“It’s more expensive.”
The other day my family and I took a trip to southern Maine and on the way back north we stopped at a large, upscale (so most people seem to think) grocery chain in Portland which shall, for the purposes of this post, remain nameless. While searching for a few items I cannot get up here like a certain type of Maine made granola I really like, my wife pointed to a display of cherry tomatoes near the entrance and instantly I knew what my next blog post would cover. Indeed, I was put in mind of another series. The myths about local food.
My wife had indicated the display because she knew it would make me happy. She was right. But it also made me a little sad. There on the perfectly positioned display was a pyramid of pints of mixed cherry tomatoes waiting eagerly for passersby to disturb their architecture. Perched atop the pint pyramid was a sign displaying the price, $3.99 per pint, and a statement declaring the origin to be…New York.
Knowing what I do about agriculture in New York, admittedly not very much, I’m guessing these tomatoes came from either Long Island or somewhere ‘upstate’. Ever driven to upstate New York? If so, you’re probably not back yet. It takes forever. I’ve never been to Long Island but I bet it’s not that much closer in the grand scheme of things. The point being that while these tomatoes didn’t come from Florida, California, Argentina or China, they certainly didn’t come from anywhere around Portland, Maine.
There is one point I need to make here before moving onto the myth of cost. It’s August. That means that farms all across the state are literally experiencing a tomato explosion at the moment. There are so many tomatoes taken to markets, put into CSA bags, rolling around baskets and truck beds that farmers can afford to be extremely choosy when selecting those to display and market goers are able to get the cream of the crop. Yet, this grocery store is turning to New York farmers for cherry tomatoes. Why? There is a perfectly good reason…perfectly good in an industrialized food economy anyway. But that will have to wait for another post. Let’s get to the cost issue.
My wife knew it would make me happy to see this display in part because my cherry tomatoes are less expensive than the ones at the store. In fact, they are fifty cents less. This draws happiness for several reasons not the least being that it proves a point I’m constantly trying to make while pounding my face into a brick wall. Local food is NOT more expensive. There are lots of factors involved in that statement but for this post I want to stick to a side by side comparison of the actual price tag you see when pitting my (or another local farmer’s) vegetables against those in the store.
First off, let’s get something straight. I am not in anyway talking about comparing what I bring to the farmer’s markets and our CSA members to the ‘conventional’ items in your local grocery store. For one thing I’m talking about food that is actually good for you, as opposed to slowly killing you. Think that’s extreme? What you don’t know really is killing you. About five years ago I came across a study spearheaded by a guy in Vermont. This study found that conventionally grown carrots purchased at a number of grocery chains had residues from an average of 88 different chemicals and pesticides. A not insubstantial percentage of the 88 are known carcinogens. And that’s just carrots, which owing to the fact that they are subterranean, aren’t sprayed directly. By the way, my carrots though not all exactly the same size and shape nor completely devoid of flavor and nutrients, don’t give you cancer…but moving on.
I’m talking about comparing what I offer to the next closest thing available en masse, Certified Organic. The reasons I hold myself above certified organic and therefore call it the next best thing merit their own set of posts. The point here however is that if you want to eat the stuff that contains residues of carcinogens then you and I are on such different wave lengths that you might want to stop reading. If you feel you’re forced to eat that due to cost, stay tuned. In an upcoming post I’ll give those of you who fall into this latter category some reasons why you’re better off, financially (to say nothing of emotionally, spiritually or health-wise), to purchase the ‘more expensive’ local food. But back to the price tag run-off.
Time and again I’ve found (and for obvious professional reasons I keep track) that my products, and those of my fellow local farmers, are less expensive than the next best thing available at the grocery store. This doesn’t just apply to cherry tomatoes. My favorite example is baby spinach.
I sell baby spinach to my CSA members and at the farmer’s market for $8 to $10 per pound depending on the season. Now, many of you who don’t know me and are at least a little in tune with things might have fallen off your seats when reading that because you know how outrageously inexpensive it is and now you’re frantically searching for contact information so you can get your hands on this ridiculously low priced baby spinach. Cheers!
But the vast majority of people see even $8 per pound and fall off their chair for a very different reason. How can this money grubbing farmer charge so much for his rich person’s baby spinach? I can get certified organic baby spinach at the grocery store for…and here’s where you show you’ve been duped.
Just went down to the local grocery store and double checked before writing this to be sure things hadn’t changed since the last time I checked. One brand, Olivia’s Organics Baby Spinach is selling for $5.69 per bag. Nature’s Place Organic Baby Spinach is selling for $3.79 per bag. People who’ve voiced their unsolicited (for a reason) opinion about how over priced my spinach is have used these numbers in their justification. “I can get it at the grocery store for $5 a pound!” No you can’t.
You can get it for $5.69 per bag. Turns out, if you look a litter closer you’ll see that in a bag of Olivia’s there are 11 oz. It also turns out that you don’t even need to do the math to figure out how much that works out to per pound. Listed on the little tag under the product is something called the ‘unit price’. For Olivia’s the baby spinach works out to $8.28 per pound. The Nature’s Place is $3.79 for a 5 ounce bag. That’s $12.13 per pound. Nature’s Place actually sells better because people look at $3.79 and think, hey that’s less than $5.69. Food marketers aren’t stupid y’all. In fact, the ones that work for successful companies do so because they’re really, really good at their jobs. Their job, as it turns out, is to convince people “to buy things they don’t need at prices they don’t understand.” That’s a direct quote from my college marketing professor.
I could play those games and trick people into buying less than they think they’re getting for more than they think they’re spending but I don’t for two reasons. The first being that I don’t believe it’s ethical. I did really well in marketing during my business administration minor at school. But I also changed my mind about wanting to focus on marketing. There is a difference between being good at something for a grade and spending the rest of your life doing it if you think it’s wrong.
But the other reason I don’t play those marketing mind games is that I just don’t have time. These huge companies can afford to have marketing departments. They can afford to conduct market research and bring in focus groups covering every aspect of their product from taste to packaging. As it is, after growing, harvesting, packing, all at a full sprint, I can still barely get to market by the skin of my teeth after waking up at 4 or 5 am.
The reality is that across the board local food is often much less expensive than anything you can get from the industrial, globally sourced ‘food’ chain, even if you only compare the price at the register to that at the farm stand. It says nothing of the many other factors further degrading the value of industrial food and upgrading that of local, real food. Incidentally, I also checked head lettuce. The closest thing I could find was hydroponically grown wrapped in a clam-shell plastic box looking quite wilted (as it was probably picked at least a couple days ago). $2.49 each. My head lettuce was grown in actual soil, living, breathing, healthy, well-fed soil and is harvested only hours before it hits my farmer’s market stand or the CSA member’s table. $2.50 per head. They got me there with that penny.
Fortunately, I’ve gone the entire year so far without one person mentioning how outrageous my prices are. That’s unprecedented and if I make it through the entire season it will be awesome and a bit surreal. I think it may be the case that people are starting to wake up en masse to the realities of the industrial ‘food’ system. One such being that it is, in fact, not less expensive. If, however I don’t make it through to the end of the harvest season and some unfortunate soul decides to offer their unsolicited opinion about my prices I’ll be able to offer them very simple instructions to the grocery store (just across the street at both of the markets I attend), offer them my pity and send them on their way to purchase inferior products at prices that are actually higher than they think and then offer to help the next customer in line that is happy to have real, local food at a fair price. Hope you’re in the latter category. Local food. Eat well – be well.