The price of eating local

No, this isn’t another new regular feature here at The Inbox, but I thought I send your way a couple of interesting pieces about food to send you into your BBQ and picnic-filled weekend.

NPR’s Dan Charles really nails the heart of one of biggest criticisms of the local food movement in his story about Hardwick, Vermont.

Charles talks with local high school seniors about author Ben Hewitt’s, The Town That Food Saved, which chronicles the growth of small, mostly organic agribusiness in Hardwick.  (Listen to my interview with Hewitt here.)

Here’s what one of the students say:

“He only covers one side of the town,” says Derek Demers. “There’s the side of the town that’s for the local food movement, but I think there’s an even greater side of the town, with more people, that can’t afford the local food. I work at our local supermarket grocery store, and I see most of the people in town there.”

That supermarket food is shipped in from far away, but it’s mostly cheaper than the local squash and greens and tomatoes on sale at the town co-op.

It’s become an ironic fact of modern life (and the U.S. subsidy system) that fresh fruits and vegetables, once the food of peasants and poor folks, are today more expensive than meat and fatty and sugary products.

Not everybody can afford a “local diet” these days.  But Charles’ story details how Hardwick is trying to change that.

It’s not just a problem here in the U.S.  According to this NPR story, kids in Italy, Spain, and Greece are getting fatter from abandoning the Mediterranean diet:

There’s no match for the huge marketing efforts and promotion of junk food, and we have to protect our children,” said Walter Willet, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, and one of the researchers who helped to popularize the Mediterranean diet in the U.S. back in the early 1990s.

So here’s a question to chew on for the weekend.  What signs do you see in the North Country of a healthy local food system?  Where can you get good, healthy food for decent prices?


36 Comments on “The price of eating local”

  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Buying local food can be pretty expensive. Grow your own.

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  2. Judy Lussier says:

    I grow my own and freeze, can, etc. Not all affordable supermarket food is from far away though.

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  3. Mervel says:

    I don’t think it is that hard honestly. You don’t have to go to the farmers market to do it either, but the farmers market is better tasting. Just buy less canned crap, soda and chips and more vegetables and fruit, its not rocket science. Sometimes I think we over thing this whole issue.

    The biggest thing I have been impressed with is local meat. We buy all of our meat raised and butchered locally. I have to say it is NOT that much more expensive and it is a lot better. The taste really is better from grass fed animals, less bland more taste and less fatty but still with enough fat plus it is not pumped full of chemicals (although some are used) and it is not a month old. Meat processing in the US is by far the grossest part of our food system from the feedlots to the meat packers to the distribution chain, the whole thing is pretty bad. Also you can’t really get good quality cuts of lamb at the Price chopper.

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  4. low budget localvore says:

    Have you tried shopping at a farmers market? Because you are buying directly from the grower you often get a better price than in a store where they need to have some mark-up to pay for their operating costs. There is also the possibility of getting a lower unit price from the grower if you are shopping for larger quantities of produce for canning or freezing, just remember to ask the farmer.
    I am curious if the prices being compared by said student are all for commercially produced veggies, or if the local items at the Co-op where organically grown…if so, not a fair comparison!

    Now for the “meat and fatty and sugary products”…
    Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but a lot of the ingredients that go into these cheaper products (i.e. corn syrup) are cheap because their industry has been subsidized by the government for years, not necessarily because they are actually cheaper to grow. When you consume these “meat and fatty and sugary products” what are the costs to you down the road…like health care bills because you’ve been eating too much fat & sugar.

    And for lower income families that need to make use of the food stamp program; many of our local farmers markets are now accepting food stamps.

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  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think this is where Bret is supposed to chime in…

    As a vegetarian I don’t buy much meat, though I do have people I know who raise chickens, turkeys, goat and sheep and on occasion I will buy some meat as a gift for friends and family. I appreciate that most small local farmers take good care of their animals and the animals mostly live decent lives.

    I don’t buy a lot of vegetables at farmers markets because I, and most of my friends and family, grow plenty of our own. During the winter months I will supplement with canned or frozen vegetables from the store. Canned vegetables — the store brands are often the best because they don’t have added sugar, and cheapest — are superior, in my opinion, to “fresh” vegetables out of season at the grocery store.

