Free Food

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, March 22, 1996

How do they do it? Week after week, giant suburban supermarkets mail us flyers advertising free food.

This week it's steak, potatoes, bread, chicken wings, frozen fish filets to name a few. All free!

How do these big supermarkets manage to give away food every week?

Aisle after aisle is filled with seemingly endless varieties of food products, mostly made from simple raw materials: corn, wheat, soybeans or potatoes, for example - flavored, sweetened and then puffed up with air to make chips, crackers or cereal, or diluted with water to make soda, beer or infant formula. There's lots of meat and dairy products. Fruits, vegetables and packaged foods are flown and trucked in from all over the world.

They offer lots of breads with fancy names and different shapes, but they all taste about the same because of the dough conditioners that are necessary to produce the staff of life in such enormous quantities.

Despite a reputation for having a low profit margin, the supermarket business has attracted some of the wealthiest and shrewdest investors on Wall Street. Supermarket chains are expanding aggressively and giving away free food. What's going on here?

Supermarkets, like fast food restaurants, are uniquely situated to take maximum advantage of many agricultural, energy and regulatory subsidies that we provide with our taxes. Since we subsidize fossil fuels and nuclear energy at the rate of $1,000 to $2,000 per person, per year, it's not surprising that supermarkets use lots of energy. The several acres they cover are artificially lit even on sunny days and are maintained at a comfortable temperature year-round, despite a wide variety of ovens, coolers and freezers, many of which have no doors and run constantly. Supermarkets are successful only if the acres of asphalt which surround them are filled with cars coming and going.

The farther an item travels and the more it is processed and packaged, the more it benefits from energy subsidies. For example, it takes 36 calories of fossil fuel just to move one Calorie of lettuce, even organic lettuce, across the country by truck. Imagine what it takes to fly strawberries from California, or raspberries from Chile. And, after subsidizing the energy to make all those plastic bags, bottles and aluminum cans, we then have to pay to dispose of or recycle them.

Of course, there is also a food component to the supermarket's business. There, too, we've paid a big part of the cost. Excess production of many food commodities has driven the price below the cost of production. The food processor, grain trader, or animal feedlot owner pays the farmer $2.50 for a bushel of grain and the taxpayers pay another dollar to the farmer to cover his or her production costs. That makes corn flakes, corn-sweetened soda and corn-fed meat more profitable for their producers and cheaper for the retailers. Since it takes 16 pounds of grain to make a single pound of steak, and lots of energy to grow the grain and move the cow and meat around, there's lots of subsidy in each cow. No wonder they can give some steak away.

But, that food isn't really free of course. It took hard work, many non-renewable resources, and our tax dollars to produce it. It has little value in our society because the true costs, economic, environmental and social, are hidden behind the cornucopia of plenty. And then supermarkets even take a huge advertising tax deduction for giving the food away. What a system!

Now it's said that Connecticut farmers should band together to produce the large quantities of low-cost food that supermarkets need, and the Connecticut legislature is being asked to provide a subsidy to help chain supermarkets locate in the cities where there are none now. Then the poor people, without cars and with shrinking food and welfare assistance in urban areas, can take advantage of that free food, too.

But I suspect that in the long run, supermarkets as a way of feeding people have too many hidden costs to be sustainable for the whole population.

Other ways of providing food to those in need would empower the community and benefit the local economy. Neighborhood markets, farmers markets, food coops, green grocers, local bakeries, as well as community, school and home gardens will likely produce a less costly and more sustainable food system.

Next time you walk into a supermarket, look at it with different eyes.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.