Are You Paying Too Much for Fresh Food?

by | Feb 16, 2015


One of the most common criticisms of my work here at Summer Tomato is that the lifestyle I promote is not available to everybody. That fresh food is a luxury only available to those with the resources to procure it and the time to prepare it.

Sadly, this is true. But it is only part of the story.

These accusations of elitism are based on the assumption that since fresh food has a higher price tag than processed food, promoting it as the best means to better health discriminates against those who can’t afford it.

Blame the science, shoot the messenger.

To get to the real problem we need to ask what sets the price tag. Why is the food from smaller farms at my local farmers market more pricey than the mass produced industrial food most people eat?

Is it because small, family farmers are greedy? Are they preying off the ignorance of rich people seeking the latest kale and beet juice trend?

Or are the prices of industrial food––even produce––artificially cheap?

I’ve long known that government subsidies from the Farm Bill (aka taxpayer dollars) are partly responsible for the cheap prices of wheat, corn and soy, and therefore meat. This is where junk food and McDonald’s come from.

But what about fresh vegetables? They don’t get much in the way of government help.

The truth is that the cheap industrial produce––think Olive Garden salads and hotel fruit medleys––comes at an even more egregious price.

The victims aren’t ignorant tax payers, they’re human beings living here in the United States in unspeakable poverty and hazardous working conditions.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a lecture at UC Berkeley by Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, where he discussed the shockingly inhumane working conditions of farm workers in California.

I vaguely knew conditions weren’t great for farm workers in the US, but I had no idea that human beings in our country could still be treated this way in 2015.

The book Tomatoland opened my eyes to how tomato workers in Florida spent the last several decades living in slavery (not virtual slavery, real slavery). I also knew considerable improvements have been made thanks to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know the situation in California.

Most people, myself included, live in blissful ignorance of the real price of our food. Since becoming a foodist I’ve made a point to support small farmers whenever possible, but it’s incredibly difficult to avoid all industrial food and produce all of the time, regardless of your personal resources.

After watching Schlosser’s presentation it is clear to me none of us are paying too much for fresh food, we’re paying too little. And even those of us who are willing and able to pay more for fair food usually don’t have that option.

According to Schlosser, the difference is only $30 per year.

I felt sad, frustrated and helpless after hearing the stories of workers being sickened by pesticides, deprived of sanitary living conditions, being sexually assaulted in the fields, working 16 hour days and being compensated less than $500 per month (in CA!).

When I asked Schlosser what we can do to help it was clear that raising awareness of the situation is a huge part of it. If enough people care, we might start to have options.

Few things make it easier to make better food choices for yourself than believing in something bigger than yourself. I can’t imagine anything bigger than this.

Please watch Schlosser’s talk and share it as widely as you can. Let people know the real price of their food, and don’t complain about paying higher prices for fair food production.

Our country was founded on the ideal of personal freedom and fairness, but we aren’t really free until all of us are free. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard in the US.

Ask questions. Demand answers. Vote with your fork.

Edible Education 101 is a speaker series this semester at UC Berkeley co-hosted by the Edible Schoolyard Project. The course is livestreamed each Monday night, 6:30-8:30p PT and includes lectures from Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Alice Waters and Mark Bittman. Past lectures are archived on the Edible Schoolyard Project YouTube channel.

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15 Responses to “Are You Paying Too Much for Fresh Food?”

  1. Denise DeGrazia says:

    Sadly, this is not news to me. It is a product of industrial practices with no transparency or oversight.
    Makes me think twice about buying anything in the stores that are grown in Mexico. Yes, it is cheap and looks nice but the hidden costs are enormous.

    You may be interested in reading the extensive expose of Mexican farms that grow premium hot house vegetables for Walmart and other large supermarkets:

    • denise says:

      I am an ex UK pat living in Southern Spain. It isn’t really applicable to my situation here as there isn’t a supermarket that imports products for miles, and everyone here goes to the butcher baker fishmonger and candle stick maker. Everyone has a brother who is the best butcher in all of espana, and most of the products are as near as organic as you can get. The way of life { indeed quality of life } is such that I buy a piece of brie on my way home, not the whole slab. it doesn’t see the inside of a fridge {“you keeeeel the queso!!”} If I only need a handful of French beans, that’s what I buy. Imported products are very expensive and would only be stocked at a huge hypermarket. I think the UK and US consumer are driven by price and time, never reading the country of origin nor really interested in whether a product is ethically sourced. I certainly didn’t realise a bag of radishes I was buying in say Tesco were from Gambia!! But certainly the british demand for ever cheaper produce { and not getting that you aren’t going to get prime Aberdeen Angus in your frozen Lasagne for £1 / youre going to get Romanian horsemeat, shot up with bute for £1.} Hideous slabs of frozen pizza that would be treated as chemical warfare in Naples can fill your trolley and send your kids to ADHD meds can be bought for a quid. Its your money. Pay a little more for the best you can afford. Talk with your wallet and the supermarkets will have to up the anti. There would be no point selling and stocking crap if there was no body buying it. Less is more. A pound of sausages from the butcher from responsible husbandry is 98 per cent pork. 2 per cent herbs and binding. Not 60 per cent pork and 40 per cent water rusk and floor sweepings. Ok its double the price per pound, but why would you buy the crap with fillers to start with? And if your chosen retailer doesn’t promote fair trade { and believe me if he does he will have it plastered everywhere} you don’t want to buy it. UCB sales fell overnight when the sweatshop they were using in India to make the “United Colours” clothes collapsed killing half the workforce { some girls as young as twelve} and they refused to acknowledge the workforce was contracted by them never mind pay compensaton to the families. The situation will never change unless our demands for mass produced cheap sub standard merchandise stops. That’s my soapbox speech.

