Debating the Cost of Farm-Market Goods

It seems that in this week's What's Cooking chat, I've touched a nerve about the cost of food at local farmer's markets versus that in the large supermarkets. Good.

Here's an excerpt from a comment from "Sarah," who posted in yesterday's blog space:

You wrote "When you buy from a big store, you are paying for the cost of long-distance jet fuel and warehouses and lots of other stuff to support a huge corporation."

Should that make us feel guilty? Like I said, I sympathize with farmers and love the philosophy of locally-grown food, but I'm not among the very small subset of the American population wealthy enough to afford it. The economics of what we eat and the class divisions in where we get our food is a huge topic with so many ramifications. Clearly your blog is written from the perspective of a person of relative privilege who can afford to buy specialty ingredients and top-quality vegetables from the farmers' market, and that's fine. But that shouldn't lead you to scold the rest of us for not being as privileged.

Sarah's right. It is a huge topic with so many ramifications. As for my "perspective of a person of relative privilege," I suppose that's subject to interpretation and in many ways not germane to my original conversation on knowing where our food comes from.

Last year, in the wake of the E.coli spinach scare among bagged spinach in supermarkets nationwide, I spoke to several farmers and local food activists about food safety and the larger issue of cost of food. One farmer argued that in this country, we spend more time and money on the acquisition of luxury goods than the food we put into our bodies. It's about priorities.

For me, it's more important to spend more money on food that can be traced to the source. If that makes me a rich snob, fine.

Instead of owning a car, I use Flexcar and public transportation. For the first time in my adult life, I just bought a couch. I'm not complaining, but in order to make room for seasonal, locally grown food, I shifted my priorities. Ideally, I'd like to be growing much of my food, but for now, I'll put my trust in the hands of people I see every week at market.

Thing is, when it comes to shopping for local food, it's actually more an expenditure of time and research. You've got to be organized, know where and when to get the goods and spend some time getting to know the growers. The good part is that there are more markets than ever. According to 2006 statistics compiled by the Agriculture Marketing Service of the USDA, there are 21 markets in the District, 76 in the state of Maryland and 100 throughout Virginia, and nationwide, a total of 4,385 markets. In the Washington area, markets are located in a variety of neighborhoods, from Anastasia to Reston, Bethesda to U Street. Many of these markets accept coupons from federally funded WIC and low-income senior assistance programs.

With all this talk about privilege, I immediately thought of my upcoming trip to New Orleans, where I'll be volunteering with a group called Culinary Corps. Our first day on the "job" will be spent cooking at the Holy Angels Farmer's Market, located in the Lower 9th Ward, a place where the word privilege doesn't exist. Our fearless leader Christine Carroll tells us that the farmer's market is likely to be the neighborhood's only link to fresh produce.

If I've gotten you fired up, then I've done my job. Now, here's the challenge: Tell me what 20 bucks buys you at your local farmer's market. I'd like to hear from regular shoppers at the following markets: Dupont Circle, Columbia Heights or Anacostia in DC; Takoma, Rockville or Laurel, Md; and in Virginia, Arlington Courthouse, Reston or Annandale.

E-mail me with the subject line: Farmer's Market Challenge, and in your note, tell me who you are -- i.e. single, married, how many in household, your age, occupation -- and the name of the market where you shop, and I'll contact you with further details on your assignment. The idea is to compile the results of 20 dollars spent at a local farmer's market, published later this summer.

Have a delicious and safe holiday weekend. See you back in this space on Tuesday, May 29.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 25, 2007; 11:48 AM ET Farmers Markets
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Typical of Kim to throw a hissy-fit at those who doesn't agree with her.

Posted by: Pennypincher | May 25, 2007 12:29 PM

This year, we joined a CSA. For six months (started in early May and goes until early November), we will get a box of organic, locally grown veggies. It works out to about $27/week, which is about 75% of what we spend on produce in a week for our family. I have been completely wowed by what I've gotten so far. We will do this forever as far as I'm concerned, unless something financially catastrophic happens.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | May 25, 2007 12:53 PM

It is all about priorities. My family is clearly middle-middle (maybe even on the low side) class, based on income. But we've decided that spending extra for food produced in less of a factory environment, and by more ethically responsible parties is worth the price.

I think the past 25 years have made US food production an exceptionally efficient business, and on some levels it was necessary to keep up with population growth. However there are several downsides and a lot of people try to mitigate the harm by buying food from more ethical producers.

In some ways (not all) this translates into higher quality food, although I'm sure it's debatable.

Anyway, I think it's silly to argue with someone whose career is food, that getting the best possible ingredients, at any reasonable cost isn't a priority.