    I do buy local eggs, and there are many farmers getting in to making cheese, much of it very good though a little pricey. I try to save on the ordinary and splurge on the high quality stuff. I will spend a little bit more for local food.

    Health food store or co-ops are sometimes the best shopping deal. Spices are often very inexpensive and fresher than at the supermarket.

    One final point, I rarely purchase items to fit a recipe. I buy most of my food based on value — price/quality ratio — and buy a few high quality items as treats then make a meal of what I have. When you have zucchini you eat zucchini.

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  6. Pete Klein says:

    Speaking of the Mediterranean diet, I heard somewhere that the so called diet was the diet of people when they couldn’t afford meat. Now that they can afford meat, guess what? They are abandoning the diet for more meat.
    Fresh fruit and vegetables? Sure but at what cost? My problem with fruit, especially peaches and pears, is that they are really only good if picked and eaten ripe on the spot. A good peach or pear is best eaten over the sink.
    Health food? I hate the phrase. All food is healthy if properly cleaned and cooked.

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  7. Mervel says:

    I honestly don’t think the issue is “unit” price. The issue is the cost of shopping. What I mean is many people like to shop for food once or twice a month based on their pay, this may be particularly true of lower income individuals.

    But anyway people like to go to one place and buy for the period, meat, vegies, the whole thing. Also we are facing a cultural issue surrounding cooking. If a family does not prepare family meals and actually prepare food, they will not want to buy a bunch of raw vegetables and beans and spices etc., they will want to buy things that can be eaten whenever and easily prepared.

    From my work with people in these situations this is what I see more of kind of a randomness to the whole process of eating as that cultural part of preparing meals at one time requiring cooking; has gone away.

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  8. Mervel says:

    Healthy food is not more expensive and thus only for the wealthy, wealthier people choose healthier food.

    What is more expensive to prepare, raw broccoli, spinach with some homemade beans or a big mac? Which takes longer? What if you don’t own pots pans, etc?

    The issue is the structure of eating and shopping and family life itself, not the unit prices of food.

    Take uncooked beans, these are the best deal in the whole store by far just on the cost per unit and the nutritional value and quantity you get. But you have to soak them, then you have to cook them for quite some time before they are ready to eat I rarely see low income people choose dry beans.

    Go to any food pantry and ask them what are the most popular and the least popular items. My experience, canned meats are the most popular and raw vegetables are the least popular. It has nothing to do with cost as both are free at the pantry.

    I think the food people are looking at the wrong issue, its not price per unit.

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  9. hermit thrush says:

    Take uncooked beans, these are the best deal in the whole store by far just on the cost per unit and the nutritional value and quantity you get. But you have to soak them, then you have to cook them for quite some time before they are ready to eat I rarely see low income people choose dry beans.

    i LOVE me some dried beans — they’re the backbone of my diet. but they’re actually much easier than what mervel describes. 30-40 minutes in a pressure cooker should do the trick.

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  10. Mervel says:

    Oh well yeah a pressure cooker!

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  11. Mervel says:

    But yeah they are great and you can live off them for sure! Of course I reduce the health aspect of them by adding ham, pork and various pig parts.

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  12. Bret4207 says:

    Jeeze, I have to say, my hat is off to you guys! So far we’ve got local meats (LAMB!!!) mentioned, gardening and canning and pressure cookers and the fact most people DON’T COOK anymore. You’ve hit it all folks. Kudos.

    We raise some of our own and buy a lot at the Super Walmart. Trying to feed 6-11 people get’s expensive. I have to admit I have a weakness for Post Banana Nut Crunch, it’s my only real treat anymore and my wife is a great enabler in that area, but you can’t get it a farmers market. Truthfully, our farmers markets, the ones in town, are a pain to get to, you never know what will be available and to be honest, I’ve seen some pretty poor stuff at them. Just because it’s “organic” doesn’t mean wilted, stunted, dirty produce will sell. I’m not saying every is like that, but for us it’s far easier and cheaper to cut a deal with an Amishman/woman or grow/raise it ourselves. We’re producing about 40 eggs a day, have beef, pork, goat and lamb/mutton growing. Sadly, due to an unfortunate event many decades ago my wife can’t stomach lamb. I’m hoping to slip some by her someday! I really miss lamb. There’s also fresh fish and venison, duck, goose and a few things I’ve put in the stew some might be leery of (try beaver or woodchuck, it’s good!). I am rather glad I’m not down to muskrat, that was a rather poor period in my life.

