Americans spend $1 trillion on food each year. The true cost is three times higher

New report measures impacts from environmental damage, healthcare and working conditions into previously unaccounted costs of food, with communities of colour bearing the burden

Alex Woodward
New York
Saturday 17 July 2021 00:11
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In 2019, Americans spent more than $1.1 trillion on food, a price tag that includes the costs of producing, processing, selling and buying.

But factoring in rising healthcare costs for food- and diet-related disease, environmental impacts and other so-called hidden costs connected to the nation’s food system, that figure rises to more than $3.2 trillion each year.

“Americans pay that cost even if consumers don’t see it at check-out, and, if we don’t change our food system, future generations will, too,” the introduction of a new report from the Rockefeller Foundation says.

“What’s more, these hidden costs disproportionately burden communities of colour, who face higher rates of diet-related diseases, have reduced access to water and sanitation, and often lack livable wages as producers and workers in the food system,” according to the report.

Healthcare costs account for the biggest added cost to the food system, as Americans spend more than $1 trillion each year on healthcare costs – with roughly $604bn attributable to food- and diet-related disease, including hypertension, cancer and diabetes, among others.

Environmental impacts from farming and ranching, including emissions, erosion and polluted water supplies, as well as issues related to depleting biodiversity, account for roughly $900bn in “hidden” food costs each year.

Unaccounted livelihood costs – including “unlivable” wages, lack of benefits, including childcare and health insurance, and occupational hazards among food workers – add roughly $100bn to the true cost of food.

The report examined 14 key metrics to measure those costs – including impacts to health, the environment, biodiversity, working conditions and livelihoods. But across many of the areas, “communities of colour bear a disproportionate burden” of such impacts, according to the report.

According to the report, rates of diabetes are 1.7 times higher among Latino communities and 1.5 times higher among Black Americans compared to white Americans.

Black Americans are also 25 per cent more exposed to pollution than the national average, and 41 per cent more exposed than white Americans.

Native communities are also 19 times more likely to have reduced water and sanitation access than white Americans, the report found.

“This report is a wake-up call,” said Rockefeller Foundation president Rajiv J Shah.

“The US food system as it stands is adversely affecting our environment, our health, and our society,” he said in a statement accompanying the report. “To fix a problem, we need to first understand its extent. The data in this report reveals not only the negative impacts of the American food system but also what steps we can take to make it more equitable, resilient, and nourishing.”

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