Jun 24, 2010 - Issue 381
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With a 40 Percent Jump in Food Prices... How Will Working People Afford To Eat, Pay Bills? - Solidarity America - By John Funiciello - BlackCommentator.com Columnist

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With unemployment numbers holding at just under 10 percent nationwide, the bad news has been compounded by a United Nations report that predicts global food prices are likely to rise by 40 percent in the next decade.

There are pockets of hunger all over America, and there are places where many are “food insecure,” which means that they have food, but not much, and the family sometimes wonders where their next meal is coming from.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, in its report, The Agriculture Outlook 2010-19, noted that wheat and coarse grain prices could jump to levels of between 15 and 40 percent higher than they were in the ten-year period 1997-2006.

Americans spend a smaller percentage of their disposable household income for food than most other countries and, yet, they complain about the high cost of food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) recently reported that Americans in 2009 spent about 9.9 percent of their disposable income on food consumed at home, whereas, in Mexico - just to take one developing nation as an example - families spent 21.7 percent of disposable income for food consumed at home.

The ERS also keeps historical records. In 1929, American families spent 22.7 percent of $18 billion worth of disposable income for food. ERS’s 2009 figure of 9.9 percent was based on $990.2 billion of disposable income. As the U.S. population increased and the overall income increased, the percentage of income spent on food dramatically decreased.

This has been accomplished by government maintaining a cheap food policy, but it has been accomplished in large part through the industrialization of American agriculture and, for the most part, small farmers are left out of the picture, since production of food relies more and more on the industrial form of production - heavy capital investment in land and machinery, on fossil fuels for fertilizer and a cocktail of assorted chemicals to combat pests, fungi, and diseases of crops.

When food is turned into a commodity, it becomes just another thing that can be traded on the world’s various stock and commodity markets. It’s no longer food. Rather, it becomes another ingredient among the many substances that are used to manufacture what Americans currently consider to be food.

The debate continues about that aspect of food in the U.S. How is our food grown, produced and how is it processed, once it gets to the factory? Are ingredients food? These are basic questions that have yet to be answered.

The common wisdom among people concerned about the quality of our food is that, if you can’t pronounce the ingredients or you don’t know what they mean, you should not eat what is inside the package.

Unfortunately, much of food presented to us in the supermarkets fits that description. Even so, it is not the cheapest thing available to people of modest means or to poor people. There are always fast food restaurants, but it is more evident every year that this is the kind of food that is making people obese, causing them to be malnourished, and in many cases, making them sick from diseases that are increasing in frequency, such as diabetes and all kinds of heart and circulatory problems.

It is the price, however, that makes parents in poor families give their children two or three dollars and send them to the neighborhood fast food emporium. It may not be cheap in the long run, but it is cheap at the time of a particular meal. If you have little disposable income, that’s what you do.

Factory-prepared foods for preparation at home may be just a little more expensive, but the net effect on personal health could be the same. It’s not likely that people are making those comparisons when they send the children off to the burger-and-soda shop.

Of course, the problems are much broader than whether the cost of food (any kind of food) goes up over the next 10 years. Parents are having the squeeze put on them to feed their kids anything, so whatever is out there at the lowest price is what will be chosen, in the home or down on the corner.

A 40 percent increase will hit wage workers, the working poor, and the poor with equal force, because, whatever their current income, whatever increase in household income comes along, it will not keep up with the cost of food. And remember, we’re not talking about the quality of the food available to them, for that’s another, different discussion.

There are countries in which average workers pay 50 percent or 60 percent or more of their disposable household income for food. It makes our less-than-10 percent-of-income family food bill look like small change. But, there are few Americans who would say that our government has a cheap food policy, and they never would be able to empathize with people - workers, peasants, and indigenous people - who pay out most of their income in food bills.

What of doctor bills, school tuition, clothing, shoes, housing costs? They get to the back of the line, for food and safe water are the first things.

The UN is not saying that there must be shortages of food (the organization says that one billion people around the world are now believed to be undernourished), it says that ways must be found to make sure that food gets from the food-surplus areas to food-deficit areas. That’s not an easy task, anywhere.

Overall, the report of increasing food prices does not bode well for Americans (the unemployment rate in Detroit is reported to be higher than 15 percent) who are on the economic edge, but it is potentially much worse for those who are poor in poor countries - in Africa, Central and South America, and large portions of Asia.

This news must have some of the world’s biggest corporations salivating over the possibility of selling the idea of genetically manipulated plants and animals - the industrial method of production. For years, they have told the world that GM crops will produce more, but that has not been shown to be the case.

And, they have told the world that they are safe for humans. The jury is out on that question, but the preliminary results of studies that could take three or more human generations are showing the potential for physical and genetic harm.

If food prices rise as abruptly as predicted in the next decade and if wages and income do not increase to keep pace - as seems to be likely - there will have to be ways to get the food and the income to people who are hungry or undernourished.

Generally, they should not need continuing food aid from us. That has been going on for generations and the conditions of deprivation persist. What they need is for us to help them feed themselves, with their own traditional crops and seeds and with their own livestock. They may need some emergency help, from time to time. But the way to sustainability for them is through food sovereignty - determining their own course in farming and food production, using their own traditions and culture.

And this can be done anywhere, including the U.S. There is talk of razing hundreds or thousands of abandoned homes and making city farms and gardens out of the space, providing food and jobs. Their success in that endeavor in a country that looks down on manual labor will be an upward struggle, but it can be done.

Americans need to look at those possibilities for every city where people are deprived of the means of their food production. We’re not that different from people in other countries, rich or poor.

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former union organizer. His union work started when he became a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.

 

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