    Anyway, at a recent Coop Ext meeting there was quite a bit of talk about people relearning traditional cooking skills, the ones your Grandma knew but your Mom never passed on. The Sustainable Living Project is also getting in on this I think.

    And you thought I was a right wing hermit nut job…

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  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I always thought of living sustainably, growing and eating organically…all that sort of stuff as being Conservative. So don’t worry Bret your status as right-wing nut hasn’t been threatened.

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  14. Bret4207 says:


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  15. newt says:

    Economic history suggests that

    Locally produced, organic food started as a boutique-type product, expensive, and for mostly the rich and trendy. But as time goes on, middle and working class people will want emulate the rich, and farmer-entrepeneurs (sorry, Spell Check) will find ways to make them less expensive and more available. Though probably never as inexpensive as commercial food. But, just as most of us don’t buy the cheapest clothes for our families, over time, more and more will choose not to buy the cheapest food.

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  16. Peter Hahn says:

    Really there are two food systems now and two types of vegetables/fruit. Fruits and vegetables that have been bred to be shipped long distances and stored etc at a reasonable price are pretty amazing. You can buy most any vegetable in the supermarket most any time of the year, and they are (or at least used to be) pretty reasonable in price. Some of these fruits and vegetables taste pretty good too. People who complain about these vegetables forget that they are available anytime of year and for much of the year they are the best (only) things available.

    Then there is the locally grown stuff. It is frequently more expensive, available only for a short while, but if the farmers do a good job, it tastes a lot better and they are varieties that you cant get in the supermarket because the cant travel. Hopefully there is room for both. I wish the local farmers all the success in the world, and we should buy their produce when its available.

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  17. Pete Klein says:

    In Hamilton County, the only food grown locally that I know is for sale is Maple syrup. I guess some people would like to live off it.

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  18. Dave says:

    What exactly is the cost difference? Are we talking a few hundred dollars a month? More? Less?

    If you were to do all of your produce shopping locally during the growing season, how much more would it cost you?

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  19. Bret4207 says:

    I think it would depend on who you’re buying from and what you are buying Dave. If you’re buying from an Amish guy or local gardener, say peas, beans, carrots, broccoli, stuff like that, you’re going to save a bunch but you have to process it. Potatoes are going to be LOTS cheaper bought locally, but storing them is a problem. Same with tomatoes in a good year and of course zucchini is given away just to get rid of it! If you’re buying from an “organic” grower you will probably pay a premium for that label and you still have the processing and storage issues. If you’re buying in large lots you’ll do better.

    There is something to be said for buying bulk quantities at a large discount house. Going to Sams and buying tomato sauce by the case, or any vegetable, spice, or oil, is going to be a lot less expensive in the long run than buying locally and processing/storing and probably even growing your own. But you don’t know whats in it and the quality may not be so hot. OTH, you take the time and energy to can, say, 30 gallons of tomato sauce or 100 pints of peas or string beans…that’s a lot of time, power and a rather sizable investment in storage products and sheer space for storage. Now meat is a while ‘nuther ball game. I simply don’t see how you can lose growing your own smaller meat sources, especially the herbivores like lamb, rabbit or geese. If you have a little grass and water you can have fresh meat year round. The larger livestock like cattle or hogs you run into the storage issue and processing costs and most people don’t raise enough grains to feed a years worth of chicken. So your overhead is higher, but local beef isn’t at all expensive compared to buying at a store.

    It’s a trade off, your time, effort and investment vs convenience, maybe quality, ease of storage, out of season availability.

