Recipe for an Affordable Food System

By Mark Bittman

This Thanksgiving let’s stop and really give thanks for the food on our table, and for those who bring it to us, who are in disproportionate numbers among those Americans who can’t afford this necessity. About one in seven Americans relies on food stamps through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)—including 13% of food workers—and we know the program only reaches a portion of those who are eligible; countless others struggle to afford good ingredients every day.

Making good food more affordable is a widely shared priority; despite our political differences, most Americans are united in the belief that our children should not go hungry. Yet when we talk about solutions, we too often confuse affordable food with cheap food. While this may seem like semantics, it’s not—what we’re really talking about is the ability to cover the true cost of what you need to buy.

By using government subsidies to make some foods like junk food and industrially-produced meat artificially inexpensive, we’re often misled to believe the solution to affordability lies solely in making good food cheaper. But doing so would only be a band-aid, reinforcing a pricing system that fails to reflect the actual cost of food production, the costs of natural, chemical, and human labor inputs, and the public health costs—this includes environmental costs—of doing so unsustainably. Even more damaging, it would ignore the root causes of what makes food unaffordable: low wages and constrained economic opportunities for far too many Americans.

So as we think about making food more affordable, let’s think about what that really means, long-term.

It starts with making sure that every American has enough money to buy good food at its real cost. That in turn means that we address food policy holistically and in a coordinated way; that we don’t drive down food prices for consumers and turn a blind eye to how that hurts the 14% of our workforce whose livelihoods depend on producing that food. That means that we double-down on our efforts to raise minimum wages across the country—an area where we’ve started seeing real successes. And that means we have to explore even more far-reaching solutions, like a Universal Basic Income, to help us truly interrupt the cycles of poverty that keep good food out of reach.

Unfortunately, all of this work (which was no easy feat to begin with) just got harder.

The now-unified Republican leadership threatens much of the progress made under Obama’s tenure. Despite Trump’s campaign promises to “drain the swamp,” early signs suggest anything but that, staffing up a roster of Republican establishment politicians and those who share their interests from big business and Wall Street. Though his agenda remains largely unknown (and a moving target, to say the least), a president with no governing experience will likely defer to the voices he surrounds himself with. And from those voices, we’d be wise to take a hint of what we’re up against.

With big business at the helm, we should be ready for policies that do even more to prop up industrial agriculture and commodity crop subsidies that keep junk food cheap and their business model viable. With Republican leadership from Paul Ryan and his ilk, we should be ready for policies that undermine protections for our most vulnerable communities and workers. We should be ready for opposition to minimum wage hikes and to other efforts to support low-income workers in the food system and beyond. We should be ready for attempts to weaken SNAP through tighter eligibility rules and more stringent work requirements, if not dismantle it all together.

And this is just a discussion of food. If we look at other issues, like the environment and public health in general, it’s a very scary time. We no longer have the privilege of pushing an administration forward; we now have twice the work to do to keep from moving backward. So this Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks for courage and commitment to fight like hell for a food system that serves us all. We can’t afford not to.

Posted in Food Politics


  1. I love this, Mark and I made it using switching out quinoa for millet because I as too lazy to go to the store..However, I am around your age and most of my friends rarely cook and most likely would nix the recipe as “too many steps” Then I thought about the poor who might not find millet at a grocery store, who might not know how to cut up a butternut squash, might not have the right size baking even though this is nutritious and easy for those of us who cook a lot it hardly fits the bill for affordable and easy enough food.. Just my opinion..

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