[show_avatar email@example.com]The free market does many things well, but we know it does not do everything. Even market fundamentalists concede that the public must build roads, put out fires, police streets, and provide national defense. Most people, at least those to the left of the Tea Party edge of political spectrum, accept that the government must also be involved in education, disaster relief, and health care. That is, certain services must be rendered — necessary services, universal services — whether or not those services are financially profitable. If your house is on fire, you do not have time to solicit bids from contractors. If you are sick, you cannot wait until the price of MRIs suits your budget.
Frederick Kaufman’s essay in the July issue of Harper’s (subscription) — which I recommend to anyone who eats — speaks of another universal need: food. His point is not that the government should run our grocery stores and, to be sure, that is not my position, either. Yet it seems clear that treating our cereal boxes the same way we treat our iPads is no longer working. Not everyone needs the latest app. But everyone must eat.
The article explains why our grain-laden grocery bills have risen so drastically in recent years — the worldwide price of food rose by 80 percent between 2005 and 2008, Kaufman says — and the harm that hike has had on countless people. Some 49 million Americans suddenly found themselves “unable to put a full meal on the table” and “demand for food stamps reached and all-time high.” One in five American kids came to “depend on food kitchens.”
Incredibly, it gets worse:
“The global speculative frenzy sparked riots in more than thirty countries and drove the number of the world’s ‘food insecure’ to more than a billion. In 2008, for the first time since such statistics have been kept, the proportion of the world’s population without enough to eat ratcheted upward. The ranks of the hungry had increased by 250 million in a single year, the most abysmal increase in all of human history.”
The article underscores how important it is to me to support corporate agribusiness — makers of nearly every product in traditional grocery stores — as little as possible. Fortunately, I live in a community in which another option exists. Fortunately, I shop at a place in which a watermelon is not an edible widget.
On Saturday morning, after we went to the fantastic Riverwalk Market Fair, we stopped by Just Food to buy goodies for our Fourth of July grill. From the parking lot (where I passed an advertisement for the “competition” we just left) … to the aisles of food made from ingredients I can actually pronounce … to the employee who offered to bag my groceries (the next time I receive less-than-stellar customer service at the co-op will be the first time) … to the closed-on-the-holiday sign (not surprising that good people work where they aren’t treated like numbers on corporate-office spreadsheets) … I was reminded that, at least at this one food shop, the bottom line is about more than money.
Maybe this is pure coincidence, but customers at the co-op always seem happy. Or maybe I am projecting that sense because even though I hate shopping for anything nearly everywhere I always feel good at the co-op. That good feeling is one reason why I willingly spend more there than I would at nearby on-the-grid grocers. (I confess that I use those nearby options periodically because I am not in a financial position to fully disregard them — but I do so as infrequently as possible.) I also buy as much as I can at Just Food because I do not have to worry about my choices. They are healthier (no partially hydrogenated oils), tastier (pesticides do not taste very good), and directly support the economy of the place I call home. I do not know many members of staff and yet I trust them because I know they supply the store with more than profits in mind.
A company’s job is to make money. I get it. I would not have the laptop I am using to type this post if Steve Jobs had not had a financial incentive to make it. He is supremely rich and that is OK by me. However, when I buy a product that is necessary for my health and nourishment, I do not want the very idea of health and nourishment obscured by profits and stock prices.
The libertarian reply — that the market will respond to my demand — is not only lacking, something close to the opposite dynamic has taken hold. Kaufman articulates causes for the recent food bubble. He also asks whether it could happen again. Could prices rise even higher?
“Yes,” says Layne Carlson of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. In fact, it is a near certainty. That is because of what Carlson calls the two principles governing the grain markets: “fear and greed.”
Copyright © 2010, Tom Swift. All rights reserved.
Tom Swift Writer’s Notebook blog