Perspective: Cheap Is Not Enough Anymore

January 9, 2013 04:55 PM
Perspective: Cheap Is Not Enough Anymore

Farmers, especially grain farmers, intuitively reach for consumer economics as the first line of defense for subsidies. Despite the logical stakes in its heart, the Cheap Food Policy Myth lives on because we really, really want to believe it.

At the first mention of taxpayers picking up the majority of the insurance tab for what is arguably the healthiest U.S. industry, we rattle off the "under 10% of income" meme, leaving consumers to connect the dots. I have disputed this assertion before, but new forces are reshaping our food chain and will change how Americans think about farm support and farmers.

"Our national food culture
may be the largest cause of
obesity, but farmers struggle
to accept the idea—even
as our own diets are
modified by our physician."

Most powerful, perhaps, is the cost and personal impact of obesity. As we accelerate toward previously unthinkable levels of obesity in our population, food is the easiest thing to blame. Our national food culture may be the largest cause of obesity, but farmers struggle to accept the idea—even as our own diets are modified by our physician or, more probably, a scary health event. The fear of overweight children adds a new level of scrutiny to labels and suspicion of a bewildering array of food allergies. Try bringing cupcakes to school for your child’s birthday.

Food is not just something you eat these days; it is increasingly seen as a moral choice. If lefty vegetarians and their perceived condescension immediately come to mind, you might be looking in the wrong direction. Consider the "Daniel diet" from mega-pastor Rick Warren: "Avoid the ‘white menaces’: flour, rice, potatoes and sugar." He backs it up with Scripture, overriding science and economics. Ponder the Cardinal Tim Dolan’s year-round Meatless Fridays. Answering these with "but those foods are cheap" borders on unorthodoxy.

These trends bring to light the convergence of political decisions and moral decisions, complicating food choices. If you believe climate change is a problem, supporting a methane-emitting meat industry is problematic, regardless of price. Ordering a steak may complicate your dating success. Add another group whose food choices will be influenced by moral feelings, not economics: entertainers and politicians.

Through social media, we hold a magnifying glass to the lives of celebrities. Previously we didn’t care what our public figures ate, but even his opponents were impressed by the transformation of Bill "Cheeseburger" Clinton via a vegan diet. While Mike Huckabee provides a political counter-example, my bet is on Chris Christie as the odds-on favorite to have a come–to-rice-cakes moment in the future. In a land of the jumbo, the merely chubby will run for king.

Cheap Benefits. Looking further down the demographic profile, we see younger cohorts making food choices differently than our older cadre of farmers. Fewer drink milk, for example. Will "Morning Dew" addicts graduate to traditional coffee? Not according to the evidence littering the cabs of our farm machinery.

"Cheap" appeals to budget-watching families, but food isn’t as cheap for low-income consumers. This ignored fact may be the worst aspect of our handy mantra. Due to sizeable and growing income inequality, nearly two-thirds of Americans earn below-average incomes. The lower your income, the higher the percentage you spend on food, so the lowest income quintile ($10,000 including food stamps) spend about 35% of their income on food. Prattling about cheap food to that crowd will get you a walker in the shins.

I have confounded several "cheap food" harangues by simply asking what U.S. food expenditures are per person ($2,200) and why they aren’t going down like the "under 10%" stat we use to comfort ourselves. Our brand of cheap is wearing thin, because you don’t pay a percentage of your income at the checkout.

So what will we use to justify our claim on the public dollar? I say we resort to honesty with the American people: Farmers get subsidies because we can. 

John Phipps is a farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at For local station listings, log on to

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