Go Kim

Posted by: G man | May 25, 2007 1:43 PM

$20 at the Silver Spring farmer's market this time of year:

1 nice size bundle of asparagus
1 huge bunch of swiss chard
1 big bunch spring onions
1 big bunch spinach
1 pint mini zuchini
almost a half-pound of feta cheese

I've found these to be comparable to grocery store prices for the same items. What gets expensive is when I buy $5 garlic ramps instead of 99-cent garlic at the store, but to me that's not so much a food expense as an entertainment one because I bought it to tinker around with and have fun -- not a necessary ingredient to any of my meals.

Posted by: Silver Spring | May 25, 2007 1:55 PM

Why not highlight some supermarkets that sell local produce?

I hope you'll pay a visit to Common Grounds Collective while in NOLA--what an amazing operation!

Posted by: melis | May 25, 2007 2:00 PM

I live in Wisconsin, so maybe it's different, but the produce at the farmer's markets here is cheap! There's not much growing yet, but last week everyone had bunches of asparagus for $3, big bags of spinach for $1, and bunches of green onions for $1. Later in the year you can get ten ears of corn for a dollar, and melons for $2, bell peppers for 75 cents. I just don't understand when people complain about the high prices. You just have to buy what's in season, and when it's in season everyone has so much of it that it's really quite economical. I actually do all of my other grocery shopping at a co-op, not a big box discount grocery store, so maybe I don't have a realistic idea of what produce there costs, but I can't imagine it can be all that much cheaper.

Posted by: Phoebe | May 25, 2007 3:57 PM

I have a similar experience to Silver Spring. Last week at the Courthouse market:

-$4 for a large bag of spinach (as much as in the supermarket bag, which costs...$3.75!?) - 3 meals worth
- $3 for a large bunch of beets - 2 meals worth
-$ 3 for a large bunch of spring onions
-$3.25 for a 1/2 pint of strawberries - OK this one disappeared fast
-$1 for a cucumber

I've bought big winter squashes for 75c., and the apples are the same price as those wax-covered all-identical things they sell at the supermarket. Sure I don't buy the $10 mushrooms, can't afford them, and I do some comparison shopping between the stands, but if you shop wisely it's not more expensive than Giant. Oh and I make uder 40k a year...

Posted by: tdp | May 25, 2007 5:45 PM

I love fresh local produce and I don't really care about what price I pay for food because I cook for one (small amounts) and if I buy food thats cheap, it goes bad much faster. However, I completely disagree with what you say about priorities. People who have families cannot forgo a couch or glasses for their kids or their mortgage. If they have to live in the suburbs because they have a family (where there's usually poor public transit so a car is a must have) and both parents work 40-50 hrs a week then the origin of the food is a low priority. If they can have a home cooked meal everyday I think its good enough. I don't think its a question of spending money on other luxuries for the average family. Also, didn't this newspaper write an article about Representatives who went on food stamps to show how little food it is? Well, they don't even buy produce (not because they are buying Gucci bags but because they can't afford it) It's not about priorities unless you can afford luxuries.

Posted by: Nini Chen | May 26, 2007 12:10 AM

I know I'm not in the area that you would like to hear from. I live in Central VA, right between C'ville and Richmond. The next-door county opened up a Farmer's market last year and I would usually take $20 out of my grocery budget to shop there when I could. It's small and there's not a WHOLE lot of choices, but it helps. I will usually shop there and then go to a grocery store to complete what I'd like to have that week. I am lucky that the organizers will send out "What/Who's" there this week. It pretty much goes on Rain or Shine every Saturday (they didn't do it last year when there were threats of hurricanes or major rain/thunder storms). One thing that will blow my budget is getting meat, whether it's here or at the grocery store. As for eggs, right at the end of my street is someone who sells eggs and chicks, and I can get a dozen eggs for $1.00. WAY cheaper than the farmer's market or the grocery store (around $3 or more). And they're the Arucana eggs which are so pretty!

Two weekends ago I got this (Luckily I blog it):
Goochland Farmer's Market Haul
Total: $18.00

gallon bag of mixed salad greens
gallon bag of spinach
sandwich bag of pea shoots (the lady selling the few peas she had, sold out before I got there)
bunch of globe radishes
bunch of finger radishes
bunch of kale

And from the newsletter from what's available this week:
This week, we will feature the following vendors:

Adlyn Farm - Spinach, broccoli, lettuce mix, spring onions, English peas (limited) strawberries (limited) cauliflower (limited),and collards greens.

Anna Springs Gardens - 32 cultivars of hosta

Ault's Family Farm and Apiary - Pastured pork, pastured poultry, free range eggs, honey, grass fed grass finished beef

Byrd Farm Enterprises, Inc. - Spinach, radishes, herbs, eggs, and possibly snow peas (weather permitting).

