Recently, I came across this article worrying about how people will afford to eat once CERB, the government’s COVID-19 support program, dries up. The article takes an attitude that has become de rigueur in the past few years:

The reason households or individuals go without food is they simply don’t have enough money in their pocket to buy it.

“It’s not a food problem; it’s an income problem. It’s not that we don’t have enough food, or even cheap food”…

Before I started filming The Hands that Feed Us, I would have thought this attitude was spot on, but four months of farming has changed my perspective. I think the motivation behind this perspective is to take the focus off of food producers, which is laudable. Starvation doesn’t happen because farmers don’t grow enough food. It happens because food is distributed unevenly.

This is true as far as it goes, but in light of my own experience of learning to grow food, I’m not convinced it goes very far.  It simply collapses one giant intractable problem (starvation) into another (poverty) without inquiring into the causes of either.

The attitude could be told as a parable:

Once upon a time there was starvation throughout the land, and the king declared that whoever could tell him how to make the starvation cease would be declared the wisest man in the kingdom and given his daughter’s hand in marriage.

And indeed, all the wisest men came from throughout the land came to offer their opinions on the matter, but none could offer a satisfactory answer. After a month of fruitless inquiry, the king dismissed the last of the advice-givers, and decided to take a long walk back to the palace.

As he made his way, he came across a chimney-sweep begging for food. The guards quickly stepped forward to remove the miscreant, but the king waved them off and said “If you can tell me how to end starvation, I’ll see to it that you are never hungry again.”

Not recognizing His Royal Highness, but knowing a rich mark when he saw one, the chimney-sweep spoke up: “Sure thing guv’ner. Just fill my cap here with gold pieces and I swear I’ll have enough to eat for eternity”.

The king looked pensive, then waved a command to his page to fill the beggar’s hat with the requested gold. “I never realized it was possible to eat gold,” he exclaimed. “I command that anyone who is starving be given a cap full of gold pieces.” Then, he betrothed the chimney-sweep to his daughter and declared him the wisest in the land.

I’m not sure what the lesson of this parable is (perhaps an argument for Universal Basic Income?), but the king’s idiocy illustrates why conflating food insecurity with poverty misses the point. Money may be a possible solution for starvation, but no matter how hungry you are, you still can’t eat it. Once the chimney-sweep spends his cap full of gold, he will be hungry again and no closer to knowing how to feed himself.

Poverty doesn’t cause food insecurity. Notably, plenty of farmers are poor, but, thanks to their profession, most are not food insecure.

Food insecurity comes from being disconnected from our food sources: not knowing how to grow it or hunt it when we need it.  The attitude that food comes from a store — the idea that an ordinary person doesn’t need to know how to feed themselves beyond having enough money to buy food — that’s what food insecurity actually is.

For all but the last century and a bit, the vast majority of people were farmers or hunters who knew how to feed themselves when push came to shove. Our current world is an anomaly where people grow up learning that food comes from a store. That is what makes them dependent on money to feed themselves. In a world of farmers, food insecurity is drought, failed crops, or a bad hunt!

It’s worth considering what the money we spend at the grocery store actually represents. Yes, some portion of the money represents the cost of actually producing the food, likely in the pitifully small range of 10-15%. The other 85% represents the logistical magic of getting it to the grocery store where it’s conveniently available, the processing necessary to either preserve it or keep it fresh, and a great deal of what is generically called “overhead”: The cost of selling the food.

That overhead is the cost of our cultural attitude that food comes from the store — a store is a business, and overhead is the cost of running that business. Put another way, it’s the cost of making that food available in a place and time that is far removed from where the food was grown. The grocery store is the tool we use to enable moving food to where it’s most convenient for the people eating. It’s a very powerful tool, but we sacrifice our food security when we rely on it too heavily, because a side-effect of moving food to where it is convenient is that we become disconnected from the ultimate source of our food.

When we are disconnected from our food sources, we are food insecure. When we shop at the grocery store, we are paying to temporarily alleviate that insecurity, but we are not buying a permanent solution. Like the chimney-sweep, our security lasts only as long as the gold in our caps. The only permanent security is to know how to grow the food ourselves.

Knowing is only half the battle; the other half is being in a position to use that knowledge. Access to land, water, and seed are all barriers to food security. With that in mind, it’s worth reflecting on the society we’ve built for ourselves, one in which fewer than 5% of us grow food for all the rest of us. What we’ve built is a system that is fundamentally food insecure.

We grow up in cities, removed from the land that is the source of our food. Most of us are trained from childhood to buy our food security at the grocery store, which is perhaps why calling food insecurity an income problem feels like an intelligent thing to say. It was only when I left the city that I could appreciate how banal that statement truly is.

What does all this mean? I think there are two important takeaways. One is that we should better appreciate the relationship between food distribution and food security. The less food has to travel in time and space — the closer we are to the source of our food — the more secure we are.

Pointing out that food insecurity is a consequence of distributing food unequally is valid, but it underestimates just how difficult distributing food actually is. If farming is only 15% of the retail cost of food, noting that farmers grow significantly more food than the world needs is simply noting that we’ve solved 15% of the problem. In other words, pointing out that we produce “enough” food doesn’t amount to much.

The other 85% of the problem is logistics, and grocery stores are the best tool we have for solving that problem. Indeed, grocery stores are the reason why so many of us are able to live distant from our sources of food in the first place. They enable our historically anomalous urban lifestyle, and they are also the reason we are disconnected from our food sources, making us food insecure by default unless we have money to pay for security.

And that is the second takeaway: the urban design of our culture, where 95% of us grow up separated from the rural sources that feed us, is a design that is fundamentally food insecure. The reason poverty goes hand-in-hand with food insecurity is because we our culture teaches us we can eat money. We aren’t so far from the idiocy of His Royal Highness if we think we can treat food security as an income problem.

True food security comes from knowing how to grow food, and having the ability to do so. And, if we are to take the problem of food security seriously, perhaps we have a responsibility to raise citizens who know how to feed themselves without depending on money. As the proverb goes, “Give a man a fish…

The assumption that food comes from the grocery store is baked deep into our culture. We grow up as urban consumers, and we exist in a world where food is widely and readily available for purchase. Indeed, that’s one of the miracles of consumer society: We have the luxury of treating food as a convenience, without ever thinking about where it came from. The machinery that brings it to us is invisible, deliberately hidden so we don’t have to worry about it. As long as the system is working, we aren’t aware of our food insecurity; we don’t realize that we don’t know how to feed ourselves.

But farmers know. They are the 5% among us who are truly food secure. Farmers turn food into money so the rest of us can maintain the illusion we are able to eat money. In monetary terms, they are woefully under-compensated. Most farmers are poor. But they are not food insecure. They know how to feed themselves.

The conclusion I draw is that if we want to address food insecurity, we need to structure our lives in a way that we aren’t dependent on money — and grocery stores — for our food. The article that provoked this piece is about seniors on an island where food is not produced. They are food insecure because they are physically disconnected from the source of their food, and are therefore entirely dependent on spending money in grocery stores.

Supplementing the income of the seniors would give them more money to spend in the grocery store, but it doesn’t address the underlying cause of the food insecurity, which is the physical disconnection between the seniors and the farmers who are ultimately growing the food. Money spent on groceries is largely used to pay for the convenience making food available on the island where they live (remember, the farmer only gets about 10-15% of the retail price). Properly solving food insecurity would remove that disconnection: Either the seniors need to grow food on the island, or they need to live where they can readily grow food. Only then would they have the option of growing food without depending on money, and that is what true food security requires.

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