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Confessions of a food stamp foodie.
October 20, 2012 7:44 PM   Subscribe

I explained that, for a variety of reasons — including feeding my boys the most nutritious food available, supporting local farmers, and reducing the carbon miles our food inflicted on the environment — I tried to buy our food locally and organically. She looked at me as if I’d just told her I believed in Santa Claus and, with a poorly disguised smirk, said, "Honey, those days are over."
In 2009, Michelle Gienow came close to having to feed her family sustainable, organic, local, and ethically produced (SOLE) food on a food stamp budget. She documented her budget calculations in the pages of the City Paper, Baltimore's alternative weekly. This year Ms. Gienow's financial situation really did call for financial assistance — and she found that her calculations were too optimistic.
posted by Nomyte (107 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wah! I applied for the "free car assistance program" and all I can get with it is a crappy Ford Focus! Don't these people realize I'm used to driving a Mercedes?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:04 PM on October 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


The hard lesson I have learned and still hate to acknowledge is that eating locally and organically on a low income is a seriously difficult proposition.

Acknowledging such an obvious fact would seem to put us closer to solving the problem than does trying to insist (as I hear people do) that local/organic/etc food makes sense for poor people.

This FPP fits perfectly with the one just a couple down, looking at Are Healthy Food Really More Expensive? Whether or not "healthy" foods cost more, the kind of high-end food that she wishes she could but absolutely does cost more.
posted by Forktine at 8:06 PM on October 20, 2012 [10 favorites]


Yeah, hate to say it, but, this is why we can't have nice things.
posted by deo rei at 8:07 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am having difficulty feeling sympathetic with her lament that she can no longer get the 7$-a-gallon milk but must now buy milk at Walmart next to the "local rednecks" she talks about.
posted by XMLicious at 8:07 PM on October 20, 2012 [17 favorites]


I say this as an omnivore who doesn't care much about where my food comes from.

Don't these people realize I'm used to driving a Mercedes?

Why is locally-grown, organic, ethically-grown food equivalent to a Mercedes?

the kind of high-end food that she wishes she could but absolutely does cost more.

Why are locally-grown, organic, ethically-grown foods "high end"?
posted by muddgirl at 8:09 PM on October 20, 2012 [72 favorites]


This is an amusing counterpoint to the post two down.
posted by jaduncan at 8:09 PM on October 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


I've actually been meaning to make this post for a while now, and the one directly below did give me momentary pause. Sorry if it's too on the nose.

On the other hand, all available evidence suggests that Michelle Gienow is a really nice person, so I hope everyone tries to avoid snide personal commentary.
posted by Nomyte at 8:12 PM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


(I should also say that I disagree quite strongly with many of Gienow's opinions expressed in both articles, but I also disagree with the idea that only rich people deserve the right to organic produce or ethically raised meats.)
posted by muddgirl at 8:15 PM on October 20, 2012 [13 favorites]


Deserve the privilege, rather.
posted by muddgirl at 8:15 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why are locally-grown, organic, ethically-grown foods "high end"?

Because just like she explains in her article, those things cost a lot, plus require free time, more driving, more storage space, etc -- in other words, they fit perfectly into an upper-middle class lifestyle, and very poorly into a foodstamp lifestyle.

The real takeaways from this kind of article are a) our social safety net remains deeply inadequate; b) the ways we subsidize industrial food production helps keep local and organic food out of the mainstream; and c) these are clearly structural problems when even the most educated and motivated person like the author is forced to compromise on the food she is serving her kids.
posted by Forktine at 8:16 PM on October 20, 2012 [38 favorites]


Supply and demand? Isn't it true that restaurants snatch up organic and local foods at any price? There is only so much local food.

I also find it ironic that in new York our green carts meant to sell produce in "food deserts" don't take WIC, I doubt that stuff is organic or local though, after all they sell bananas for like 20 cents.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:17 PM on October 20, 2012


Muddgirl - cutting corners lowers production costs. Ethical and organic rules out all sorts of factory farming yield-maximizing techniques. The resulting food is often better, but it costs more. Similarly, buying local rules out a lot of economy of scale savings (at least while those savings are still larger than the transport fuel costs).
posted by anonymisc at 8:23 PM on October 20, 2012


Why are locally-grown, organic, ethically-grown foods "high end"?

