True Cost Market
True Cost Market is a research project and installation/exhibition exploring how the costs of food are affected by various social and environmental issues. The final result of the project will be a supermarket-like installation where visitors can playfully engage with critical food justice issues in a familiar setting.
Our initial research will be focused on developing a set of pricing schemes that are tied to issues of health (obesity, diabetes, cost of care), environment (carbon, water, waste, pollution) and economics (inflation, minimum wage, immigration, inequality, subsidization). This research will then be made into a public display which mimics the presentation of an actual grocery store, from physical layout to accompanying print materials, with the brand name “True Cost Market”. Visitors to the physical installation will be able to “shop” for food items that have been strategically re-priced and creatively displayed according to issues that are central to the food justice movement.
We believe that the best place to present this information is at the point in the system where most of us physically obtain our food – the grocery store – and in the visual language of food display to which American consumers are accustomed. There is a strong human response to food, and some deep instincts involved in the procuring of it. Food retailers and advertisers already know this. Our hypothesis is that the most comprehensive economic databases, and even well-designed infographics, do not carry the same emotional impact as a display of actual food at the point of purchase. The grocery store is where the complex economics of food can be grasped in a direct and non-threatening way. We already have terms like “sticker shock” to describe the personal, visceral response to dissonant retail valuation. And though we wish it weren’t the case, we as American citizens often start to care about things that profoundly affect our lives only when they start to affect our wallets.
True Cost Market is inherently cross-disciplinary, as virtually every critical food justice issue offers a new way of measuring social costs and thus re-calculating food prices. The installation aims to spark dialogue with communities using the common language of retail display. The aim of the project is not only to explore various ways of calculating the “true cost” of food items, but also to expose the difficulty of any such calculation, which involves evaluating complex trade-offs between social, environmental, and economic issues that are fraught with tension. And because our research also involves performing calculations on existing data sets, it will be important that we “show our work” and be transparent about our sources and process. All of our research will be closely documented and made accessible, so that others can not only scrutinize it, but also take it and refine it, or adapt it for their own food justice art or activism.
The primary conceit of the project is that our work is being carried out for the purposes of launching, merchandising, and marketing an actual store called “True Cost Market”. While this is not exactly true, it does provide some structure to our investigations, and we do intend ultimately to present our research in the form of a physical installation of a grocery store (or to temporarily embed it into an existing store’s display), and to develop realistic branding, advertising, displays, signage, promotional circulars and a website for this fictional entity.
The actual development of the “True Cost Market” brand will become a kind of performance of small business development, in which we force ourselves to think about food justice issues from the entrepreneurial perspective of a startup, and to develop work that fits a conventional retail environment. We hope that by putting ourselves through this process, performing and documenting each task in a self-aware and critical manner, we can shed some light on the intricacies and absurdities of taking something as basic to human life as food and determining its value within a market system.
Calculating social costs in economic terms is a notoriously difficult and contentious undertaking, and is generally avoided by economists who practice what’s known as “full-cost environmental accounting” – incorporating negative externalities into accounting. That is all the more reason why we think that what is needed is for the social issues of food justice to be approached from an experimental and artistic angle, by ourselves and other artists. The True Cost Market project attempts just this – a bold and controversial exercise in putting a price tag on the critical food issues of our time.[A pilot version of this project was created in 2014. This project is currently in progress and will appear in some public forms in 2015. To keep updated and find out more about the project or how to participate, join the list, check our Facebook page, or contact us.]