Food versus fuel

by Catherine Cuello. 

Food costs could jump 3.5 percent by year’s end, according to recently released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while New Yorkers continue to face more costly trips to the grocery store as prices for produce, meat, poultry, fish and dairy rise. Recent price spikes come on the heels of cuts to food stamps, which took away $30 to $50 a month in food assistance for nearly 1 million families in New York City. As thousands of New Yorkers struggle to affordably feed their families, it’s time to shed some light on a federal energy policy that continues to wreak havoc on America food producers and consumers alike: the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

The RFS requires annually increasing amounts of biofuels — most notably in the form of corn-based ethanol— to be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply. This policy was enacted by Congress in 2005 with the hopes of counteracting rising gasoline demand and peaking foreign oil imports at the time with the introduction of first-generation biofuels (like corn ethanol) followed by the swift transition to truly advanced renewable fuels. Since then, vehicle efficiency improvements have eased U.S. demand for gasoline, while an energy production boom has put the U.S. well on its way to energy independence. Despite these radical changes to the domestic energy landscape, the RFS remains and the mandate continues to be met almost entirely by corn ethanol as more advanced fuels remain commercially unavailable.

This outdated policy puts food growth in direct competition with fuel production and it’s clear who the winner has been. With more than 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop now earmarked for ethanol production, food producers are struggling to secure adequate and affordable supplies of the commodity that accounts for up to 70 percent of the grains fed to animals. This is no easy feat as corn prices have spiked 275 percent since the RFS was implemented — a crippling consequence that has forced more than 60,000 pork, poultry and beef operations shut since 2007. Feed represents the largest single cost in raising chickens, turkeys, cows and hogs and when the price of raising livestock and poultry grows, shoppers pay more for poultry, meat and dairy at the grocery store. Not to mention that by 2012, 88 percent of corn (maize) and 94 percent of soy grown in the United States were genetically modified, according to the US Department of Agriculture, putting our families health further at risk.

Because corn is used in three-fourths of all grocery store items, consumers are faced with higher prices for foods ranging from tortillas, lunch meat and cereal to bakery products and candy. Collectively, beef, pork, eggs and fish prices have risen 79 percent since 2005 and the price of soy has increased 93 percent in the same time period. This has resulted in the average U.S. family of four paying $2,000 more for fake food in 2012 alone. Very few can shrug off the growing cost of food, especially in more expensive urban areas like New York.

Nearly 1 million hard-working families across the five boroughs have been especially hard hit as the combination of rising food prices and the $8.6 billion funding cut to food stamps has made it nearly impossible to put dinner on the table for those receiving federal food assistance. And the two have been directly linked: according to the Congressional Budget Office, rising food prices as a direct result of the RFS have added an estimated $600 to 900 million in costs for federally-funded food programs like the School Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the same program that just lost approximately $5 billion in 2014 funding. With struggling families receiving less assistance, and food prices on the rise due to the RFS, they’re forced to get by with less food.

According to new research by Kelly Bower, an assistant professor at the School of Nursing, a neighborhood's income isn't the only barrier to obtaining healthy food. Minority communities have fewer large supermarkets and more small grocery stores bursting with junk-food options that people will buy because they can’t afford real food. When it comes to having healthy food options the poverty level of a community is pivotal for large corporations. 

Seeing as a year’s supply of ethanol contains enough corn to feed 412 million people for an entire year, our federal government is clearly more concerned with pleasing the ethanol industry than supporting those struggling to feed their families. Fortunately, the EPA recently proposed to reduce 2014 biofuel blending requirements to avert issues associated with increased ethanol in the U.S. gasoline supply. Although this is a step in the right direction, it will not permanently prevent ongoing food price volatility that so many New Yorkers and food producers face and struggle with. It’s time that Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the rest of our federal delegation in Washington work across the aisle to prevent ongoing harm to New Yorkers and the rest of the nation that continues to struggle at the hands of this policy boondoggle.

Catherine Cuello is the founder of Green Hopping — a technology and health start-up focused on impacting minority communities by encouraging and facilitating healthy eating. After having suffered a health crisis in 2012, she adopted a raw vegan lifestyle to help heal and prevent, which radically changed her life for the better. Previously, she worked in communications for President Barack Obama's reelection campaign in Florida, the Honorable Rita Mella's race for Surrogate Court, and Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign.

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