Three Ways Cheap Food is Screwing You in the Wallet

Like many books and articles before us, we’ve stated that the environmental and health effects of conventional agriculture have hidden costs. We argue that these hidden costs ultimately make supermarket fare just as expensive, if not more so, than naturally-grown food. But like those other books and articles, we’ve failed to get specific… so now we’ve remedied that with actual facts and figures!

Below are three ways that cheap food is snatching OVER $25 A WEEK(!) out of your wallet without you even knowing it.

1. The Farm Bill

This year’s Farm Bill was a very touchy subject, as congress took an unprecedented step in sectioning off the nutrition part of the legislation from the farm-assistance part of the legislation. I don’t say this to draw lines in the sand*, rather I say it to say this: because of the politics involved, it’s very difficult to get the bottom of exactly what the devil the farm bill is. Here’s the basics:

  • It costs about $19.5 billion per year (with the nutrition programs removed)
  • It consists of many parts, but the key parts directing your tax dollars to keep your “cheap” foods cheap are the Commodities Program and the Crop Insurance Program. Together, these programs  eat up about $13 billion per year of the total $19.5 billion annual Farm Bill budget .

The Commodities and Crop Insurance programs are a big part of the reason that corn is in virtually every food item in the supermarket. If a drought destroys the corn crop, the crop insurance program subsidizes farmers to recover their losses. If there’s a bumper crop of corn, the commodities program makes sure the farmer is paid above the catastrophically low market price regardless of the massive oversupply. This creates a win-win situation for producing corn (if you don’t mind becoming a slave to the Farm Bill)) that’s completely divorced from free-market economics.

Remind you of anyone?

Remind you of anyone?

Corn, and the products derived from corn (this includes your $1/lb chicken and $3/lb beef, by the way), are omnipresent because corn is cheap. Corn is cheap, but only because $13 billion per year in taxpayer dollars are keeping it that way. Now, let’s do some math to see how much this is costing you, individually.

According to the U.S. Census, there are about 197,138,017 people of what I would call “working, tax paying age” between 18 – 65. Dividing that $13 billion tax bill by 197+ million people?

The Total Yearly Hidden Cost of Your Cheap Food: $66

*Hint: Natural farmers think the Farm Bill solves America’s farming problems like rooting for the New York Jets cures cancer.

2. Utility Increases, Fees, and Taxes

Here we’re specifically talking about water. You may not have even noticed, but it’s likely that your water bills have doubled or even tripled in the past decade or so, racing well ahead of inflation. According to a USA Today analysis, 29 of 100 surveyed localities saw their water bills AT LEAST double in that time period. The article cites five factors contributing to the increases, two of which are related to environmental issues involving conventional agriculture:

  • Increases in the costs of treating water
  • Compliance with Federal clean water mandates

To review, conventional agriculture throws an enormous amount of pollution into watersheds. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Bay.

Oh yeah, and you with the OCD-perfect lawn.

Oh yeah, and you with the OCD-perfect lawn.

So how might this be affecting you? Let’s take a city like Atlanta, where prices have tripled to $600/year. $400 of that annual total is attributable to the rise in your bill. 2 of the 5 factors driving up water costs are related to agro-environmental issues, so let’s be conservative and say that just one-fifth of the increases are related to them. That puts us at $80/year for utility increases. But we’re not done.

Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, are imposing stormwater fees. These fees – often called “rain taxes” by opponents – are for environmental cleanup in the Chesapeake Bay (particularly in Maryland); cleanup that’s necessary principally because of stormwater runoff from conventional agriculture: nitrogen runoff from poultry confinement houses, runoff from chemical fertilizers, runoff from manure lagoons in feedlots, etc.

Guess where the poop goes. Oh God, please guess.

Guess where the poop goes. Oh God, please guess.

In Maryland and Virginia, these fees will run between $70 – $100 a year. And Maryland residents can tack on another $60 per year for the so-called “flush tax” that, in part, goes toward planting fields in cover crops to improve the health of the Bay… which needs cleaning up because of conventional agriculture. So let’s take the lower end of the stormwater fee ($70) and add that to just a third of the flush tax ($20), since the flush tax also pays for sewer systems.

So your utility taxes/increases related to your cheap food: $80 + $70 + $20 = $170. Adding this to your $66 contribution to the Farm Bill…

The Total Yearly Hidden Cost of Your Cheap Food: $236

Now brace yourself, because this is where it gets real.

3. Treatment and Management of Chronic Health Conditions

There’s no disputing that chronic health conditions are on a terrifying rise, far outpacing the increase in population. The CDC says that 75% of healthcare dollars are spent treating chronic illnesses. Many, if not most, of these instances of disease are triggered either directly or indirectly by diet, and the “cheap” corn churned out by conventional agriculture is the key ingredient in that diet.

Science is just beginning to grasp the extent to which the river of corn from conventional agriculture is affecting our health. Sugars (which are what corn and corn-derived products morph into once digested) are now linked to heart failure, obesity, liver toxicity, cancer production, and a host of other terrifying health risks. This makes sense, considering that the nation’s various misguided dietary wars on saturated fat, red meat, and calories have done nothing to blunt the rise of obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease, or any other chronic illness.

Run.

Run.

The bottom line is, if you’re eating cheap food, you’re almost certainly eating corn. If you’re eating corn, then you have conventional agriculture to thank. And you can thank them both for the ballooning costs of both health insurance and programs like Medicare and Medicaid; all costs that hit you right in the wallet. It’s admittedly difficult to arrive at a dollar figure here to determine exactly how much cheap food is costing you, individually, in health costs, but let’s try anyway:

The average annual cost of family health insurance premiums edged past $16,000 a year in 2013. So let’s be conservative and a.) keep that amount rounded down to $16K, and b.) divide it by four to approximate an individual’s cost at $4K/year. Now let’s use the CDC claim that 75% of healthcare dollars are directed toward chronic illness; this lets us derive that $3K of your annual insurance premium (75% of $4K) is being directed toward the treatment of someone’s chronic illness (remember, your premiums don’t just pay for you). Then to figure out how much of that $3K to allocate to illness related to America’s sacred corn, we’ll use the 35.7% of adults regarded as obese. 35.7% of $3K brings us to $1,071 per year. Note that this is lower than the CDC claim that the medical costs for the obese are $1,429/year higher than those of normal weight.

You got served.

You got served.

Using this most conservative of estimates, then, your “cheap” food is being subsidized by $1,071 per year in health insurance costs being directed toward treatment of chronic illness CAUSED SPECIFICALLY BY THAT CHEAP FOOD. And yes, this is a conservative estimate: it’s doesn’t include your contributions to Medicare or Medicaid, or health costs from food borne illnesses stemming from feedlot practices, or the to-be-determined health effects of GMO, or people dying/nearly-dying in conventional poultry slaughterhouses.

So to sum up, adding to the $236 you’re paying for the Farm Bill, utilities, and environmental cleanup:

The Total Yearly Hidden Cost of Your Cheap Food: $1,307

Hence does your weekly trip to the grocery store cost about $25 more than you thought it did. Given that our estimates are conservative, especially in light of our exclusion of Mediare/Medicaid contributions, it’s probably even higher. That’s good a reason as any to convince yourself and your friends to get out of the supermarket, and help change the way America feeds itself.

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