Our food costs far more than the price we pay

in October 14th, 2021

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How much did Americans spend on food last year? Well, it depends on how you look at it. If you’re accounting for just the food itself, Americans spent just over $1 trillion. But if you zoom out, that number triples.

  • Health-related costs double the bill at $1.1 trillion alone. These costs stem from preventable, diet-related illnesses with reports showing high returns per dollar of investment in preventative care (such as adequate nutrition).
  • Environmental and biodiversity costs totaled $900B but that still excludes major secondary costs such as the increased risk of novel viruses from deforestation. Just under half that cost is from greenhouse gas emissions through land use and plastic from crops, livestock, and other food production activities.
  • And another $100B captures livelihood costs such as child labor, lacking employee benefits, poor wages, and occupational health and safety costs.
  • And all these costs disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Compared to White Americans, air pollution exposure is 41% higher for Black Americans; Indigenous Americans are 19x more likely to have reduced access to water and sanitation; and wages are 22% lower for Americans of color.

Now, some are advocating for better True Cost Accounting (TCA) to inform policy and limit the burden of these unaccounted costs on future generations. One such advocate is European food distributor Eosta, who developed a TCA-based system to evaluate growers and share the impact of their food with consumers. For example, one Eosta apple farmer details how much (in Euros) his use of compost benefits society. This level of transparency holds Eosta accountable to their mission of providing organic and sustainably produced products, which is increasingly important for marketing as consumers demand more socially responsible companies.

But TCA isn’t perfect — it is complex, does not provide a uniform set of metrics, and hinges on business leaders looking beyond the bottom line. Some academics have also called for more inclusion of communities of color and indigenous peoples in TCA research with leadership itself in accordance with stated values.

Meanwhile advocates are hoping true cost calculations will inform legislation that financially incentivizes industry change. For example, enacting laws that make companies pay for water pollution or financial incentives for farmers implementing better agricultural practices.

🎬 Take Action 

Interested in learning more about the true cost of food and what can be done about it? Check out the recently published book, True Cost Accounting for Food: Balancing the Scale to learn how TCA can be used as an effective tool for addressing the pervasive imbalance in our food system.

Resource Center:

  • Civil Eats (Where we found this story) 7 weeks old | 15 minutes long
  • Salon Current TCA frameworks and possible limitations 9 months old  | 18 minutes long
  • Rockefeller Foundation How TCA frameworks could influence systems 15 weeks old | 9 minutes long
  • Rockefeller Foundation Data and resources on Rockefeller report 15 weeks old | 4 minutes long
  • CDC Report on preventing diet-related illnesses 12 years old | 47 minutes long
  • John Hopkins How TCA can reform the food system 21 months old | 68 minutes long


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We need a waffle lot more accounting of our food chains!

Art Credit: Joan G. Stark

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