High prices make local food inaccessible for many

BY GUEST OPINION | JULY 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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Local food advocates tout the benefits of a "relocalization" of the food system — benefits that include fresher, healthier, and better-tasting food; lower carbon emissions because of shorter transportation distances; and the retention of economic activity in the local economy.

Iowa, one of the most important agricultural states, is a key player in the local-food movement. The Iowa City Farmers' Market was a strong competitor in the 2010 Americans' Favorite Farmers' Market contest. The Johnson County Local Food Alliance has constructed a food network among restaurants, diners, and farmers. Even the New York Times has lauded"Iowa's better pig."

The growing interest in local foods stems, at least in part, from the belief that more local foods can address the economic, environmental, and social problems brought by the current food system. Therefore, dedicated locavores are willing to accept the premium prices of local foods.

At Java House, the price of regular brewed coffee has increased to $2.10. Consumers now need to pay $2.50 for Java House's new local organic coffee and flavor-featured coffee. Boasting a collaboration with Kalona Super-natural, a local dairy producer, Java House even charges customers 50 extra cents for adding this local organic milk or cream to its already-expensive coffee.

Why? According to one employee, "the local coffee farmers charge us more."

This struck me as a really interesting question: Are businesses making bank by exploiting the preference for local food?

The shorter transportation distance from Kalona to Iowa City should have lowered the cost of ingredients. Even though the organic coffee beans cost more to plant, why does a cup of Stumptown coffee — which is from Portland — in the Times Club Café only cost consumers $2? Oregon is much farther away than Kalona.

I appreciate that Java House serves as an agent for distributing local foods to mass audiences. However, its sleazy commercial consideration makes me rethink the future of local-food movement.

One of the foci of the local-food movement should be helping healthy and fresh local foods reach mass audiences. Commercial partnerships, such as the collaboration between Kalona Super-natural and Java House, may be an easy entry point to the mainstream. However, significant price premiums may limit sales by only targeting those "locavores" who particularly value local origin and may even drive away consumers such as me. I should have appreciated the access I had to local food, but I was pissed by some "daytime robbers" with their "support of local foods."

If local foods cannot find a distribution that appeals to a broad range of customers, especially for low-income families, it may fail at its goal of reshaping a fresher and healthier food system for everyone. Local food may be seen as a luxury, catering solely to those wealthy enough to afford it.

I went back to Java House's counter to ask for a cup of hot water.

"It's 25 cents," said one of the sever.

Even after I paid $2.50 for a cup of coffee brewed with local coffee beans, I need to pay for a cup of hot water.

Well, they would say, "the water is definitely local somewhere."

Guannan Huang is a student in the journalism graduate program at the University of Iowa.

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