Slow Food’s $5 Challenge: Out of Touch with Average Americans?

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According to a recent New York Times article, more Americans are growing gardens not necessarily because they enjoy toiling in the dirt, weeds and sun, but because they can no longer afford not to. As prices continue to rise—and package sizes shrink—at the grocery store, some, especially in rural areas, are turning to the ways of their ancestors to fill their pantries and freezers.

Not only does a stock of canning jars dutifully filled with inexpensive, local produce at peak harvest give a sense of food security, for an increasing number of Americans, it’s the only affordable way to stock their cupboards at all; and the squeeze on grocery budgets is only expected to get worse through at least the middle of 2012.

The world grain price index has risen 36 percent in the past year, 2.2 percent in August 2011 alone. Drought-forced herd liquidations across the Southern United States have resulted in a decrease in the national cattle herd, perhaps unlike we’ve seen anytime in recent history; a decrease that will take no less than three years to correct and will send beef prices skyward in months to come. Hurricane Irene’s damage to farm land in the Eastern United States has been estimated in the millions of dollars. And all across the nation, crop reports keep coming in lower and lower. Poor harvests increase input costs for food that both directly and indirectly rely on grain for production. From your morning cereal to the hamburger on your dinner plate, grain goes into it all, and short supplies will increase prices as even mega-producers are unable to absorb the costs. And the hardships don’t end there; due to a tight supply of seed crops, seed prices will also rise, making for more expensive crops in future years, too.

In a nutshell: one rough agricultural year has far-reaching effects that are likely to keep American budgets in a vice for years. Never mind the continual crisis that is the economy.

And though tight times are pushing some Americans toward whole, healthier and more local foods, many more find themselves caught in the middle of an apparently irreconcilable food system; hovering somewhere between First Lady Michelle Obama’s crusade against obesity and the fact that food giants, such as ConAgra, all but own Congress and dominate the market with their cheap, processed “foods.”

Without a yard to grow their own; without neighbors who are doing the same with which to trade; under the thumb of local governments who are reluctant to allow the growing of vegetables, let alone the keeping of chickens for eggs or a steer for the freezer, these people are relegated to supermarket shopping—and prices. And, when push comes to shove, being able to keep the lights on and eat dinner is going to trump eating a chicken and spinach salad rather than a box of Mac & Cheese.

Meanwhile, Slow Food USA has launched a $5 Challenge. An on-going event that will kick off on September 17th, it's aimed at proving that eating slow foods -- those made from whole ingredients, rather than boxed and canned processed foods—can be affordable by challenging participants to feed their friends and family slow food for no more than five dollars per person per meal. But one has to wonder, in the midst of all that is happening, how an organization that concerns itself with the state of eating in America can be so out of touch with the average American citizen and their diet.

Slow Food

In 2009, the average American spent less than $7 per person per day on food. In the two years since those statistics were gathered, the economy has continued to contract, and so have families’ budgets. This means for most eaters in the country, $5 per person per meal is hardly a challenge, it’s a pipe dream.

Slow Food’s President, Josh Viertel, has been quoted saying, “This challenge is about taking back the ‘value meal,’” but Viertel and the challenge’s organizers seem to be missing one key point: $5 per person per meal isn’t a value today’s American families can afford.

For a campaign aimed at drawing attention to the rising prices of fresh foods compared to the price of processed foods, the organization doesn’t seem to have any idea what comparisons most people are actually making. The Washington Post reports the $5 target was chosen as a “reasonable comparison to eating at a fast-food restaurant,” but for too many Americans eating at any restaurant has become nothing more than a fond memory.

What are your thoughts on this challenge? Is $5 per person per meal a reasonable mark for your family today? Do you think it’s a number that will convince more people that eating slow food is affordable?

Diana Prichard authors Cultivating the Art of Sustenance and is the owner of a small farm in rural Michigan.

Image Credit: Orin Zebest on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

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