"The Omnivore's Dilemma" actually does a good job of illustrating this, even though its not really the point of the book. You can see the cost in terms of man-hours per amount of food produced increases rapidly as he moves from industrial to organic to local to foraged food production chains.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:27 PM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


It seems like healthy foods actually cost less, to me at least. I went grocery shopping two weeks ago, spent $140, and we still have plenty of food. When I buy a lot of junk food/heavily processed food, the bill is always significantly higher.

I must eat differently from most people or something, because I don't understand how people are spending so much per person, per meal, and then complaining about it not being enough. We do eat mainly vegetables; I very rarely purchase meat. But we buy eggs and milk, and cheese, all organic. Some of the fruits and vegetables I buy are organic, some conventional, some frozen, some fresh. I get the best I can find, and I can afford. I am currently a stay-at-home mom to one HUNGRY toddler. My husband usually takes home about $2000/month, though that can vary; our rent is $800, and we have about $250 in bills. We live in a crappy apartment in a decent neighborhood. We are able to eat out whenever we want. We have all the creature comforts we need. We do not have or need a car; we live in a major city with good public transport, but we walk most places we need to go. We are able to put aside some money in savings.

I have been a member of the working poor/lower class for most of my life, with occasional forays into being lower middle class. Maybe I'm just better at stretching a buck because I'm used to it, but a $450 per month budget for three people seems more than reasonable.

To me, this reads as another one of those "oh, I'm living as a poor person, I've never done that before! Poor me!" pieces that just rubs me the wrong way, like Nickel & Dimed. I'm poor. I'm okay with it. I have more than many.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 8:29 PM on October 20, 2012 [17 favorites]


Sustainable also costs you more - almost by definition - because it means you are paying for the full cost of the production, instead of paying only part of the cost and having externalities subsidise the rest.
posted by anonymisc at 8:33 PM on October 20, 2012 [22 favorites]


It seems like healthy foods actually cost less, to me at least.

But this isn't about the cost of healthy versus unhealthy food. It's about the cost of mass-market versus boutique food. She never says she couldn't afford peaches or zucchini, just that she couldn't afford the very best ones.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:37 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


... and if I'd made it further down the page before getting GRAR about this article, I'd have seen that ither, relevant post y'all were talkin' about ...
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 8:37 PM on October 20, 2012


I doubt that stuff is organic or local though, after all they sell bananas for like 20 cents.

I'd be pretty surprised if the bananas in NYC were local too.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:39 PM on October 20, 2012 [17 favorites]


Why are "sustainable, organic, local, and ethically produced" foods more expensive? Because petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, growing food in optimal regions and shipping it worldwide, and factory farming were all methods designed to produce food more cheaply. You get rid of all those, and of course it costs more.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:41 PM on October 20, 2012 [22 favorites]


She never says she couldn't afford peaches or zucchini, just that she couldn't afford the very best ones.
But my point was more that I DO, and am able to afford to, buy organic. Organic is preferred, but sometimes the conventional looks better, and/or is local v/s being trucked all over the world. Just because it is organic doesn't mean it is the best crop, or the most expensive option.

She DID say that she couldn't afford organic milk, however. Which I never have a problem affording, and doesn't generally cost much more than non-organic. Usually it's about a dollar more here.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 8:44 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well the issue in the article is that local and organic food costs more than she gets from food stamps. Not that there are no adjustments she could make to afford them.

This may be totally off base, but I think she could still buy local and organic foods if she was better at being poor. This isn't her fault, but I think there are some things that come naturally to poor people that help them immensely. These are my observations growing up not exactly rich amongst very poor people.

People have larger extended and sometimes blended families as a support group, often in close quarters. I grew up in tiny apartments myself, but I had my own room. I knew families where people shared not only rooms, but beds. if they had extra space a cousin or something appeared to take up residence.They saved a lot on rent.

Additionally they saved on child care, a grandmother or someone was always around, people rarely paid for child care.

The extended family meant someone was always around to cook, and they could take advantage of their own economy of scale.

Someone could do shopping, on days off from school I spent hours watching little old ladies find the cheapest and best deals on everything.

