This week, I heard someone say, “I can’t afford to buy local food. It’s too expensive. I go to the chain “X” supermarket instead.”
I get it, food is expensive. Far be it for me to judge anyone else’s finances and I’ve no desire to nitpick over regional price differences in food.
I was curious, though. Is local, farm fresh food truly more expensive than conventional food produced by big agriculture? I decided to conduct a mini-experiment of my own.
Yesterday, I visited four different food stores outside of Boston within a ten mile radius of one another.
The first store was at a local farm that practices Integrated Pest Management (spraying pesticides only as needed). The second store was at a local organic farm (no pesticides). The third store was a national supermarket chain with a mix of organically grown and conventionally grown foods from California and Mexico. The fourth and final store was a standard regional supermarket chain selling only conventionally grown fruits and vegetables from California and Mexico.I simply wanted to compare the price of fruits and vegetables to see which stores were most expensive.
The chart below outlines what I found. Keep in mind, all prices are per pound, unless otherwise indicated. Also, asterisks indicate the item was not in stock.
Any surprises? A few things surprised me. First, locally raised grass-fed beef from the farm was cheaper than the mystery meat sold at the supermarket. I also got a chuckle out of the blueberries imported from the E.U. during the height of the New England blueberry season. The cost was a bit jarring too.
What amazed me more, however, was the stark difference in the quality and variety of food available at the local farms compared to the supermarket chains. For example, a head of dark, leafy green, local lettuce at the local organic farm was enormous, measuring 18″ across. The conventionally grown, green bordering on white, lettuce at the regional chain measured 5″ across and was wrapped into a plastic ball. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the pre-packaged bags of brand-named, washed lettuce at the regional supermarket for $13.12 per pound. That’s right, $13.12 per pound.
What else? There were about 15 different and colorful varieties of heirloom tomatoes at the local farms and only light pink and red at the chains. The farms also had multiple varieties and colors of onions, corn, carrots, beans, melons, potatoes, eggplant, peppers and squash. Just about every fruit and vegetable at the farm came in different varieties. Variety was limited to size at the chains, for example baby carrots vs. standard carrots.
Also, consider this:
Local food is more nutritious than conventionally grown food.
The length of time from picking to the plate, the use of artificial lights, and the distance food travels, all impact the quality and nutritional profile of our food.
Local food tastes better than conventionally grown food.
Local farmers allow their food to ripen which gives it more flavor. Big agricultural farms ship food unripened. Because ripened foods don’t ship well, fruits and vegetables are artificially ripened upon arrival with the hormone ethylene. This renders the food essentially flavorless.
Local food supports the New England economy.
The USDA has identified local food as one of the pillars of local economic strength and vitality. At minimum, you keep money circulating in New England.
Local food preserves New England beauty.
When you support local food you help keep farmers and their families on the land, thereby preserving the scenery that makes New England such an incredible place to live.
Local food builds community.
When you buy from your farmer you develop relationships and get your questions answered. Moreover, going to a farm or a farmers’ market is a lot of fun. You learn a lot and you actually look forward to cooking.
Local food is an investment in our future.
These are uncertain times and eating local food increases New England’s food self-sufficiency. Surely, that benefits us all.
So, what’s the lesson here? Is local, farm fresh food more expensive? Not necessarily.
All I’m saying is give your local farms a chance. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Heaton S. Organic farming, food quality and human health. A review. Soil Association, 2001.
State of Indiana, Eating local produce has great benefits. The Torch. 2012; 9(7).
University of Maine, U Maine Dining supports local produce and products.
Worthington V. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and grains. J Altern Complement Med. 2001; 7(2): 161–173.