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.
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