Everyone worked, including kids. Kids 10-12 years old worked doing deliveries or stocking shelves. Little old ladies babysat, did laundry, cleaned , or mended clothes to bring in money. All while they watched kids and cooked giant pots of sauce.

The fact that it is just her and her sons is what makes this really fucking tough, as newly poor she is missing a huge support network.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:47 PM on October 20, 2012 [18 favorites]


The real problem isn't the cost of organic food, it's that Baltimore thinks two children and one adult should eat on $5.06 per meal. I'd be willing to bet that most plain-old-grocery-store shoppers also spend more than that, and would also have to cut back on the things they really want to eat in favor of things like rice, beans, and factory-farmed eggs.
posted by vorfeed at 8:50 PM on October 20, 2012 [23 favorites]


Because just like she explains in her article, those things cost a lot, plus require free time, more driving, more storage space, etc -- in other words, they fit perfectly into an upper-middle class lifestyle, and very poorly into a foodstamp lifestyle.

The 'foodstamp lifestyle' isn't an external, platonic ideal. It's something that we, as a society, define. My question wasn't, "Why are SOLE foods more expensive?" That's a dumb question. My question was "Why are SOLE foods high end?" Those are two completely different things. For example, meat can be relatively expensive compared to non-meat proteins, but we consider it to be a staple, so we provide enough money in food stamps to pay for meat.

Sustainable also costs you more - almost by definition - because it means you are paying for the full cost of the production, instead of paying only part of the cost and having externalities subsidise the rest.

This is exactly what I mean. If we value spending our tax dollars on ensuring the poor are fed, why aren't we paying the full cost of production for that food?
posted by muddgirl at 8:52 PM on October 20, 2012 [9 favorites]


I am currently a stay-at-home mom to one HUNGRY toddler. My husband usually takes home about $2000/month, though that can vary; our rent is $800, and we have about $250 in bills. We live in a crappy apartment in a decent neighborhood. We are able to eat out whenever we want. We have all the creature comforts we need. We do not have or need a car; we live in a major city with good public transport, but we walk most places we need to go. We are able to put aside some money in savings.

What you describe here is a lifestyle a lot of people who are working poor cannot claim as their own.
posted by hippybear at 8:55 PM on October 20, 2012 [35 favorites]


Let's not pile on esmerelda_jenkins just because she happens to live on Bounty Island.
posted by Nomyte at 8:57 PM on October 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm sorry, but since when is an annual income of $24000 (or less, some months he makes around $1200) for a family of three not poor? I recognize that there are larger families with lower incomes, but that is really not a lot of money.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 9:03 PM on October 20, 2012 [10 favorites]


Take-home pay of $2000/month isn't an annual income of $24000. Add another 30-40% on for taxes withheld and you have the real figure.

Anyway, that you live in a decent neighborhood, that you can be a stay at home mom, you have all the creature comforts, you have access to good public transport, and you can eat out whenever you want... Right there, you're already above the living status of the poor.

Yes, it's not a lot of money. And yes, people like your husband should probably be paid more for his work. But the lifestyle you describe... it's not solidly middle class, but it's a damn sight better than people who are actually poor live with, even in this country where the poor do pretty well.
posted by hippybear at 9:07 PM on October 20, 2012 [11 favorites]


I got fired when I was 8 months pregnant. I have been unable to find another job. Even if I could, it makes no sense to pay my entire salary for child care.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 9:13 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry, but since when is an annual income of $24000 (or less) for a family of three not poor? I recognize that there are larger families with lower incomes, but that is really not a lot of money.

The author of this article is trying to make do with way, way less than that and doesn't have a person in the family who is devoted exclusively to taking care of the household and children either. So if you can buy organic foodstuffs, eat out whenever you want, and have money left over at the end of the month, bully for you, but it doesn't really give you license to cast those with less as whiners.
posted by grouse at 9:14 PM on October 20, 2012 [19 favorites]


24,000 take home is well, well over the poverty line for three people including a toddler and free child care.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:16 PM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure where all the confusion comes from about why the author of the post can't afford these local/organic/whatever items. She spells it out pretty plainly:

Budget per meal for family: $5.06
Cost of four measly zucchini: $4.00
Cost of 1 gallon organic milk: $7.00

So, someone explain to me how she's supposed to prepare two meals for her family with four zucchnis and a gallon of milk.
posted by ronofthedead at 9:18 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


TBH I don't know if meat has always been considered a staple. All the meals I ate that weren't school lunch were spaghetti or rice and beans until I was like 13. Sometimes with spaghetti we had clams, mussels, or blue crabs. Some of my friends ate rice and gizzards, or rice and plantains every day.

