Buying food is a tricky business – even if you just consider price. Businesses know that most people do not have the time to compare prices for lots of common items. Raise your hand if you know the average market price for celery today. I didn’t see any hands..
Large business establishments can pick a relative few items that customers are more likely to know the price of and advertise that they have wonderful priced for few items. Such advertisements create the impression that the corresponding big box merchant offers low prices – much better, you might think, than you could get at a small grocer, neighborhood market or your local farmers market.
However, big businesses also know that, once you are in the door you will probably fill your cart with other items they have strategically positioned to tempt you. Likely you will leave without really knowing if you ended up paying more for some of those items than you could have or if you even “saved” anything on your overall bill.
We have done surveys comparing our local farmers market prices with those at box store groceries and found that locally-produced food often costs the same, or less, than mass produced food available in box stores – – particularly when you are shopping for produce that is locally in peak season.
However, there are times when the price tag for local food is more than for its mass-produced, box store namesakes. In those situations it is important to remember that food purchasing decision involve many factors other than price.
For starters, the quality of the food you are purchasing from different sources may vary substantially. Apples are not always apples. E.g., a fresh local apple is not the same as an apple that was selected for transport and storage durability and was picked not quite ripe months ago and cold stored. So it is worth considering if the quality of the local food options at your farmers market are substantially different from the lower priced option that the box store might offer. Local food will be fresher, likely more nutritious, almost certainly tastier. So it may be that the local option offers a higher value in terms of your enjoyment of the food you purchase. If you have never done it before it is worth a taste test comparison.
There are also a number of health, social and environmental costs associated with mass produced food that do not show up in its price tag. If you consider the many other costs of mass produced, seemingly “cheap” food, you may also decide that local food is a much better deal.
The labor conditions that produce cheap food are often bad – not the type of jobs you would want for your children and not the kind of jobs that raise people out of poverty. When you choose bargain-priced, mass-produced foods you are also supporting a business model that maintains those poor working conditions, grueling working hours and a poverty-level existence for the people who get your food to you.
Much of the cost and price of mass produced food goes into things you do not want in your body or your community. Typically, far more of the final price tag for mass produced foods is related to the costs of preservatives, which pollute your body, and packaging, which piles up in local land fills, than goes to the actual farmer for producing the food.
Because it is picked early and breed to withstand long transport and storage, mass produced food is typically less tasty and less nutritious than local food. Since it is not satisfying for your taste buds or body you may end up eating more and thus spending more and also getting more empty calories that can negatively affect your health.
The additional transport and storage needed for mass produced food is wasteful and degrades the environment. It generates more greenhouse gas leading to increasing climate change and environmental distress. All outcomes that none of us can afford.
Large scale food production is controlled by large corporate entities that take their profit out of your community and further concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. In contrast, local food supports small family businesses and rural jobs – the kind of jobs that make it possible for small rural towns to survive and thrive.
Large scale corporate farms receive direct government subsidies for producing vast quantities of crops like corn and soy that end up providing caloric filler in nutritionally poor, but cheap, foods. Those subsidies are not available to small farms that grow healthy produce. You really are paying more for mass produced foods, some of it is just hidden in your taxes.
Mass produced food is grown in a manner that depends on chemically derived fertilizers for plants to generate the desired yield, and is harvested with massive petroleum-fueled machinery. It typically uses substantially more of our limited, nonrenewable resources per calorie of food value delivered.
Mass production of food is typically done in an extremely environmentally damaging manner – often causing loss of natural soil fertility, uses substantial quantities of pesticides (which pollutes your body and the land, and then runs off into waterways causing significant destruction there as well) and causes substantial soil erosion, leaving a planet that will be harder and harder to support ourselves on.
When you consider these added costs that are outside of the price tag you may end up determining that the local tomato is the better overall deal, even if it does have a higher price per pound (which, as noted above, is often not the case). The local tomato may provide a higher value to you and your community in terms of keeping a job local, preserving local open space, providing better taste, doing less harm to the environment, having superior freshness and nutrition, having a personal connection with the grower, improving local food security and/or a host of other good things probably care about as much or more than price.
If we want diverse local agriculture and local food sources, farmers need to be able to make a living growing and delivering food. They need to be able to pay for land (including covering local property tax), water, infrastructure and inputs, and be compensated for the incredibly hard labor it takes to plant, tend, pick and deliver food. Not only in good years, but every year.
Tempting as it might seem based on price alone in some cases, choosing industrially farmed and shipped produce from parts unknown fuels the downward cycle of our own local economy. Without your support local farmers will, in turn, have less money to spend supporting the business that provides your job. Supporting each other is an alternative to the race for the cheapest.
Given such factors, a higher price for a local tomato may a be realistic and fair price – one that enables small family farms to survive in your county – and also the best value. Americans are spending only about 10% of their income on food. That figure has declined steadily from about 25% in the 1930s. Our per capita portion of income spent on food is less, by far, than other countries.
Perhaps it is time to re-prioritize the value of eating well.
What do you think? Please share your comments below in addition to sharing the article via your social networks.
(Scott Cratty is a local food advocate. He manages the Ukiah Certified Farmers Market and owns the Westside Renaissance Market, Ukiah’s favorite inconvenience store. Invite him to speak at your social club or meeting and he will be happy to tell you about how choosing local food can help transform your community. Courtesy, HealthyMendocino.org.)