The true cost of local food

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Cost is often a deciding factor for consumers when purchasing food. Why buy a 12-ounce package of local bacon for $7.99 when you can get it for $4.98?

Purchasing local food means you know where your food comes from, it’s generally healthier and you’re helping drive the local economy. Still, price can be a sticking point for many Vermonters.

While it’s true the cost of local food at the grocery store is often higher than mass-produced commodity food, the reasons why might surprise you.

Large-scale farms that manufacture crops like corn and soy receive government subsidies to mass-produce animal feed, which leads to overproduction. This surplus lets industrial food manufacturers produce cheap ingredients – like high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil – for highly processed foods. Vermont farmers operate on a smaller scale with lower net income; most do not receive the same level of government assistance, yet they’re faced with the same or even higher costs to produce food.

Purchasing equipment, packaging costs, taxes and wages all factor into the financial equation, with many local farmers and producers wanting to pay fair wages to workers. Many Vermont farmers also go to great lengths to care for the environment, which is not a significant priority for many industrial-scale farms.

Many local food products are priced below the cost to actually produce it, leaving farmers and producers struggling to turn a profit. Otherwise, consumers balk at the cost – and who can blame us when there are mouths to feed and bills to pay?

Local farmers are trying to sell to consumers used to cheap food prices. Consumer tax dollars help keep corn and soy prices low, which allows corporations to create highly processed foods cheaply, leading to rising food-related public health crises, such as obesity. When environmental stewardship is not a priority, hidden costs include pollution and climate change.

Farm subsidies began in the 1930s as a short-term fix to the farm crisis during the Great Depression. The increased supply and lack of demand depressed crop prices below the cost of production.

Rather than being a short-term fix, the subsidies were enshrined in agricultural policy. Over time, U.S. Farm Bills – which previously focused on supply-side management – incentivized increased production through artificial price supports, like yearly direct payments to farms based on land use and payments to farms when prices went below the cost of production. Farm Bills also built up additional demand through new markets, including foreign export markets, biofuel development and processed foods.

Here in Vermont, local food is becoming a key driver to our local economy. Vermont generates the highest sales ($776 million) from agricultural production in New England, and Vermont maple syrup, cheese, ice cream and beer are in high demand nationally.

Local food purchasing increased in Vermont from 2010-2014 by 1.9 percent. The Vermont Farm to Plate Network wants to increase this by another 3 percent over the next four years as a part of implementing Vermont’s statewide farm to plate food system plan. Additionally, New England states are looking at how the region could produce 50 percent of our own food over the next 50 years.

Still, the barriers of access and price are very real. When small farmers and food producers set a price for food, they must analyze production costs and find a competitive and profitable price. They must consider labor, equipment, capital, overhead, water quality, food safety, certifications and more when determining market price.

Ending subsidies isn’t necessarily the answer, but making a commitment to buy food processed in Vermont or 30 miles from the border will certainly go a long way. Purchasing local food can increase demand and help adjust its price at the supermarket.

The next time you go shopping, remember purchasing cheaper, mass-produced commodity food comes at a cost to your wallet, the local economy and our planet. If we increase demand of local food, supply will rise, prices will come down, our economy will thrive and all Vermonters can enjoy what they deserve ¬– access to affordable, healthy, local food.

Rachel Carter is the communications director of Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.