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AND NO, DESSERT ISN’T INCLUDED

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If a $50 bag of groceries gives you sticker shock, wait until you hear what Bonnie Lane Webber says about the actual cost of raising and transporting the food that ends up in your refrigerator every few days.

The way the part-time Rumson resident sees it, if the “hidden” costs of pesticide and herbicide impacts, soil decimation and ozone depletion weren’t dispersed across society—or deferred to future generations—you’d be ringing up charges totaling thousands of dollars every time you visited the supermarket.

That pound of steak you pay $10 for now? That would cost you $815. The tomato on your salad? Well, if it’s not of local origin, that little baby not only won’t taste as good as a Jersey, but it might cost $374. A typical load of groceries could set you back $32,000.

Try using your FoodTown bonus points to trim that bill.

Webber acknowledges that there’s a lot of “poetic license” in the figures, which aren’t derived from any particular study. But they’re meant to get consumers thinking beyond the health issues that usually frame the debate over modern versus organic farming techniques, and to focus attention on the pocketbook as well.

Webber’s perspective on non-organic food costs is crystalized in a 15-minute animated film that she produced for the Sierra Club of America. Called “The True Cost of Food,” the cartoon follows a harried mother of two rushing to assemble groceries for that night’s dinner. She finds herself at the “true cost” checkout register of her local “Buy-It-All-Mart,” and gets handed a bill of $32,000 for a basketful of groceries.

Webber

Why so high? A truth-telling store clerk with a diabolical cackle in her voice explains that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, including the water used to raise the corn and grain for livestock, as well as for factory-farm sanitation. A gallon of oil per pound of meat is burned to raise that feed, to power the farm, and to ship the beef to your local store.

Those are just the direct, tangible costs of producing the food. Then there are the costs that society in general must bear, such as treatment for manure-laden runoffs. “Cows crap about 60 pounds a day—that’s 12 tons a year,” the truth-teller says. Then there’s the methane, enough to fill 4 million blimps a year.

You get the idea. Not to mention that the average meal travels 2,000 miles from farm to table, racking up pollutants en route.

“If your food travels 1,500 or 2,000 miles, that’s a lot of energy,” Webber says.

There’s got to be a better way, Mom concludes, and there is—and it’s practically next door: the local farm market, which features fruits and veggies grown without pesticide and herbicides, as well as meat from grass-fed cows. Eating local slashes food transporation impacts and tastes better, too. Soils are uncontaminated. Overall production costs are vastly lower.

There are five times as many farm markets today as there were in 1980, and the organic food maket is growing at 25 percent a year, the film informs us.

Yes, the film treats organic farming as a panacea—the bugs and diseases never win. And it’s not hard to find fault with the dollar figures, which are thrown about pretty loosely for a film with the words “true cost” in the title.

Still, it’s a compelling way of looking at food, and where Webber and her team have succeeded most is in calling attention to these many hidden costs, which also include lost forests and grasslands and antibody-resistant strains of germs. In fact, it’s hard not to conclude that we’re mortgaging the planet’s future with every meal.

Plus, the film is pretty nifty entertainment, with great visuals and a lively soundtrack.

Producing films isn’t Webber’s day job. In fact, this is the first she’s done. She splits her time between homes on North Ward Avenue and in Manhattan, where she’s deeply involved in the community-supported agriculture movement, in which groups of consumers pledge to buy a particular farm’s output, come what may in terms of bounty or calamity.

After starting out with a master’s degree in nutrition education and spending the early 1980s developing lunch programs for public schools, Webber wound up getting detoured into a career in real estate. But she became active in recycling issues in her city neighborhood, which led her to a deepening interest in local food sourcing. But she found that the waste involved in growing food thousands of miles from where it would be consumed wasn’t high on anyone else’s agenda.

“Nobody thought it was important,” Webber says. “I’d go to environmental meetings, and they’d be talking about energy and conservation. But when we talked about food and energy, they had more important issues.”

Eventually, though, the sustainable consumption committee of the Sierra Club asked Webber to find a film on the topic, and when she couldn’t, she decided to make one. The experience was fraught with landmines, she admits, many of them created by the Sierra Club’s own bureaucracy. But she raised the funds needed, found a production-animation firm, and got the film done.

“It was a nightmare of a year,” Webber says, “but I’m Irish.”

Now, she’s promoting the film and mailing out copies to people who request them. The DVD is free, but a $10 donation to cover some costs is appreciated.

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