Are cheap vegetables worth the price?

This post is in response to an article in the Washington Post about cheap vegetables benefitting people’s health.  I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  Please feel free to push back against my thoughts, I’m in a constant state of working through thoughts on the food system. 

Food prices don’t matter.  Farmers, specifically the smaller-scale, family farmers, are drilled to believe the prices we assign to produce is the make or break factor in whether people buy.  This is a false assumption.  What really matters is desire and knowledge.

There are plenty of veggie prescription programs and non-profits that provide vegetables at a reduced cost to people, but we know very little about what is happening once those cheap vegetables have found their home.  If the average American wastes half of the produce they buy, we can make an educated guess that even some of those cheap veggies are finding their real home to be the dump.  The primary argument of the cheap veggie is access.  People who live in food deserts, or areas that have no place to buy fresh food within a square mile, have no ability or outlet to purchase fresh, nutritive food at no fault of their own.  This is inequality in the system that needs to be addressed.  However, the current solution is often times erecting a mobile farmers market that sells vegetables at subsidized prices.  I have been a part of two organizations that used mobile farmers markets to address food access.  While I laud the compassion and vision of people who want to correct inequality, I grow frustrated at fixes that barely seem to be making a dent.

In the small-scale farming world, farmers markets are king.  If a farm is close to a “good” farmers market (one close to a middle or upper-class community), they can charge whatever prices they want because their customers want the product.  But that’s the key.  The customers want the product.  The customers want eggplants and know how to cook them.  Eggplants could be a quarter each and if people didn’t want them, they wouldn’t be bought.  No amount of discount can make anyone suddenly desire a product they didn’t want before.  The only customers who groan and whine about prices are the customers who deep down didn’t even want the peas or radishes on the table.

While we want cheap vegetables to fix the vegetable consumption and access problems, they could have unintended consequences.  First, cheap vegetable prices aren’t fair to farmers and farm laborers.  The National Farmers Union shows that farmer take home money is paltry.  For a pound of lettuce costing the consumer $2.79, the farmer only gets $0.29.  If this price gets lower, the farmer loses even more.  Farmers do a service, they provide our sustenance, yet frequently have to work second jobs or take out massive loans to make ends meet.  Lowering the price of vegetables could force many farmers to quit farming all together.  Secondly, cheap veggies lead to devaluing the product.  We all intrinsically know that the cheapest products in any store are also the lowest quality.  Whether we consciously acknowledge it, lowering the prices of veggies can lead to subconscious beliefs about the inferiority of vegetables, making them even less desirable.

If making vegetables cheap isn’t the best solution, then how do we encourage people to eat more vegetables?  Very slowly.  Encouraging vegetables is a long-term game. If the “olden days” were really as great and vegetable-filled as some would like to believe, then it took us at least sixty years to fall away from eating fresh produce.  We better recognize it will probably take sixty more years for vegetable consumption to increase.  To do so, we have to address more than just prices, we have to address the knowledge inequality that accompanies the familiar taste and know-how to prepare certain vegetables.  I don’t know how to make vegetables more desirable. I’m the wife of a farmer and still grimace at kale.  Some people suggest cooking classes or easy-to-understand recipes to go along with vegetables.  These are good ideas.  But once again, it will be a slow process dependent of people who finally get the courage to try heirloom tomatoes or arugula.

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