Monday, October 05, 2009


Feeding America

On Sunday’s All Things Considered, NPR had two items about fresh food.

First, they talked with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who pushed for buying local produce at farmers’ markets:

Resources from the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] have boosted the number of farmers markets across the nation by about 13 percent over the last year, Vilsack says. Even so, he adds, the effort to eat nutritiously has to go beyond farmers markets.

"It has to be more institutionalized in the sense that you have a supply chain that is reliable, and that large purchasers — large institutional purchasers — can do the same thing." Like schools, for example. "We are very interested in inserting greater opportunities for people to be able to purchase nutritious fruits and vegetables."

It’s hard to imagine the large supermarket chains buying more expensive produce from local farmers when they could buy it cheaper from Mexico or California. Vilsack says the future of local produce might look more like independently owned and operated grocery stores. "Just like any other small business in a small town," he says, "if you have to pay a few pennies more, you know that’s OK because that money is staying in the community."

Then they talked with the Cato Institute’s Sallie James — the Cato Institute is a libertarian organization that pushes free enterprise, and Ms James is an agricultural trade policy analyst there. She says that local markets can’t feed enough people, and cost too much for poor people to afford to shop at anyway.

"It may well be that if we did away with production subsidies that we may see a different breakout of production patterns in America," she says. "But certainly that suggests that, for efficiency reasons, agriculture depends on economies of scale." Farmers markets, for all the attention they’re getting from the Agriculture Department, can’t handle that level of demand, she says.

"You throw enough money at something, of course it’s going to thrive," James says. "It’s not front-page news that the Agriculture Department invests a lot of money in promoting farmers markets — we see more farmers markets.

"What I’m suggesting is, it’s not the best use of money. There is absolutely very little wrong with encouraging people to eat healthily. But what the problem is here, is poor people having access to fresh fruits and vegetables."

How do you do that? Walmart, James says.

"You allow Walmart to come into urban areas and provide cheaper fresh produce to people," she says. "The reality is they have a very good distribution network. They can get fresh produce into rural and exurban areas very well."

There are two main things that I find interesting about this debate:

  1. That it’s actually cheaper to ship food from across the country than it is to get it locally.
  2. The claim that Walmart can sell produce at a lower price than grocery chains can.

On point 1, I note that, while my local markets are selling tomatoes from New York and New Jersey, the supermarket chains (A&P, ShopRite, and Stop & Shop are the primary ones where I live) are shipping them in from elsewhere. During New York’s apple season — which we’re entering now — we’ll get Macintosh, Rome, Cortland, Empire, Jonathan, and other tasty varieties at the local markets.[1] Yet, the chains continue to sell the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith varieties that are shipped in from Washington — more than 2500 miles away.

Part of the reason for this involves long-term contracts. Local produce is available only during certain seasons, but customers demand the same items throughout the year. When they’re out of season locally, the supermarkets will have to have them shipped in... but they can get better prices if they negotiate year-’round supply from far away. The famers’ markets, on the other hand, will not have tomatoes when they’re not in season here.

And you know what?: It’s just as well. The shipped-in tomatoes are not worth buying; I’d rather get them canned. The local, in-season tomatoes are luscious and delicious. Apples are more flexible, and the Washington fruits are fine... but the local varieties give us much more choice, and different flavours.

We used to accept the absence of out-of-season items, but we’ve been trained otherwise by the availability of shipped-in produce... to the point where many people are so used to the bland Red Delicious apples that they prefer them to the tastier varieties.

To the second point, I wonder why Walmart should be able to bring in fresh produce at a lower price than, say, A&P. Beyond that, though, when I go to some of the smaller markets, I find that not only do they cater more to the local demographic — carrying items like tomatillos, jicama, and plantains in areas with a large Latino population, for example — but their prices are also better. A large bunch of wonderfully fresh cilantro will be half the price that A&P charges for a smaller, less fresh bunch a few miles up the road.

Can Walmart beat those local markets, and still provide the variety the communities demand?

And, if they can: what happens when Walmart becomes the only place in town, as has largely happened with its original discount-store market? Low prices are good, but lack of choice is not.

And, of course, the Cato Institute doesn’t want to see subsidies or tax incentives, preferring free-market economics. Should the Department of Agriculture (or the state equivalents) be involved in affecting how we get our food, and where we get it from?

[1] Unfortunately, no one seems to grow Rhode Island Greenings around here any more, and it’s gotten hard to find the Northern Spy in recent years.

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