Sunday, October 16, 2011

On World Food Day

Today is World Food Day.  A day to recognize that many people on earth do not have enough.  I've been thinking about it this week because last Sunday night PBS aired a Sesame Street special on hunger. It was a different take on hunger than ones I grew up with because it focused on fresh produce. Not only are some people in America unable to earn income to feed themselves, many do not have access to healthier options.

The show first highlighted an unemployed single dad on Martha's Vineyard, where an aunt housed his family in a guest room. He visited a local food bank where someone donated shares in a local cooperative farm specifically to his family.  As a result, his kids were fed and began cooking and enjoying fresh vegetables instead of canned ones or processed materials. He was overwhelmed because his kids were not only fed, but were now connoisseurs.  Eventually he got a job as a bus driver and they got their own place.

The show then switched to the Bronx, where a mother was desperate to find cheap fresh food for her daughter. They went into some neighborhood groceries to highlight how bananas were over twice as much as they would be outside the Bronx.  The cheap stuff were the processed things and potato chips.  In this scenario, the protagonist was a charity that provides fresh produce and meals made from them.  There was a line around the block of locals eager to partake. The mother was a volunteer in the organization, and her daughter also decided to help.

Elmo visited a community garden worked by volunteers in an urban setting, and it appears the producers wanted to promote this idea as a way of encouraging an increase in the supply of produce and healthier options.  In many of my travels around the world I've found that urban dwellers often have a plot of land either near their apartment or outside the city where they grow some food for themselves, or for sale. This doesn't happen as much with America's city-dwellers. Why is that?

If I were an alien visiting America I would find this bizarre. Much of America lives in houses with acreage used solely for growing grass. Most could support seasonal gardens growing crops of some variety. Most don't because of the opportunity costs involved-- the time and resources it takes to grow a garden are high enough that people are better off working their regular jobs and then trading with those who produce vegetables. If people in a city are lining up around the block for access to vegetables, it signals that somehow the market isn't functioning properly. If many people in non-urban areas are unemployed and not growing their own food, it tells me the opportunity cost of their time still isn't low enough for it to be worth it to them. Maybe because they can just go to a food bank instead?

Why are prices so much higher in Bronx stores than in others?  Why isn't supply meeting demand?  Is it because NYC has so many restrictions on businesses and so little viable space for them?  Why do cities like New York work so hard to keep Wal-Mart out, when it could provide goods and services much more cheaply?  (Some people criticize Wal-Mart's produce for being unripe when picked and such, but I think something is better than nothing.  And Wal-Mart's relatively unpublicized buy local initiatives have put a lot more fresh local produce in their stores than in previous years.)  

Why do so many of the unemployed in non-urban America not grow food on their lawns? (I'm thinking about my immediate area in SW Missouri).  Even the Martha's Vineyard dad was living in his aunt's large house which appeared to be on a large farm plot, capable of growing food. It struck me as bizarre that he'd be totally dependent on someone else's land. Was the opportunity cost really that high?

These are various unresolved questions I had while watching the show.  I'm sure there is research with answers to all the above, but opportunity cost for me to look them up is currently too high.


wwje said...

Great post Justin. Your opportunity cost glasses might make it hard to see some other factors, if you're not careful. For example, most folks living in rural areas with access to land are deeply embedded in the economics of industrial agriculture which relies heavily on debt for individual farmers.

Farmers I know that have made the transition to sustainable/organic operations were shunned by people in their community when they started. It's not just that they're making more money in other jobs, but that they don't have good information about how to make a living growing sustainable, organic products.

JDTapp said...

I don't even mean large-scale production, I'm mainly just talking about unemployed people in my community who have an acre lot that their house sits on. Or the guy living in his Aunt's house on Martha's Vineyard, there was a large empty plot of land. Why aren't they growing some of their own food?