Comfort Acres Farm - Eggs, farm photos, Natasha's famous chocolate cake recipe, and cake samples.

Dover Nurseries - Dover Nurseries- Rustic and traditional furniture made of wood from local trees. Salvaged lumber is also available in walnut, cherry, pine, white and red oak. We also have a variety of regional nursery plants and shrubs.

Giornato - Lavender, a few cut flowers, and herbs

Gourmet Cookies by Valli - Butter Cookie, large Patriotic Stars, bags of mini Stars, Cherry Streusel Coffee cake by the Slice, Sampling orange spice black tea, great cold or hot.

Homestead Traditionalists - Bee's wax candles, strawberries and pasture raised fryers.

Manakintowne Specialty Growers - Spring salad mix, arugula, pea shoots, French sorrel, spinach, fresh cut herbs, daikon radishes and tomato plants.

Nanci's Creations - Silk flower arrangments

Old Woman Farm - Eggs, small started tomato, pepper, eggplant, mint, and tomatillo plants. I may also have some epazote plants (a Mexican herb used to season beans) and bunches of dill, mint, and rosemary. IF the chickens stay out of the lettuces (requiring constant vigilance on my part) I will probably have more romaine, loose leaf, and endive

Pickle Barrel Deli - Bar-B-Q, smoothies, coffee, sausage biscuits, muffins, juice, drinks, and much more. All processed foods are Thumanns brand, free of MSG and preservative and 98% fat free.

Piece - High-fired stoneware pottery mugs, pitchers, planters, wine bottle stoppers, magnets, etc.

Pleasant Fields Farm - Hanging baskets, pots, planters, bedding plants and maybe a few strawberries if they ripen in these cooler days.

Trail's End Farm - Bagged spinach, bagged lettuce, kale, sugar snap peas, strawberries, flat leaf parsley, scallions, herb plants.

The market is presented by the Brookview Farm. After you leave the market on Saturday, go check them out at 854 Dover Road, Manakin-Sabot, VA 23103. They are open from 9:00 Am through 1:00 PM and offer grass-fed beef, free-range chicken eggs, Ground whole wheat, books, hats and t-shirts. Old Dominion Ginger Ale, and whipped honey.

Posted by: JJ | May 26, 2007 12:37 PM

JJ, thanks for your input. I'm always happy to here what folks are doing outside of the Beltway. What's the name of your blog? Send the link if you can. Cheers.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | May 26, 2007 1:08 PM

It's a bit of a mish-mash of stuff (not just cooking stuff) but:

Posted by: JJ | May 26, 2007 4:38 PM

While perhaps out of the scope of the original assignment, I thought you might be interested in what I was able to purchase for $20 at Baltimore's Waverly Farmer's Market, a year round market in my neighborhood. This Saturday I purchased:

- One Jamaican meat patty (breakfast)
- One pound Hot Sage Sausage
- One head Red Leaf Lettuce
- One head Romaine Lettuce
- One bunch Leeks
- One bunch Turnips and greens
- One bunch 'Icicle' radishes
- One pound fresh Peas (shelled)
- One quart local strawberries
- Two bunches skinny asparagus
- Four large carrots

Grand Total: $19.75

I shop at the farmer's market when I can, because I prefer to know the source of my food, I like the seasonality of it, and I like to support small businesspeople.

Thanks for this forum.

Posted by: VS in Baltimore | May 27, 2007 3:34 PM

I spent about $30 at the Takoma Park farmer's market this past weekend. Here's what I bought:

1 pint organic straberries - approx $6.00
1 large bunch asparagus - approx. $4.50
1 dozen eggs
4 containers of herbs for planting (oregano, chives, thyme, and serrano chilis) - $2-$3 each
2 large tomatoes
1 English cucumber
2 scones - $1.50 each

Posted by: MBinDC | May 29, 2007 12:45 PM

I prefer the farmers market because the fresher food stays good longer. I do save money buying from the grocery store, but then toss the greens, tomatoes and other fruits 3-4 days later. Purchases from the farmers market usually last twice as long.

Posted by: Terpsy | May 29, 2007 12:55 PM

(wow, that first comment was unkind)

In Cincinnati, where we live, my husband and I shop every Saturday at Findlay Market--the oldest continuous public market in the country, located in a very challenging downtown neighborhood. The cost of goods is far cheaper and the quality and freshness far better than even the top-of-the-line supermarkets. Nearly every vendor accepts the state of Ohio's public-assistance food card, and the shoppers are a mix of BMW-driving suburbanites and neighborhood locals who aren't nearly as well-off.