Oddly, I think all of that, except the plantains, were local.

I should probably slowly back away though, I haven't been poor in a long long time.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:18 PM on October 20, 2012


(Yeah, food and food stamps are a really complex issue and I'm trying to be as general as possible. I've never personally been on food stamps, but my friends on food stamps could generally afford some meat in their meals - they were not generally subsisting on rice and beans unless they made that decision. This is probably very location/culture dependent, which is sort of my point. WE decide what people on food stamps can afford.)
posted by muddgirl at 9:25 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm going to bow out here, but my husband's income is not "well over the poverty line for three people including a toddler." On months when he makes $1200, it is under the poverty line. We do not use food stamps.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 9:25 PM on October 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


This just seems like another article about the powerlessness of a consumer. As far as I can tell, all she does is attempt to buy this stuff from whatever over-priced retail establishment she went to before.

If you are interested in eating locally and sustainably and with a low budget it is possible if you cut out the middlemen. Join a CSA, or a food buying co-op. Of course many of those don't accept foodstamps. If you are by yourself, then this will be problem. But if you work together with your friends, then you can get the supermarket stuff and they can get the CSA stuff. Together you both get what you need.

Or barring that, you can actually do what you should do to start with and visit the farm that is producing what you need and offer to do some work trade.

It really depends how much you care about food. It seems like she is more trapped by her lifestyle than anything else.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 9:27 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


And there's also Linda Watson, who claims: "Go green for $5 a day or less with mostly organic or sustainably raised ingredients. Or focus on cost to save even more! Either way, you'll probably be spending less than the food-stamp allowance for someone with no other means. You can afford to eat wonderful food that is good for you and for your planet." Her website is http://www.cookforgood.com/ The motto of her website is "Save Money. Eat Well. Make a Difference."
posted by jobimfan at 9:28 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


you can actually do what you should do to start with and visit the farm that is producing what you need and offer to do some work trade.

Who is going to take care of the two children while she goes out to work on the farm after all her existing work and chores are done for the week? Presuming she has the energy left, because God knows I wouldn't.

It seems like she is more trapped by her lifestyle than anything else.

Yes, the lifestyle of having two kids with little income leaves little room for niceties like organic food. That is the point of the article, I believe.
posted by grouse at 9:36 PM on October 20, 2012 [13 favorites]


It should be pointed out that Gienow was a regular food columnist for the City Paper, focusing on sustainable and local food practices, DIY and slow food, and so on. I consider it a given that she had considered most money-saving arrangements before writing the second article.
posted by Nomyte at 9:41 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Plus, how far is the commute to this farm? With gas prices being what they are, and typical car milage being what it is, the round trip to the this farm is going to cost what? $7? $10? $15? More? And how many hours, how many days a week is this round trip supposed to be driven in order for the trade for food to happen?

And what if you don't have a car? Does public transit go to this farm?
posted by hippybear at 9:42 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I consider it a given that she had considered most money-saving arrangements before writing the second article.

Or she figured out how to convert schadenfreude into cash.
posted by pwnguin at 9:44 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you are interested in eating locally and sustainably and with a low budget it is possible if you cut out the middlemen. Join a CSA, or a food buying co-op

My household is on the upper end of middle-middle class. I don't have a magic hat from which I can pull the $500 required as an upfront cost to join a CSA.
posted by Ruki at 9:44 PM on October 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


If we value spending our tax dollars on ensuring the poor are fed, why aren't we paying the full cost of production for that food?

