Tim Bartlett, Lextalk July/Aug 2009
“Why is local asparagus more expensive than the stuff from California?” is a question we frequently hear in the produce aisle at the Co-op. Usually, we stammer, stall and ultimately make a guess that it is because of economies of scale: the average farm in California is 346 acres while the average farm in Erie County is only 126 acres. Thousand acre farms with three growing seasons that grow huge fields of a single crop result in a lower cost of production per pound.
But what about transportation costs? Shouldn’t the cost of shipping food across the country or across an ocean make up for the difference in production costs? The answer to this question is more complex than I thought, and more complex than we can adequately cover in a Co-op newsletter. It has to do with the price of oil, US farm and infrastructure policy and many other factors. Did you know that organic foods are more expensive at least in part because they are not subsidized by the federal government? The same goes for small family farms. And as Michael Pollan wrote last fall in an open letter to our new president’s Secretary of Agriculture, our government’s farm policy has played a major role in degrading our environment, our health care, and creating challenges in our foreign policy.
I write about farm policy and economies of scale because you ask about it. The Co-op navigates the complex food industry on your behalf to create a store that meets your needs. When we do that successfully, when you can see us doing it, and when you trust us to act as your agent, then we fulfill our reason for existing. In the coming years, our food co-ops can play a role in leveraging the public’s voice for policies that ensure access to fresh, local food. We will need to pay attention and participate in the conversation. In our email updates, we alert you to ways that you can make your voice heard on food policy issues – check them out!
Despite these complexities, one thing is clear: the local stuff tastes better. My brother, a steadfast wings eater and devout non-food-snob, recently said “I love strawberries. I eat them all year round. But then June comes around and I taste the local strawberries and it’s like eating a different fruit.” My recommendation? Enjoy the local season while it lasts. Invest in it, preserve it, freeze it, enjoy it. Join our Eat Local Challenge this August and push yourself to eat 5 meals made with local foods each week.
It’s easy to write in a newsletter column that you should invest in local produce, but more difficult to make that decision when faced with sacrificing something else we want or need. To help with this, we have a new Co-op Advantage brochure called “Shopping on a Budget”. It has great tips for how to eat healthy and stretch your food dollars.
We heard from over 450 owners and shoppers who filled out our quick customer survey this spring, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Many people mentioned the great people, the convenience, the selection and even the prices as things they love about the store. We also heard that our biggest opportunities lie in areas with which you are happy. Over the coming year, we will keep pushing to lower our prices even more while focusing on improving our fresh departments (meat, cheese, produce and deli), and on highlighting better our selection of vegan and gluten free products. Thanks to everyone who filled out this survey; your feedback helps us change to meet your needs.
Thank you as always for creating and sustaining this wonderful Co-op! Enjoy the summer!
Read Michael Pollan’s open letter to our new Secretary of Agriculture in the New York Times.