Strange to say, but people still claim they can't afford the switch to healthier and more sustainable foods. Well, time to blow the cover on that well-worn alibi.
A few weeks back, attending an academic food conference in rural Pennsylvania, I came upon the amazing research findings of Hugh Joseph, a food security expert at Tufts University, home of one of North America's leading public health schools.
Here's his bottom line: it only costs about $10 extra a month to eat local, sustainable food. That's all. Considering the extensive social and economic benefits, what a bargain.
The discovery suggests a pretty inexpensive way (compared to bankrolling an auto behemoth into bankruptcy, for example) for governments to support people who want to adopt a recession-fighting, health-promoting, global-warming-averting diet.
But more about policy implications later.
Joseph makes his case with calculations from U.S. stats, but adapting the methodology to Canada takes little more than the simple substitution of donuts for Twinkies.
There's a lot of American data, because government there provides detailed costings of some 58 categories of over 4,000 foods, all the better to make sure that publicly paid food stamps and meal subsidies for the poor aren't wasted the way bank and auto bailouts are.
Thus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes a Thrifty Food Plan that identifies the cheapest foods on offer. Joseph and his students simply tweaked it to come up with a shopping list strong in local and sustainable as well as healthy and affordable items. They tested their case on an ideal shopping list for a woman aged 20 to 50.
Joseph quickly found that a shopping list angled to favour local and sustainable food choices almost inevitably steered people to foods that ranked better for calories and nutrients.
"Eating sustainably is inherently a better diet," he told me. "Sustainable white bread is an oxymoron."
Now, it's true that Joseph didn't exactly know that the local and seasonal food he checked off was produced in a sustainable manner. While Canada has an actual label run by Toronto's own Local Food Plus, there isn't really a tracking process for sustainable methods in the U.S., unlike the organic designation.
Still, more often than not, local includes a lot of what's sustainable, including good farming methods, high standards for labour, humane treatment of animals, protection of woodlots, no genetic engineering, shorter transportation hauls, etc.
Joseph's shopping strategy was simple. He took soda pop, bottled water, white sugar, processed desserts and snacks, white bread, luncheon meats, TV dinners, frozen pizza, boxed cereals, unfairly traded coffee, frozen shrimp, farmed salmon and factory-farm meats right off the shopping list. He allowed only occasional sprees for such items as fruit juices and prepared cereals.
Crossing off that end of the shopping list was a saving for both the environment and the pocketbook. Staying away from fast-food meats, candies and sweets reduces consumption of corn and soy, the main products of genetic engineering. Avoiding frozen foods reduces the footprint caused by packaging, transportation and continual refrigeration, the heavy smokers from the standpoint of global warming.
I must admit to being surprised by the fuel count for prepared cereals, which, even without boxes and travel, consume twice as much fuel as the same amount of bread converted from from grain. Then there are fruit juices, which heat the globe with processing heat from pasteurization and refrigeration while gorging on transportation and packaging energy, often for minimal nutritional benefit relative to calories consumed.
Cutting from the polluting end of the list also saved money that commonly goes to unsustainable packaging, shipping, refrigerating and branding rather than calories and nutrients. This freed money for a mix of fresh local salad greens, seasonal fruits and maple syrup as well as pasture-raised free-range organic eggs and chicken.
Aside from these treats, Hugh Joseph relied on what he calls a "hugh-mane" list of staples: lots of tap water, homemade granola, seeds, nuts, beans and root vegetables.
The final tally: it cost $152 a month for a very frugal woman to eat according to the government's Thrifty Food Plan. It cost an extra $10.23 to eat local and sustainable as well as nutritious substitutes.
And this is where governments need to get into the act. A $10-a-month per-person government incentive program to eat sustainably would pay for itself in lower medical and pollution cleanup costs and also support local economies. Think of a mechanism whereby local food is indicated on supermarket bills and consumers keep their tabs to submit at tax time for a rebate.
This isn't too far-out, considering the massive subsidies governments now give out, playing favourites with the producers of cheap grains that form the basis of the junk food industry. Now, that's a habit there's no excuse for.
Lori Stahlbrandt, president of Local Food Plus, is Wayne Roberts's partner.