Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame was on NPR’s Fresh Air radio show yesterday to champion her slow food approach to feeding the world. But the show’s host, Terry Gross, wasn’t about to give her an easy time of it: $95 for a price fixe meal before drinks and tip? Is all this fancy slow food affordable?

Unfortunately, Ms. Waters (uncharacteristically) flubbed her lines and missed her chance to tell it like it is: Namely, that one of the very best restaurants in the U.S. for the past forty years deserves to set its prices as high as it can — and still fill its seats. Which has little to do with the real price of food as you and I would cook it at home.

But, above all, Ms. Waters was unable to bring home the point that it’s not that food prices at Chez Panisse are too high, it’s that food prices at the restaurants that feed most Americans are way too low.

Too low? How can I say that? It must be that I’m one of those over privileged suburban foodies who’s out of touch with what it takes to make ends meet in your average American family. And that may well be true, but it doesn’t keep me from putting two and two together.

Everyone who knows me well knows I have a thing about food and agriculture. Though you’d think that as a veterinarian that I’d be all about animal agriculture, truth is, I can’t rightly separate our animals from what they eat. It’s all integrated.

Like you, I learned that in kindergarten: Sun feeds plants. Plants feed animals. People eat animals.

But as a veterinary student, I came to understand that what we eat in modern America is all about how efficiently we can convert that sunlight into marketable nutrients. Indeed, the very first thing we’re taught in our veterinary nutrition curricula is how to use computer programs to create models for feed ingredient combinations that maximize the efficiency of production (and, to be sure, producers’ profits as well).

Animal agriculture, as I was instructed in vet school, is all about efficiency. The point is to grow as much animal protein as possible with as few financial inputs to the system as is feasible. So it is that anything that adds to the cost of inputs (higher corn prices) or adds new inputs (regulation) is subject to adverse producer scrutiny.

So it is that whenever corn subsidies are discussed and regulation is proposed (anything from animal welfare reform to antibiotics for growth promotion), the rallying cry reaches a fever pitch on this point: We can’t afford to let our families suffer higher food prices!

Never mind that food prices are lower than they’ve ever been in the U.S. We’re now paying a smaller percentage of our income for our food than ever before. But we’re so obsessed with our cell phones, cable TV and cheap Chinese crap we stuff our closets with that we can’t imagine how we ever spent 25 percent of our incomes on feeding ourselves.

Well, guess, what? Some of us still spend 25 percent of our incomes doing just that.

It’s all a matter of priorities, is what Alice Waters should have said. If we respect our environment, our animals, a way of life that offers plenty of jobs, and — above all — our health, then we have a responsibility to attempt to replace the cheap food our culture currently relies on with the more "expensive" food that reflects the real cost of honest production.

Not that I agree that it’s really more expensive. Consider that families cannot afford Burger King and McDonald’s if it leads to obesity and clogs their arteries. As a society, we cannot afford to subsidize this kind of dietary indiscretion by paying producers to grow corn, and artificially deflating the price of the protein it feeds.

We can’t. Not when the one thing we do know for sure is that the price of cheap food is inversely proportional to the price of the healthcare it ultimately buys us.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: Eat Cheap by LexnGer

 eating bad foods, eating good foods, expensive food, cheap food, agricultural practices, modern diet