Valuing our food shouldn’t be boiled down to how much it costs at the checkout. The true value of food is in a whole host of non-monetary benefits, from healthy people to a healthy environment. Only when we recognise that and break down the structural inequalities that stop us from affording good food, can we truly value it.
No one wants to spend more than they need to or can afford on food. In fact, it’s a very British trait: on average we only spend around 10% of disposable income on food; much less than many other countries in the Global North. But what where does the real value lie in food? Is it offered by cheap chickens and buy-one-get-one-free biscuits?
True cost accounting suggests it isn’t. This calculates the health, environmental and social costs of cheap food. It reveals that the price we pay at the checkout doesn’t include how much we’re paying (for example) in dealing with diet-related illness, pollution, and the low pay of workers in food and farming. If all those costs were added to the supermarket price of a cheap chicken, it would undoubtedly cost as much as – if not more than – the most expensive one on the shelf.
The expensive price tags on foods that are sustainably and equitably produced reflect their true cost, but good food must be available to everyone, not just those who can afford it. That’s why valuing food means making sure that people can find jobs that pay and treat them well (including a real living wage) and that government provides a proper safety net for those who can’t work. Agricultural policies should reward good practice, bring the costs of producing food properly down, and make it more expensive to produce food badly.
We should value food for itself: every interaction each of us has with every piece of food has the potential to do good or harm, to people, the planet or animals. The Food Citizenship movement recognises this. It invites us to think of ourselves as citizens, not just consumers. It seeks to cast us as active participants in the food system, shaping our choices rather than choosing between options set out by others. Instead of acting out of pure self-interest, the citizen acts in the best interest of the community of which she is part. Food citizens value our food for all the health, social and environmental benefits, not just our own wallets.