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  20. When I was in the Peace Corps in West Africa, that’s one of the great ironies that I noted. In their “primitive” society, good food like fresh fruits and vegetables was cheap and processed food expensive. I could buy 3 oranges for the equivalent of under a dime… oranges that were no doubt picked that day or the day prior from a tree within a few miles of the market place. But frozen dinners or a bag of chips would cost an arm and a leg. Here, good food is more expensive but you can get a double cheeseburger for a buck at Burger King or McDonald’s and water, milk and juice are all more expensive than soda. Of course, we subsidize the bad stuff and they don’t.

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  21. Mervel says:

    “It’s a trade off, your time, effort and investment vs convenience, maybe quality, ease of storage, out of season availability.”

    Exactly bret totally agree. The unit price of the item itself is part of the equation but in my opinion a small part of the equation.

    I don’t see how you lose with local meat though; either raised yourself or bought locally, available year around, small unit price difference, better for you and better tasting.

    Seasonal things are harder, most people are just not going to take the time or energy to can to search to buy to prepare etc. when they can just go to one store and buy for the month or 1/2 month.

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  22. Mervel says:

    I would like to see a locally grown section in all of our grocery stores, including wal-mart I think that would go a long ways in helping. We have a very efficient and easy to use food distribution system in the US we should take advantage of it. I go to the farmers market in Canton when I think of it on Tuesday or Friday mornings, but I work what if I don’t want to shop then? I can go to the price chopper or walmart at midnight if I have to or 6am.

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  23. Ellen Rocco says:

    News flash: all food in this country–whether locally grown or imported from China–is artificially cheap, just like gas. It’s expensive to grow food. Much of what we find in supermarkets is food that is cheap because of commodity price supports, built into our current US farm bill. Most local growers are barely breaking even and the vast majority cannot support themselves on farming, must subsidize with work off the farm.

    The breakthrough will come when we figure out how to support the right pieces of our agricultural landscape/industry. It’s worth it as a nation to have price or purchase supports because it does impact food security and food quality. It’s just a really tough nut to crack. And, the discussion of what should be in a new farm bill is badly compromised by the influence of huge commercial interests.

    I’m stumped, but our current system is deeply flawed and counter-productive. If you’ve been following our Farmers Under 40 series, you know that small and large farms alike are struggling to stay above water.

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  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Here’s a new twist, “investors” are buying up corn farms in Iowa. The corn actually loses money to grow but with all the government subsidies the “farmers” will make money. So we taxpayers are paying crop subsidies to millionaire investors who will likely only pay 15% tax (if that) on the proceeds of their investment.

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  25. Mervel says:

    The whole subsidy system has perverse incentives. I am for agricultural subsidies just not based on particular crops and volume. The incentive on a subsidy based on volume and a handful of major crops is to produce those crops in great volume which huge operations can do at very low cost.

    This is a great agricultural nation, in fact agriculture is still one of the largest industries in the US based on $, it is too bad we let politics screw things up.

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  26. Bret4207 says:

    A subsidy is nothing but a bribe by politicians to get a certain group to shut up. Or a payoff for votes. Either way outside of critical needs type things I’m not in favor of subsidies of any type. Artificial supports and limits are a part of the reason our dairy farmers are either barely getting by or in hock up to their eyes or both. Subsidies have given an artificial support to corn prices that has caused most other related prices to sky rocket. The corn I was paying $8.00 a hundred for a couple years back is over $13.00 now. That hurts.

    In a truly free market system we wouldn’t have gov’t meddling in price supports and limits. Sooner or later we’re either going to have to drop most subsidies or go to a quota system, something that has it’s own set of downfalls. It’s obvious that what might have been billed as an “important help to family farmers” often ends up in the hands of agri-corps and absentee owners. And for what it’s worth, this exact same thing is discussed in farm magazines I have from the 1950’s. So if we haven’t solved the problem in 50 years, I doubt we ever will till it simply collapses.

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  27. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Let me unravel this a little bit more.

    Investors are buying farmland. The government provides subsidies for crops so the investors, either directly or indirectly gain value from government spending on the subsidies–your tax dollars flowing to wealthy people. The government has also created programs to stimulate the use of corn for bio-feuls, more of your tax dollars going to wealthy investors. Meanwhile investors can pump money into grain futures markets (get ready for higher prices Bret); more money, more money, more money!

