What If Supermakets Fail Us?

If you’ve read the news closely these past couple of weeks, you may have found a very interesting item buried somewhere in between headlines: food prices in America grew by more than 1.5 times the overall rate of inflation this year. They went up 1.7 percent, to be precise. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is forecasting a 2 to 3 percent food inflation rate in 2011, a number that many experts expect to be on the low-end. Meanwhile, big agribusiness players like Kraft Foods, General Mills, McDonald’s, Kellogg and Sara Lee have already announced that they will rise their prices come January.

Things get even more interesting when you look into the details: the numbers of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics actually refer to supermarkets’ and restaurant chains’ prices. The culprits are identified as the rising costs of corn, soybeans and sugar (ubiquitous ingredients in processed foods that are also increasingly used for biofuels) and energy (namely gas and diesel). Oh yes, and a decision by Russia, the third-largest wheat producer in the world, to cancel all wheat exports after drought and wildfires destroyed 20 percent of its crop. The direct consequence of the higher cost of grain is the increased price of meat whose market, moreover, is heated up by the exponential growth of demand in China and India.

What does this tell us, but what the proponents of local foodsheds and sustainable farming have been warning us about all along? A food chain that is highly reliant on fossil fuel and international trade is not only vulnerable but unsustainable. In other words, what we’re witnessing here is but the premise of profound disturbances to come. Consumers who depend on their supermarket to provide them with their staple diet of processed foods may find the days ahead increasingly challenging.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either scary or encouraging news.

The reality is, we have been spoiled into expecting that food spending should be less than 10 percent of the household budget, up to three times less than what our grand-parents used to spend. We have also grown into a generation of hurried people, for whom convenience trumps quality. In the process, we have become slaves to a food industry who has managed to grow ubiquitous and hugely powerful by pandering to our desire to outsource as much of our food needs as possible.

The crowd is enjoying the SF Underground Market.

Now, I like to think that the current, and expected, food price hikes can give us an incentive to reevaluate our relationship to food all the way back to how we procure it. What if people quit eating out and eat more meals at home? What if, in the face of rising prices at the supermarket, local food emerges as a compelling alternative? What if consumers discover that their local producers are a more reliable, cost-predictable and trustworthy source than the supermarket and its international food brands?

It may be just a dream. Local food markets are not readily available everywhere, I’m told. Yet, I believe that with a little bit of creativity, this impending food price crisis could turn out to be a great opportunity to grow and strengthen local food chains. Just take a look at the SF Underground Market in San Francisco. There, anyone who’s passed the application process set up by the organizers can show up and sell whatever they forage, grow, produce, bake or ferment in their own home. No Health Department certification required. Only the quality of the products and the guarantee offered by the direct relationship between vendor and buyer. The vendors’ waiting list keeps growing. So does the crowd of shoppers despite the absence of marketing. How could this not be replicated anywhere?

Changing consumers’ habits, routine and priorities is obviously a huge challenge. Maybe the food price inflation at supermarkets can provide the necessary nudge for new windows to open in our collective imagination and for us to explore en masse sustainable paths to shop for and enjoy food.

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