By Jeff Woodburn
In 1948, my grandfather paid 55 cents for a dozen eggs to serve at the Whitefield eatery that still bears his name. That was whopping price, when you consider that back then, the average family earned less than $10 a day or the equivalent 17 dozen eggs. It is easy to see why so many housewives became part-time poultry women, and how significant this money was to the local economy.
In the first half of the twentieth century, eggs and meat poultry were essentially local enterprises. New Hampshire had many thriving poultry and egg businesses, much of them conducted by small backyard operators. In 1910, the poultry business was New Hampshire’s most profitable agricultural product worth $35 million a year. For generations, a small flock of hens produced a steady flow of extra income that contributed to the family and local economy, and the excess was quietly tucked away for a rainy day or a special occasion. While the “egg money” was built on adherence to harsh frugality, it also made possible the, ever so rare and minor, indulgences. As the “nest egg” grew larger, it became a source of assistance known only by the beneficiaries. How many financial storms were calmed, kids sent to college and church collection plates filled by the egg money? Beyond the extra cash, keeping chickens provided children with meaningful chores that taught responsibility and the value of work.
Today, grocery store eggs sell for just over $1 a dozen (if factored for inflation they’d be nearly $7), and anyone who raises hens will tell you that it is impossible to produce eggs at that price. This phenomenon repeated itself across the grocery store shelves, and now we can enjoy a full stomach for a smaller percentage of our income than at any other time.
For thirty years, we’ve been fat and happy, living off a diet of cheap food produced by distant, faceless corporations encouraged by large taxpayer subsidies to replace age-old wisdom with trendy technology, brutal efficiency and, most importantly, an endless supply of cheap oil and corn. The system worked so well that it drove food prices so low that most small-time growers and farmers figured out they could buy food cheaper than making it, and thus destroying an otherwise healthy, sustainable and satisfying culture.
The system looked good from afar, but, as we eventually learned, it was far from good. The true costs of cheap food are now clear: an unhealthy, risky food system that is imploding our health care system and wasting vast quantities of oil, creating endless generic sprawl, jeopardizing rural economies as well as polluting our environment. What is most disturbing is that our tax dollars are promoting this policy, so in essence we’re paying people to get unhealthy and then paying their health care bills. An alarming 80 percent of our total health care costs are consumed by of a fifth of the population.
Changing the way we eat will be as difficult as changing our agriculture and food policies, but there are signs of hope. President-elect Obama seems genuinely committed in both in his politics and own health habits to the initiate a change in our food policies and take on the giant agribusinesses that shape it. That along with a strong, grassroots commitment to local food could be the perfect ingredients in a recipe for change.