents to look beyond the grocery receipt and consider the true cost of what they are paying.

“We have a cultural preoccupation with economic value,” Gene Jonas, an organic farmer and owner of Hungry Bear Farm, in Mason, told the audience of an online video workshop, “The True Cost of Food,” hosted by the Environment Working Group of the New Hampshire Network. Jonas, of Wilton, said it’s the ninth time he’s given the presentation, which lays out in stark detail the health care, environmental, and human costs of the food, most of it supplied by industrialized agriculture. 

The retail cost at the store is only part of what consumers are paying. “The so-called cheap food you buy at the grocery store isn’t so cheap after all,” he said.

Jonas, of Wilton, has been an organic farmer for 14 years. He’s familiar with the fact that organic food is generally perceived as being more expensive.

“Why is the food I grow more expensive?” he said to an online audience last week. “I started asking myself that question years ago.”

Several years ago, while he was selling his produce at a farmer’s market, another vendor said she didn’t understand how anyone could afford organic food because it’s so expensive.

That’s the perception of organic food. But a customer at a different farmer’s market saw the reality. He used to tell Jonas, “I can pay you now, or I can pay the doctor later.”

True cost accounting – adding up every cost that goes into food production, including the effects that producing, processing, transporting and selling food has on society, the world, and individual health – makes clear that consumers pay far more than the price they see on the receipt for much of what they buy at the grocery store. 

A Rockefeller Foundation report on the true cost of food, cited by Jonas, determined that U.S. consumers pay $1.1 trillion annually in retail costs for food, but the overall costs to Americans is an estimated $3.2 trillion a year.

Subsidies to farmers, to the tune of $20 billion in tax dollars, as well as the costs of health care, both from diet-related disease and the toxic effects of industrialized agriculture – poverty and environmental damage, ramp up the cost. Large corporate food producers that provide much of what consumers buy in stores can keep prices high, and their practices lead to a multitude of unseen costs.

Some of the effects of the industrialized agriculture that U.S. food staples depend on are:

  • PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated substances), “forever chemicals” that don’t break down in the environment and are now found in the blood of 97% of U.S. residents.
  • Plastic particles, found in food, products, and human and animal bodies.
  • Glyphosate, the active chemical in Roundup weedkiller, the most widely used herbicide in agriculture, which many studies have linked, particularly through childhood exposure, to liver cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and autism. A school lunch testing program commissioned by Moms Across America recently found that 93% of school lunches tested contained glyphosate. While it’s still allowed in the U.S., many other countries have banned it. “This is a deadly chemical,” Jonas said.
  • Industrial-use antibiotics for animals on large “factory farms” that according to multiple studies, have led to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans, and increased mortality.
  • Food contamination caused by animal waste, which leeches into irrigation systems, causing illness and even death for people who consume them.
  • Worldwide pollution, including environmental “dead zones,” caused by the chemicals and waste from factory farms and industrialized agriculture. The unaccounted costs of the food system on the environment and biodiversity add up to almost $900 billion a year, according to the Rockefeller Foundation study. The costs are largely attributable to greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity costs.
  • Consumption of the world’s fresh water – about 70% is used worldwide for agriculture, 80% in California, where as much as half of the produce sold in grocery stores across the U.S. comes from.
  • Food waste – the average family tosses about $1,500 worth of food a year into the trash, most of which goes into landfills, which adds to methane gas in the environment, a contributor to the climate crisis. Food is also heavy, and the costs of disposing of it is reflected in your local tax bill.
  • Monopolies in industrialized agriculture that began to rise beginning in 1982, when Reagan-appointed judge Robert Bork led the dismantling of anti-trust laws, allowing huge mergers among food producers. That means less competition that would keep prices low, as well as more giant industrialized agriculture producers. Those policies have been supported by federal lawmakers in the decades since.

 A chart from a Rockefeller Foundation study shows the added costs of the food that consumers buy in the store, that they don’t see on their grocery receipt. Numbers represent millions. Graphic/Rockefeller Foundation

Food workers and producers “are still largely unseen and under-counted,” according to the  Rockefeller Foundation, which estimated that unaccounted livelihood costs add up to about $100 billion of the true cost of food. That includes costs of child labor, unlivable wages, lack of standard employment benefits such as health care for producers and workers, and occupational health and safety costs.

When the Fair Labor Act and the other federal laws that protected workers were passed in the 1930s and 1940s, farm workers were left out. They still are. Minimum wage, child labor, benefits, and other laws don’t apply to them.

“Basically, the U.S. food system was built on slavery, and the structural racism embedded in it continues to this very day,” Jonas said.

Added to that issue is food insecurity, which is on the rise, and partially caused by the way food is distributed in the United States. It adds an estimated $146 million annually to the additional cost of food, according to the Rockefeller Foundation study.

Jonas cited, for instance, the NH Food Bank’s ‘NH Feeding NH’ program, which, in partnership with the NH Food Alliance, NH Farm Bureau and NOFA-NH, supplies local, healthy food to food pantries across the state.

Jonas said that individuals can make changes, both big and small, to reduce their grocery bills as well as offset the impact of big food production.

“Political power needs to be built at various levels from community to town, city, state and federal levels,” he said. “Democracy must be taken back from large companies and corporations if we want to see positive change in our food system. 

“The government also needs to put it its money where its mouth is, for instance while the federal government recommends a diet of 50% fruit and vegetables, less than one 1% of government support goes to these commodities.”

Overall, he said, “Farmers need to be feeding their communities throughout the world, not feeding the world.”

Changing government policy and the hold big agriculture has on the food system is difficult, but local change is easier and individuals can make a difference.

“It can be something quite as simple as supporting your local farms,” he said. “Really, it’s that simple.”

Local farms sell directly to consumers. They don’t use GMOs. Organic farms, to be certified, can’t use pesticides or other toxins.

He also suggested that people grow their own gardens. “Have a garden, you know? Share it with your neighbors. Keep some bees. Do something.”

He noted that Victory Gardens during World War II, “fed a good amount of our nation.”

He also suggested that consumers change their perception.

“Price and value are two different things,” Jonas said. “Value is what you receive. Price is what you pay. …Putting nature on the balance sheet, per se, is not the goal of true cost economy.”

The cost of things like losing natural resources, animals suffering, and other negative impacts of the industrialized food system can’t be counted with a dollar figure.

“We have a cultural preoccupation with economic value,” he said. “Everything of use to humans…everything of economic value ultimately comes through the earth. The bottom line is that the language must change regarding public policy.”

Consumers must create a new social movement, Jonas said, “that gives ethical and social values priority.”

For the Rockefeller Foundation True Cost of Food Report, click here. For the results of the Moms Across America School Lunch Program Testing study, click here.


About this Contributor

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is a contract reporter and content producer for consumer financial agencies. She has worked for northern New England publications, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, for 25 years, and most recently at Mainebiz in Portland, Maine. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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