Because we don't believe in sustainability. Our entire economy right down to the theories upon which it is based on is unsustainable to the core. Policy is based on assumptions of unlimited externalities.
We aren't interested in sustainable foodstamp food because we aren't interested in any kind of sustainability at all, anywhere in our society or economy.
posted by anonymisc at 9:48 PM on October 20, 2012 [12 favorites]


She does have a CSA. That she deducted the coat of from her monthly total in the first article. And in the second she says she barters blog writing to still be a member.
posted by atomicstone at 9:49 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Am I naive in thinking that one measure to make good food more affordable is (re)introducing farmers' markets? I'm lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with a weekly market, at which we try to do all our produce shopping, and prices are way, way cheaper than e.g. Whole Foods and usually even less than the discount chain. For instance, I got a great big bag of locally-grown, organic tomatoes, easily enough to last a week or more, for $3 today.

Especially in the case of places like Whole Foods, it seems to me like a lot of the cost of good produce is cachet / status signification that's taken by the retailer as pure profit.
posted by junco at 10:05 PM on October 20, 2012


A CSA isn't a great solution, anyway. A grab bag o' randomveggies is the last thing you need when you are poor and need to plan a month's worth of meals ahead of time. Buying staple vegetables individually makes far more sense.
posted by vorfeed at 10:05 PM on October 20, 2012 [11 favorites]


From one of her articles: farmers markets are the place to shop for inexpensive in-season vegetables

I have lived in both LA and Vancouver. In neither place has any farmer's market been inexpensive. In fact, any urban farmers market I've ever been to in Canada, the US, or Ireland has always been far more expensive than most grocery stores. Well, not the high end grocery stores. I know it's different in rural areas with fruit stands, etc. but I've always wondered where these mythical cheap farmers markets are.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:08 PM on October 20, 2012 [22 favorites]


Am I naive in thinking that one measure to make good food more affordable is (re)introducing farmers' markets?

At the risk of being a broken record, I've found farmers' markets in this region to be as expensive or more so than even Whole Foods, and definitely more expensive than regular supermarkets. The vegetables they carry are usually the expensive heirloom varieties.

That's in addition to the fact that the majority of goods sold at my local markets are either inedible (handmade soap, beauty products) or not basic foods (variety bacon, artisanal doughnuts, craft pickles, snob coffee).

Now, when I was living in upstate NY, the farmers' market was a godsend. Here, ethnic markets (Latino and pan-Asian) are a surer bet, but the provenance of the veggies there is dubious at best.
posted by Nomyte at 10:13 PM on October 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


The farmers market in Spokane certainly isn't a place to go for bargains. It has high quality produce and bread and even organic meat, but it's NOT cheap. Nice when I can get there (during their limited hours on a Saturday or a Wednesday, which isn't often), but it's not a way to save money.
posted by hippybear at 10:13 PM on October 20, 2012


The juxtaposition of these two articles made me sad. While reading the first article, I admit I was very annoyed because I thought she was both zealous and unrealistic. For example, I think she deducted the cost of her CSA membership from the food stamp allowance but you can't pay for a CSA membership with food stamps.

I thought I'd have some schadenfreude clicking on the second article but I just felt sad. She goes from this somewhat self-righteous statement:
All of this in explanation of why I pay $7 a gallon for organic, locally grass-fed milk: Yes, it does cost double the price of generic grocery store milk from cows kept God knows where, fed God knows what, and very likely amped up on bovine growth hormone and antibiotics. But I have two young sons whom I would like to see grow up lean and disease-free to inherit a relatively intact planet.
And now:
these days I’m pulling the generic gallon—from cows kept God-knows-where and fed God-knows-what while amped up on tons of antibiotics, but selling for less than half the price—from the Walmart dairy case
She's down with the rest of us who'd rather have plump, delicious peaches instead of the anemic and overripe ones you get from the local supermarket. Who'd rather have some meat and not grilled cheese or beans again. Part of me wishes she'd found a way to do it.
posted by Danila at 10:23 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hippybear and Nomyte, I'm glad to hear I'm not some freak who only ever finds the expensive farmers markets.

