Slow Food USA's $5 Challenge: Eating Sustainably on a Budget

image from Slow Food

Perhaps the most commonly articulated criticism of sustainable agriculture is that the food it produces is too expensive and, consequently, that this food is a luxury only accessible to wealthy elitists.  Our friends at Slow Food are out to disprove this contention – on September 17, the organization is inviting eaters to participate in the $5 Challenge, an effort to take back the “value meal” by joining friends, family and neighbors for a meal that costs no more than $5 per person to prepare.

Visit Slow Food’s site to learn more about the event, to find a meal near you or to sign up to host a meal of your own.  Need some advice about preparing sustainable food on a $5 budget?  Check out the resource page for recipes and tips.  You can use the Eat Well Guide to find sources of sustainable ingredients in your area.

When you think about it, what’s so elitist about supporting small scale farmers and local economies and at the same time, sparing yourself -- and the world -- a few chemicals?

I like this event’s potential to clearly demonstrate that industrial food isn’t the only affordable option.  And I'm excited by its capacity to help participants learn skills that will enable them to continue to prepare sustainable meals in the future without breaking the bank.  But I'm also glad that Slow Food isn’t ignoring the fact that finding sustainable food for the price of industrial food is indeed a challenge.  Instead, the event serves as an opportunity to promote contemplation of the forces that enable unhealthful industrial food to seem so cheap – and why it’s actually really expensive.

Want the why-industrial-food-isn’t-as-cheap-as-it-seems overview in one sentence?  It’s heavily subsidized by Uncle Sam, and Big Ag is able to get away without paying for significant costs of production (e.g., environmental damage, human illness, labor exploitation, animal abuse, etc.), which are externalized – i.e., borne by society as a whole rather than being included in the sticker price at the grocery store.  (Next time someone balks at the high price of eggs at the farmers' market, remember this argument and calmly respond, “Yes, but the dollar-a-dozen industrial variety come at great cost.”)

And when you think about it, what’s so elitist about supporting small scale farmers and local economies and at the same time, sparing yourself -- and the world -- a few chemicals?

Effecting meaningful reform of the agricultural system will ultimately require policymakers to address the market failures that facilitate production of ostensibly cheap industrial food.  But in the meantime, it’s great to be able to show that with a little effort, you can eat sustainably for the same price as a meal at a fast food joint.  We're planning to get a jump on the $5 Challenge at our office potluck next week – check back to see the results.

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