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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Sustainable eats, part two

Published: October 1, 2010
Section: Opinions

Good Eats: Cecelia Watkins '11 and Napoleon Lherisson '11 sort through vegetables from the Warner Farm CSA on Tuesday.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

If you happened to brave the torrential downpour this past Tuesday to do some shopping at the Waltham Hannaford Supermarket, you may have caught a glimpse of me running around the produce section, weighing fruits and vegetables without buying anything. Don’t worry, I’m not crazy, and I wasn’t shoplifting. I was doing research for this column.

Just wanted to clear that up.

Every day for the past month, I have been eating locally grown produce. I have been able to do this because of a wise investment my roommate and I made at the beginning of the school year—we paid a total of $200 to become part of the Brandeis chapter of the Warner Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Every week for eight weeks we receive a box filled with enough produce for two to three people, freshly picked from the Warner Farm in Sunderland, Mass.

Because of this, I have become much more interested in the debate regarding the pros and cons of the growing local food movement.

A few Google searches reveal that the debate is actually quite vibrant. Most of the arguments in favor have to do with quality. Locally grown produce, supporters say, is fresher, more nutritious and tastes better than its mass-produced, conventionally-grown counterparts. Those opposed argue that locally grown produce is an expensive, unnecessary option, and cite its smaller-scale production, which they call less efficient.

I can attest to the former arguments, having used my mediocre cooking skills to create delicious and healthy dishes with locally grown produce. But the price issue piqued my curiosity. I believe more people should buy their produce locally, and I know that convincing those people to alter their buying habits for the sake of the environment and their bodies is already difficult enough. Getting them to do that, but asking them to spend more money, may be nearly impossible in this economy.

So, on Tuesday I decided to try a little experiment. I made a list of every item I had received in my CSA box that week and headed over to Hannaford. My goal was twofold: To find out what sort of locally grown options, if any, that Hannaford offered, and to determine whether a shopper could purchase the exact same produce that I had in my box for as much, or less, than the $25 my roommate and I had paid for it.

Hence the running around and weighing things.

I was not in the store long before receiving my first shock. Having spent so much time reading about how so much of our food supply comes from countries all over the world, I expected most of the fruits and vegetables in the produce section to have originated in, say, Central and South America. But most of the signs for the items on my list (and most of the signs for items in the produce section, for that matter) had little blue stickers affixed next to the price tags that read: “Product of USA.” There was even one large sign in the middle of the section, prominently placed next to the piles of sweet yellow corn and sugar pumpkins, which declared that those two products had been grown on a farm in Lunenburg, Mass. as part of Hannaford’s “Close to Home” program.

In fact, the only items on my list that the store had not listed as originating in this country were red peppers (grown in Holland) and a bunch of mixed herbs (grown in Canada).

Not too shabby, right? Except that once I recovered from my shock, I realized that this kind of advertising, though probably effective, leaves much to be desired. Since Hannaford only labeled two of its produce items as explicitly “locally grown,” it is probably a fair guess that most of the other items labeled “Product of USA” came from all over the country, or the store would have said otherwise. (California, America’s largest producer of agricultural goods, comes to mind). And while it is better to buy produce grown in this country than produce grown even farther away, the environmental impact can be huge regardless. America is a big place, and it can take a lot of energy to move products across it.

At that point, I assumed that the produce in the store was going to be cheaper than the produce in my box. After all, if Hannaford buys its produce in bulk from all across the country, it must be getting the best deal, or why do it? It not as if those items can’t grow locally. But then I tallied up my figures and had my second shock: It turned out that the total price of the equivalent store produce came to nearly $40. That’s $15 more than what my roommate and I pay, and our food is delivered to us just after being picked.

Jess Marsh, Warner Farm CSA and Market Manager, later wrote me an e-mail explaining why this could be the case. The “true cost” of locally grown produce is cheaper than that of conventional supermarkets, she wrote, because those supermarkets utilize “a huge network of expenses.

“There are middle men, large quantities of pesticides and fertilizers, shipping costs, and a general slew of expenses that come with farming in such an inefficient (though consumer efficient) way,” she continued. Marsh also added that part of the reason why locally grown produce earned a reputation for being expensive was because of farmer’s markets, which she called “inefficient and an unreliable way of making money.” As a result, prices at the markets often had to be higher than those at supermarkets. CSA’s, however, get all of their money upfront, and are able to treat customers as “wholesale customers.”

So, while Hannaford may not be the worst offender when it comes to selling conventionally grown produce, it is not the best investment, either. During the summer months and the fall harvest, New England can support a whole range of crops that are harvested right here and can be bought fresh. The farther south one goes, the more this becomes true. So I advise you all to look into local produce options near your homes, especially good CSA’s. Hopefully, as the local food movement continues to grow, these options will become easier to access.