  2. barbara says:

    I am not from the US, but my husband is. Then he was a teen he used to work in the summer in a nursery. This expirience made a big impact in his life. He could see how hardworking his colleges were. But he could leave after the summer and go back to school. He worked for 10 years each summer. He said he was the only white kid who worked there for more than 2 summers.He atributes his social ideas to these 10 summers and the time he shared with his mostly Mexican colleges.

  3. Justine says:

    Raising minimum wage would help. I have earned only minimum wage or slightly above it my entire adult life, but only recently was able to afford more ethically sourced and higher quality food, when I got married (my husband has a better paying job.) I took the bus; before I got married I couldn’t travel to any markets with locally sourced food in a reasonable amount of time, so Wal-Mart it was. The bus added 4 hours to my work day (1 1/2 hours of travel time one way plus a half hour buffer in case the bus was late), so yeah, after 12 hours the prospect of cooking was exhausting to think about.

  4. Stephanie says:

    This is so true. When people compare the prices at the farmer’s market and the local store they say the market is too expensive. But I know those farmers.

    They work hard all week, they work hard all year. They make enough to support there families but it is not like they are taking luxury vacations and buying second homes. Most of them do it because that is what their families have done before them and/or they love the land and the job.

    Of course there is always a secondary cost associated with cheap food. We just don’t see it. It is heartbreaking.

  5. Thank you for sharing this post. Living in San Francisco, we are very privileged to fresh and local produce. To be honest, when we first moved here, we thought the farmer’s markets were very expensive. But as we started eating less processed food, and buying more local and seasonal food, we realized that our grocery bill didn’t change very much.
    The farming communities really work hard to produce organic and healthy food for us. I am so grateful of their passion and dedication. Every penny well spent.

    [link removed]

  6. Rachel says:

    I don’t have a Farmer’s Market near me and the local Whole Foods is way too far of a drive to make it worth my Saturday to get to. I’ve managed to find decent produce at my local Food Lion and with frozen veggies and frozen fruit. Where it costs is the ‘out of season’ items like fresh strawberries, grapes, and what not. Actually, my local Food Lion has a small, but great section of gluten-free goods and even carries Daiya…which surprised me.

    For everything else, there is for shipping of non-perishable items. Farro is really hard to find, but available online.

  7. Daniela says:

    Hi, just wondering, what are your thougts on Dr.Axe’s kind of diet? I’ m trying to gain weight and be healthier in general, and even though I’ ve usually been pro vegetarian or vegan, after lots of resaerch I have discovered this paleo ish diet, which looks quite nice. I’ m not plannining to follow any ddiet strictly, but some guidance might be helpfull for me to start a new healthier life.

  8. Erin says:

    Good article. I’ve never made more than $30,000/year (in a good year) and I spend money on more expensive food because I see it’s value. That means I cut out a ton of other stuff (I rarely buy new clothes, jewelry, alcohol, etc.) but I know I feel better if I have better food. I don’t feel restricted not spending money on the other things, because while they’re fun, they’re more to impress other people than to help myself. And I know I’m supporting the farmers who grow this healthy food.

    BUT, this was only after I realized how much not eating only processed foods helped me and after I started volunteering at a farmer’s market and got to know the farmers. A lot of people, even a lot of people that would have no trouble affording the more expensive, healthy food, don’t think it can make much of a difference. I didn’t until I tried it, then I decided I was going to make it work. Every once inawhile when I’m low on money I freak out a bit, and start eating some of the lower costs foods again, but then I start feeling so crappy I can’t do it anymore.

    Finally, I’m pretty sure, though I can’t site my source but it seemed reputable, other countries spend way more on food than we do. We just don’t seem to value it like they do.

    • Darya Rose says:

      It’s well documented that Americans spend less on food than other countries. A lot less (something like 10% vs 25%). Props to you for prioritizing health, food and fairness. I did the same thing as a broke grad student and agree that it’s worth it.

  9. Deb says:

    Very educational. The food system needs a reboot. i wish there would have been more info about what we can do to help.

  10. Deb says:

    To save money on buying produce, I’d suggest checking In my area there is a meetup group, like a co-op that buys in bulk from local small, organic farms. It’s much cheaper, maybe 40% less than the store.

  11. Amy says:

    There is a great program called Market Match that is helping make farmers’ market produce more accessible to low-income families. Here is a link to an article about Market Match in the L.A. Times

    It is really important that we tell our elected representatives we want programs like this supported and expanded. Here is a handy link to find your elected representatives

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