The Disconnect for Patrons at Farmers’ Markets

Flickr: ghbrett

I usually avoid a fight in which you’re bound to lose (because it is really hard to change a person’s opinion with your own opinion).  However, I do get riled up when people make uneducated claims about farmers’ markets and CSAs.  I’ve heard plenty in my three years as a CSA host. Then a few weeks ago, I was a guest at a luncheon in which people disparaged the prices at our local farmers’ market, including the statement, “The prices at my daughter’s farmers’ market are cheaper.”

On my way to the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market in Philadelphia on Sunday morning, I was still fuming about the conversation, so I decided to seek some knowledgeable answers.

Nicole Sugarman of Weaver’s Way Farm said that the label, “farmers’ market,” does not mean that everything sold is from a local farmer nor are the growing practices necessarily organic and sustainable.  A farmer from Lancaster County said that his neighbors have been known to truck in produce from larger farms down south, presumably with egregious farming and labor practices.  Finally, Katy Wich, the Manager of the Farmers’ Market program of The Food Trust, said that there are other complex issues involved.

First, what are a farmer’s labor costs?  The Asian research scientist of Queen’s Farm sells his wife’s lovingly tended vegetables and his young daughter helps him on market days.  Another farm employs college interns, who’re only paid a small stipend.  The Amish farmers often rely on family to plant and harvest.  I‘ve visited Tom Culton on his farm and, while he is touted as a “superstar” farmer, I saw how hard he works and under what conditions.

Second, what is the time frame for a crop?  When a farmer is desperate to get his produce to market such as before spoilage or a storm, he/she might resort to a farmer’s auction such as the one in Leola in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  There, the farmer is paid a pittance — such as $6 for a crate of eggplant — for his season of hard work.  There, middlemen buy the produce and re-sell it at a profit.  The customers at a discount store such as Produce Junction will save money, but at the expense of the farmers.  I also recall reading about the beleaguered dairy farmers in Japan after the tsunami this spring when they were told that they couldn’t sell their milk, because of radiation contamination.  The farmers spilt all of the milk because they had no market.

Finally, what should a vegetable cost?  How could we complain when we’ve never sweated for our food?  Recently on NPR, an anthropologist spoke about how our bodies have evolved for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, not for the sedentary life of a technologically-focused world.  We should be on our feet for several hours a day, looking for food.  The only looking we have to do is in the fridge.

I shop at a farmers’ market for the freshest produce, to keep within the season’s offerings, and to support our local farmers.  It is not to save money.  Remember the adage that we get what we pay for?  Where would we be, if we only had to rely on industrial farms?  A captive audience for the next E. coli outbreak, that’s where.

Hannah Lee writes from her home in suburban Philadelphia about issues that engage her.

Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/the-jew-and-the-carrot/142007/#ixzz1WXruMkaF

Do Cash Purchases Yield a Healthier Diet?

Flickr: Cafemama

With the opening of this season’s farmers markets, I find myself withdrawing more cash from my ATM — and more cash each week. The vendors do not accept checks or credit cards, so we patrons have to plan ahead or pay nasty surcharges when we run out of money during the middle of a market run and need replenishment from a nearby ATM (although a shout-out to WaWa by my beloved Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market at 2nd and Pine in Philadelphia for not charging extra for cash withdrawals from non-bank members). The consolation is that I spend less at Whole Foods and the other large food chains on my regular shopping rounds.  But does this need to use cash have a deterrence on my total spending budget?

Peter Smith reported recently that it might. “According to a new study reported in the Journal of Consumer Research (subscription required), credit card use may mediate the pain of parting of our hard-earned money.” Manoj Thomas, a marketing professor at Cornell, examined the spending habits of 1,000 shoppers at one chain grocery store. After collecting data over a 6-month period, he found that credit or debit card use contributed to impulsive purchases of “vice products.” Thomas and his colleagues speculated that paying with plastic is “emotionally more inert” and “abstract.” Paying with cash is immediate and tactile.

Smith also cites Dan Ariely’s 2010 book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions in which the author recommended the use of “self-control credit cards” with a $50 limit on impulse purchases. Or the feedback aid of a credit card that displays the debt as soon as a transaction has been enacted.

Me, I use my credit card merely as a bookkeeping tool, as my husband and I pay off the full amount each month, never even bothering to remember what our bank charges for interest payments. Yes, I do find it easy to ring up purchases at Whole Foods. When I shop at my two farmers’ markets (Sundays and Thursdays to carry us through the week and for Shabbat), I see how much money I put in my pocket and how much I hand over to each vendor. And I do feel a pang when I have to detour to the ATM because the maple syrup vendor appears (after a disastrous sap season in 2010) and I want to spend more than I’d allocated for that week. For me, a conscious locavore, spending cash for local fruits and vegetables means that my family is eating food that is as fresh as can be (often harvested early that morning!).

A different argument might be posed for families living on the brink of poverty. Their government-supported food stamps — whether through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance For Needy Families), or WIC (Women, Infants and Children) — are often not accepted by the small-scale vendors at farmers’ markets. Around the country, most SNAP clients use an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) Access card at approved grocery stores, where the amount of a purchase is automatically deducted from the monthly allowance. This presents a challenge for farmer’s market vendors who do not usually accept credit cards. However, many markets around the country are setting up EBT stations where folks with snap benefits can transfer their electronic benefits for tokens that the farmers will be able to accept.

In my advocacy work with refugees (families being resettled here by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)), I’ve learned that there is often a steep learning curve for these new arrivals in budgeting via a plastic accounting system. There is also the temptation of many new “food” products never before imagined in their native countries. Finally, many poor families — though not my refugees — live in “food deserts” where they have to rely on small stores, known as bodegas in cities with a large Hispanic population, that do not offer much choice in fresh produce.

For people in various economic situations, cash payments do not necessarily result in a healthier diet. While I have the luxury of being able to afford my weekly trips to the farmer’s market, I understand that not everyone is able to or has the access to fresh healthy food like this.

Hannah Lee writes from her home in Pennsylvania, in between taking care of her family, her shul, and the refugees being resettled by HIAS.