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Got sticker shock over the price of locally sourced food? Let's talk about it.

December 2, 2021

Have you ever found yourself staring at a product, wondering: Why does this cost that?

Maybe it’s just me. I’m not mathematically inclined, and although I did pass Economics in high school, I couldn’t tell you anything about it. I do know how to keep a budget, but marrying a finance major has been one of the blessings of my life.

But I don’t think that my confusion about cost can simply be reduced to numbers. When I feel this way, I’m often reacting emotionally. I’m responding to what I feel the cost of this product should be. But why do I feel this way?

I’ve been conditioned to associate a certain price with a particular product. I imagine those of you who are well-versed in economics could explain this to me technically, but what I know is this: I have an expectation, based on what I’ve seen or experienced. And when the price is outside of that expectation, it gives me pause.

Lest you think this is about to become a lecture on the cost of pasture-raised foods, let me assure you: I routinely struggle with how much it costs to truly shop locally and sustainably. Like many of you, we are on a budget. My best intentions for what I want to purchase – the organic bed linens that are 100% grown and produced in America, for example – are often at odds with what we can actually afford.

I know – and agree! – with many of the counterarguments to this discussion. It’s certainly true that we have significant externalized costs that aren’t factored into our prices. Likewise, the quality, in either the improved nutrition or extended life of the products, justifies the higher cost.

But this doesn’t necessarily counteract the sticker shock. What I’ve come to learn is that the prices I’ve been conditioned to expect are artificial. The real cost – the higher cost – is being paid for. Just not by me.

When you buy food from the grocery store, the farmer who produced that food has likely received a substantial government subsidy in order to get that product placed on a shelf at a certain price. In fact, it may not even be someone working the land who’s getting that money: Bill Gates is just one of many “farmers” who have purchased land to boost their already enormous independent wealth. But whoever it goes to, what that subsidy does is important: it keeps the price within our conditioned “expectation”, regardless of the external economic circumstances.

Despite the merits that the subsidy program has, it creates an endlessly problematic cycle for farmers, consumers, and the government. Consumers learn to expect prices that are not sustainable, especially given the manner of producing that food. Farmers are increasingly reliant on what the government provides, and not on a viable model for what their farm can actually manage. And the government, of course, perpetuates debt by continuously borrowing money for the ever-increasing farm subsidy costs.

One of the reasons it’s important to shop local is that it breaks this cycle. When we break down the cost for a product, it’s based on the real costs of our business: the price of supplies, any local feed, gas, labor, and time. It’s difficult, of course, to keep prices the same when things like inflation occur. But it’s also a real reflection of what it takes to produce a product. It’s something that we can be transparent about.

I encourage you to think of shopping locally from this framework. It’s not just about reducing environmental impact or quality. It’s also about recognizing the real cost of running a business, and supporting and valuing that cost. It’s about breaking the cycle of artificiality. After all, given the climate crisis, our artificial expectations can only last for so long.

This isn’t an easy task. In fact, one of the things I’ll be focusing on over the next few weeks is how to eat pasture-raised food while on a budget. In the meantime, though, I’d love to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the cost of shopping and eating locally? How have you made it work for your own circumstances?

All the best,

Michelle Sroka

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