15 Sep Reader Question: The Cost of Eating Local
A while ago a reader emailed me one of the best questions I’ve received in a long time. She voiced the frustration we all feel trying to align our ideals with our pocket books when she wrote:
I live in the Niagara Region of Ontario, one of, if not Canada’s largest fruit producer, and I have always tried to buy Canadian, and not just for food. However, I do get annoyed when I go to the local market and find that our Ontario strawberries are $5.99 a container and the Californian ones are only $3.99 (same quantity) and they are actually firmer and sweeter then the locally grown ones. Which strawberries would you buy? On a fixed income I have little choice if I want to eat fresh.
In Niagara we are surrounded by orchards of cherries, peaches, plums, and fields of strawberries, corn, tomatoes, etc. yet we pay as much or more at our road side stands (straight from orchards and fields) as we pay for imported produce in the grocery store. My question is WHY? Is that necessity or greed?
I wish someone could give me a good answer…
Well, frustrated reader, while we can blame the poor strawberry crop on the wet weather, the pricing is a different matter. And it’s not greed on the part of our local farmers. Many of them haven’t seen a raise in more than a decade.
The answer below, which summarizes the situation very concisely, comes via Dana McCauley. I won’t go into details, but Dana learned the answer to my question while interviewing Paul Sawtell and Grace Mandarano of 100km Foods Inc., and in a trademark gesture of generosity, she passes their excellent answer onto you.
Pay it forward to Dana by popping by her blog. Today she’s looking at innovative and socially conscious companies, like 100km Foods, that are making it easier for chefs to buy local crops.
But back to the question of why local foods are often more expensive. While the topic could fill a book, Sawtell’s answer (emphases mine) sums it up in one paragraph:
The fact that on average, local food costs more than imported foods from thousands of kilometres away speaks to a much larger geopolitical issue. Largely driven by cheap labour and cheap transportation costs, and in many cases massive surpluses, export dumping and government subsidies, it still baffles me that products can travel thousands of kilometres and remain cheaper than something produced literally down the road in some cases. This is not a comment on how expensive local food is, it is more my comment on how cheap, and artificially cheap, imported food can be. And sadly, cheap food is what North American consumers have come to expect.
Now before you think I’m just sitting back and letting Dana do all the work, I did speak with Sawtell myself. In a follow-up call, I asked him how we consumers could bring the costs down. He said food follows the standard economical model of supply and demand. Abundance lowers price. When there’s a steady demand for locally grown crops, the price will go down.
But will locally grown, small crops ever be as inexpensive as government-subsidized foreign food grown on a large scale and picked by cheap labour? No, but you can narrow the price gap buying from local farmers.
How can you do this? Two simple ways include heading down to the local Farmers’ Markets or buying a share of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Not sure where to start? Here are some links that might interest you.
Do you support local farmers? If so, how? If not, what (other than price) stumbling blocks do you encounter?