If we're talking about the cost of food, here, the real frustration isn't where we shop; it's what's available. Feeding a family of four on frozen meals and soda is cheaper than on fresh meat and veggies. What's up with that?

Posted by: In Cincinnati | May 29, 2007 1:16 PM

We are blessed to live in the area where the entire nation's food comes from, so we have some great local farms. Our CSA box is $13 a week, and it has great stuff in it - I am picking it up today, so I can post tomorrow on what we got.

At our local farmer's market, my favorite treat is the local farm fresh eggs - they come out to about $5 a dozen, but I found a new place that sells them (mennonite farm) for $3, so I am going to taste test the difference. The yolk on the $5/doz ones was almost orange though - I was impressed - you can REALLY make a yellow cake with those eggs...

Posted by: california | May 29, 2007 4:05 PM

[If they have to live in the suburbs because they have a family]

I must have missed something; when did you HAVE to live in the suburbs if you have kids?

Posted by: pardon?? | May 30, 2007 3:05 PM

I think there's a greater difference in animal products and fruit at farmers' markets. Meat, milk, cheese, eggs, and fruit tend to cost much more at farmers' markets. These product are more likely to be organic at the market. So if you compare organic chicken at the farmers' market with the chicken on sale at your local grocery store, the farmers' market is much more expensive.

Most of the lists posted here are vegetables. I think buying food mainly at farmers' markets forces you to rethink how you cook. Meat isn't the main course.

Posted by: mollyjade | May 31, 2007 11:28 AM

Guess what? You're both right. A lot of the people on here defending the "cheapness" of the farmer's market aren't feeding kids. They are vacuum cleaners of food and yes, while I will try to make sure my kids have foods that are processed as little as possible, it does cost quite a bit more. For example, I bought a dozen organic eggs at my farmer's market for $4, I can get free-range-ish eggs which have travelled(though not organic I don't think, organic are more) at Whole Foods for $2.39 or so or I can get a dozen eggs at Giant for $1.50. Think the same with milk, bread, and you can quadruple that with meats. Some people really can afford to eat all organic, all local, all fresh, all the time. We wish we could, we honestly do. I have never owned a new car and only one new couch in my 36 y.o. life (that couch was $500 and a sleeper sofa on sale because of a rip) and I am not an investor in flocks of new clothes and shoes. Some of us *really* can't afford the luxury between housing, student loans, and kids.

Posted by: Meg | May 31, 2007 3:50 PM

Mollyjade, I don't know where you are shopping, but here in Virginia only one or two vendors at any given market (of the ones I go to) are advertised as organic. I think that there might even be none at the one at Wakefield Park in Annandale. Remember, if it doesn't say organic, it isn't. Vendors will sometimes imply that it is (I've heard them), but if questioned, you find out that they really aren't. So it definitely isn't paying for organics, it is paying what the market will bear.

I used to live in the Midwest, and could get 10 lbs of blueberries for $15. What a shock to come here and find that it would cost at least twice as much for the same amount of fruit. That market in the midwest allowed food to be trucked in from out of state, and the blueberries were trucked in (and a number of fruits). So we were paying less for fruit to have it trucked in than we are here for fruit grown semilocally (within 125 miles of Ffx Cty borders at the markets I use).

Someone said that food from the grocery store goes bad faster, but I haven't had that experience. You can buy things in quantities that fit your needs, so if you are planning well, you won't need to worry about that.

I will just say from my experience--when I made more money and was feeding only one child, I spent a lot more money at the farm market. Now that I have two kids and make less money, I go the the farm market every week, but am much more careful about what I buy there, and am much more aware of what things cost at the grocery store, so I get what I need at the best price available.

Posted by: not much organic | June 1, 2007 2:59 PM

To pardon?? who said:
[If they have to live in the suburbs because they have a family]
I must have missed something; when did you HAVE to live in the suburbs if you have kids?

You are right, you don't HAVE to. You can live in the country or urban areas as well. However, you have to be able to work from an out of the way country-side home or be able to afford to live in urban areas with kids. You chose to interpret that I meant its mandatory for families to live there which is not what I meant. I wanted to say that families usually have to live in the suburbs due to space and economic constraints of having many family members so living downtown would not be affordable. Given the growth of suburbanization in America, I think you would understand that.

And on the topic of farm-markets, one good way to get high quality organic meat at a good price is to buy the whole animal or half of it. I have a coworker who just bought half an organic-grass fed cow. It's a lot of meat! :) I calculated it to be cheaper than buying meat at the supermarket and better quality. However, it's an investment. So if you have a large number of mouths to feed, it might be worth looking into. Maybe for other meats as well but I haven't heard about that.

Posted by: Nini Chen | June 3, 2007 11:06 PM

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