    And now Bret has to pay more money for livestock feed and then he has to pay his taxes so that some multi-millionaire who bought a farm in Iowa can get a nice return on his investment. What portion of his income will the wealthy investor pay in taxes? Probably less than Bret. But we can’t ask the millionaire to pay an extra 3 percent in taxes on the small portion of his income that doesn’t fall under capital gains because he might stop creating all those jobs he’s making by buying a farm he doesn’t need in Iowa that a local farmer would have been happy to own and work himself. Instead the farmer is a tenant farmer for the millionaire.

    I don’t know if there is a better definition for just plain wrong.

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  28. Bret4207 says:

    True enoguh Knuck, although I think that’s a real simplistic way of viewing the issue. I don’t know which is more troubling to me, that the gov’t hands out subsidies and those that know how to play the game are reaping the benefit, or the gov’t is doing things like giving $2.6 million dollars to the Chinese gov’t to teach their prostitutes to drink more responsibly!

    And to repeat, I have nothing against raising the taxes on “the rich”, I just don’t believe it’s going to solve our spending problems. Take a look at this PDF if you want to see what our spending problem is.

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  29. oa says:

    “I don’t know which is more troubling to me, that the gov’t hands out subsidies and those that know how to play the game are reaping the benefit, or the gov’t is doing things like giving $2.6 million dollars to the Chinese gov’t to teach their prostitutes to drink more responsibly!”

    $2.6 million vs. all the billions for big agribiz, including $6 billion for ethanol.
    I did the math, and know which is more troubling to me.

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  30. Mervel says:

    The issue with agriculture though is a little different. Food is just as much of a national security issue as energy if not more so. The original reason for looking at price supports for agricultural products was this is one of the few industries in the world that the production is literally a function of the weather and all of its unpredictability. To maintain a viable industry the government provided price supports to make the industry more predictable.Of course what has happened is that once you have subsidies then interest groups form and you get a perversion of the original intent.

    The other issue is the world wide practice of agricultural subsidies. It has become a prisoners dillema, if we stop and no one else in the world stops, our farmers and our food industry takes in the shorts, if everyone stops everyone is made better off, if everyone stops except one country that country is made a lot better off. So what happens? Everyone pays subsidies.

    I would like to see us require real food labeling we are making progress in some areas but we still don’t know where a good portion of our fruit, vegetables and meat even comes from if you buy at the grocery store.

    The fact is our farmers can compete we just need to get some of the giant food processors out of the way I think they are the problem.

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  31. Bret4207 says:

    OA, $2.6 mill here, $1.7 mill there, $14 mill over there…it all adds up. Sometimes it’s easier to take big tree down a little at a time than it is to try and push the thing over with brute force.

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  32. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    By your own standards Bret:
    The Bush tax cuts cost something like $700 billion in revenue which went directly into the deficit.
    Hey, $700 billion here, $1 billion there, pretty soon you’ve got something. Something hundreds of times larger than the kind of money you’re talking about.

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  33. Bret4207 says:

    And I’ve said that ending the Bush/Obama tax cuts is fine, BUT, it’s going to hurt a lot of the middle class like my wife and me because we’ll lose half our child tax credits. That’s a thousand bucks out of my pocket and everyone elses pocket. The taxes WILL eventually go up, not to worry. I just want to see some meaningful spending reductions so that they don’t continue to go up.

    $2.6 million to CHINA to get their working girls to not get drunk before degrading themselves even more? Shouldn’t CHINA be footing that bill?

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  34. Bret4207 says:

    To sort of tie this in with “Farmers under 40″- I just got back from picking up feed, I just paid $18.50 a hundred for corn!!! To put that in context, 2 years ago before Bush’s ethanol subsidy really got going I was paying almost $10.00 LESS. It;s actually cheaper for me to buy a processed feed mix with higher protein than corn or corn and oats. That friends, is insane. Connect this to your milk, cheese, taco shells, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, etc. All because of a subsidy and a devalued dollar.

    This isn’t going to end well folks.

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