This is at all times an important matter, but the notable increase in food prices, during the last decade, has made it a matter of interest to all. The cost of food is one item only in the whole cost of living, and this is affected by many conditions in manufacture and commerce and the business of the nations. Economists and others interested in social questions are studying the problem, but as yet they do not agree upon the cause, or causes, of the increased cost of living. We cannot hope, therefore, to understand the situation fully; but we must be determined to spend money as wisely as we can, and to learn what we may about food prices in relation to food values. There are a few causes of the difference in price between one food and another that are more or less unchanging. The cost of food may be considered from several points of view. The question of the cost for each individual a day and relation of cost and nutritive value are studied in Chapter XVIII (Menus And Dietaries). The proportion of the income to be spent for food is taken up in Chapter XIX (The Household Budget).
The amount of labor involved in producing a food material affects its price. Meats cost more than staple vegetable foods, like corn, wheat, or beans, because we must raise the corn first to feed the animals. Meat is as cheap as vegetable foods only when the animal can find its own food, as in the pioneer days of any country, when only a small part of the land is under cultivation. To the Pilgrim Fathers, meat was cheaper than corn, in terms of labor, with deer at hand in the forest and corn raised with difficulty in small clearings. Meat production is now an industry, and the product an expensive one, especially as the wide cattle ranges of our West, where the animals have formerly found natural food, are now used more and more for other purposes.
Carrying food from place to place increases its cost. In one sense this is another form of labor. Each person who handles the food material from producer to consumer adds something to what the consumer pays. We have heard much discussion of late of the "middleman," and the effort to bring the producer and consumer closer together. This simply means doing away with some person who handles the product after it leaves the producer and before it reaches the consumer and who must have something for his labor. In transportation there is another element involved, the original cost of the means of conveyance; and the natural wear and tear on the product are items that increase the final cost. The modern farmer who carries his produce to market in an auto truck must have a return for the original cost of the truck and the keeping of it in repair. The long-distance railway furnishes cold-storage cars, and the cost of these and their maintenance affect freight rates. A peach from South Africa costs from fifty to sixty cents in the Boston market. It is probably true, in this case, that a fancy price is asked because African fruit is a novelty here; but the difficulty and expense of long-distance transportation naturally make it costly.