[Editor's Note: Politics + Policy is a new weekly feature here on bklyn foodie, written by our new contributor Kris Keenan. Every Monday, she'll explore some of the heavier questions of the plate, as well as occasionally sharing outtakes from the kitchen.]
Does it really cost more to eat good food? “Yes!” is the resounding answer given by most opponents, and even many advocates, of the locavore movement. Well, I say, “No.” Resoundingly. I say that it takes some ingenuity and effort, certainly, to eat local and well without spending a lot, but I also say it can be done.
In Virginia Prostrel’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703989304575503972940124574.html] she asserts that Michael Pollan’s recent candor about the cost of farm direct food has caused an uproar amongst his fans because it makes those who argue for local food sound elitist. Personally, I can see the point — that not everyone wants to spend $8 a dozen on eggs — and see nothing wrong with Pollan being honest about the high going-price for local food at many markets. But that’s not the point of this piece.
Running throughout Postrel’s article are many things I find troubling, but there are two I’d like to speak to here. One, that it absolutely must cost a lot of money to buy local and organic. And, two, that those who argue for more of America’s food dollars to go towards local and organic food are automatically elitist because that food is so expensive.
I’m going to address that second point, first: People have to buy food. They can buy it from many different places in this country, bless the competition, but they do have to spend money to attain it. In 2009, according to the US Department of Agriculture, 48.5% of the dollars spent on food in this country were spent on “food away from home,” or restaurants. Going to Olive Garden for a “family dinner” is something advocated on TV all day long. No one calls the people who go to Olive Garden elitist. Restaurants are far more expensive than cooking for yourself — something I think everyone realizes. Yet we still spend half our money on food we know for sure to be more expensive than it has to be. People are choosing to spend extra money in order to have their meal prepared, assembled, and served to them in a nicely lit dining room. At its heart, the locavore movement is as much about cooking for yourself as it is anything else. And cooking for oneself is undeniably cheaper than going out to dinner. So how is it elitist to suggest that people spend a little more money for better ingredients, then use those ingredients to cook their own meal, rather than spending a lot more money to go out to a restaurant (where the ingredients aren’t as good as the ones you buy yourself)? Quite clearly, it’s not. It is simply advocating a different allocation of funds. People can choose to spend their money on whatever they want — but let’s not cloak the decision to shop at the supermarket and then go out to dinner a few times a week as some sort of solidarity with the common man because only rich snobs shop local.
Now to the crux of the matter: does it really cost that much more to shop at farmers markets? There are two ways to look at it. Pound for pound, if you compare the cost of farmers market beef to grocery store beef, unfortunately, yep — it sure does. But on the other hand, produce is not so clear cut. I bought apples at the market the other day (where there were half a dozen varieties available at one tent alone) and they were all priced at $1.40 a pound. Can you get them cheaper at the supermarket in those five pound discount bags? Sure. But actual per pound cost of the majority of the apples available in the supermarket is not going to be much lower than $1.40 a pound. It’s a damn good price. And the Honey Crisp apples I got beat the Red Delicious from Pathmark in one bite. No contest. So, I paid the same price for those apples as I might’ve in a “regular” store and got a far better product. I’m not so sure it is always more expensive at the farmers market.
Ultimately, though, I think pound for pound is a somewhat unfair way to judge the situation. In the end, do we care that much what we pay for individual items, or do we care what we pay overall in order to eat regularly and well over the course of a month? For the most part, we care what we spend overall. Let’s face it — some weeks it’s easier than others because apples and peanut butter are both on sale and there’s still some butter left from last week so we don’t need more. Costs fluctuate. What matters, in the end, is how much we pay, on average, to feed ourselves over time. With that in mind, I make the assertion that I do not spend any more now that I buy from farmers markets and, yes, I admit it, sometimes from foodie mecca – Whole Foods – than I used to at Pathmark. There are two main reasons: planning ahead, and not buying processed foods. That’s right, nothing processed – no frozen dinners, no sugar-added yogurt, no bread.
It’s not easy, to be sure. But it’s also not that hard, and it saves me a lot of money. A good loaf without high fructose corn syrup can run you $5 a loaf. Making it yourself is a lot cheaper. I make whole grain bread and I don’t spend more than a couple of hours a week on it. And avoiding things like Frito-Lay Chips, Gatorade, and Yoplait’s Go-gurt, saves me plenty of money that I then choose to spend on the extra few cents per pound that farmers market cheese costs me. And because I plan, I know before I go to the market that I need potatoes, leeks, fish, and apples. Now when I am out, I don’t also convince myself to buy the peaches. And I don’t run to the store on my way home at night to grab a couple of Lean Cuisines and a pint of ice cream because I have no idea what else to cook. It’s healthier, tastes better, and costs me the same amount.
These are individual choices, to be sure, and I would not claim the right to make those decisions for others. However, there is a difference between not being able to afford something and choosing to spend the money on something else. The assertion that most people cannot afford the farmers market is just wrong – people choose not to afford the farmers market. They choose to buy processed products that cost more because it is easier and because it is, for lack of a better term, “the norm.” It’s what they see advertised, it’s what they were raised with, it’s just what they do. Which is fine, but none of those considerations have anything to do with cost.
And, with a little foresight and effort, the choice between supermarket and farmers market does not have to be about cost, either.