Reading her before piece just exhausted me. I honestly can't imagine most people having the time to do even the complex shopping she was doing, let alone the time to prepare it all from scratch. Not a slight against her and her writing, but I always feel these stories of 'I did this for a week/month and thus it can be done" are inherently problematic and that's shown in her follow on piece. It's one thing to step into a lifestyle on a temporary basis and to know that; being broke or a tightened budget for a shortish period of time is not the grinding awfulness that being poor for a prolonged period is and it doesn't have the added complications that a long period of poverty brings with it. For one thing you have a decent kitchen (usually) where you can prepare food and the equipment to prepare it with. You have a car and can drive to collect groceries if needs be. And so forth.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:30 PM on October 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think it's interesting that Gienow doesn't mention her young son is on a gluten free diet. This can make sourcing various staples - even nuts, beans, anything in bulk, dried fruit, yogurt, cheese, etc - very difficult and expensive. Depending on how sensitive her son is, she may have to be certain that everything is certified gluten free. I suspect she isn't counting any of those costs in this budget or that she decided to go whole foods for the month, because I doubt she could pull all this off for $450 if she's needing to buy certified gf foods.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:48 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Her principal claim about organic food -- that it allows her to [feed her] boys the most nutritious food available -- has been debunked by that authoritative Stanford study linked on Metafilter a few weeks back. So at least on that score, she can stop worrying.
posted by dontjumplarry at 10:59 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


And as far as an ethical and sustainable diet goes, she should become a vegan or a lacto-vegetarian. Which doesn't require buying hand-reared heirloom local zucchinis for $4 each.
posted by dontjumplarry at 11:01 PM on October 20, 2012


She absolutely could eat healthily for way less than $5/meal for 3 mouths and stick to the SOLE mantra provided she drops one requirement: variety. A diet of potato, salted butter and milk will pretty much provide all the vitamins, protein, fiber and fat you need, maybe throw in some beans or nuts to beef up the protein, so to speak. It'll be as boring as you can imagine, but her and her kids will probably be eating more healthily than most folks.
posted by rh at 11:13 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, as long as you don't mind eating a lot of the same thing you can eat pretty cheaply. I have a vegetable garden and yea gods am I sick of kale and carrots and peas and zucchini but they're free. I spend very little on produce in the summer, but it does get a bit monotonous.

Also no one needs to drink milk as an actual drink or eat very much fruit. We never did as kids because it's expensive and we all grew up perfectly hale and hearty. Fruit in season is fine but eating it out of season is a luxury. Her kids would survive just fine eating peaches only in the summer and drinking water.
posted by fshgrl at 11:44 PM on October 20, 2012


The 2012 Poverty Threshold for the 48 Contiguous States and the District of Columbia is $1909 for a household of 3.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:03 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


XMLicious: “I am having difficulty feeling sympathetic with her lament that she can no longer get the 7$-a-gallon milk but must now buy milk at Walmart next to the ‘local rednecks’ she talks about.”

Er – I don't think she actually said that at all. Here's the context (I believe, please let me know if I'm wrong) – it's from the "too optimistic" link:
Raising righteous vegetables requires not just grueling labor but also a lot of money, invested months before any possible sales of actual produce, all of which can be lost due to weather, or deer damage, or local rednecks stealing your irrigation pump right out of the field just when you’ve put in the spring seedlings. I’m friends with many of the people farming sustainably and conscientiously around Baltimore, and they’re not rich by any stretch of the imagination. Most can only dream of farming land they own. They do this kind of farming because they believe in it, and I absolutely understand that the food they produce costs what it does for some very solid reasons.

Those reasons, however, simply don’t factor into my distressingly limited budget these days. My ideals are by necessity on hold while I work my way back to financial solid ground. So instead of the organic, grass-fed milk I used to buy from a farm within walking distance from my house, these days I’m pulling the generic gallon—from cows kept God-knows-where and fed God-knows-what while amped up on tons of antibiotics, but selling for less than half the price—from the Walmart dairy case. We’ll be OK drinking the generic milk, which is at least hormone-free. And so it goes: I buy the best ingredients I can afford, given the circumstances, and work from there.
Emphasis is mine. "Local rednecks," to be clear, are the people who steal irrigation pumps from local sustainable farms. As far as I can tell, she has no words of derision for the people who shop at Walmart – although, again, I'm happy to be corrected here.
posted by koeselitz at 12:34 AM on October 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


Can we please stop doing the "You don't know what being poor is really like" and the "You suck at being poor" stuff? It's happening in two threads now and is both a derail and offensive.
posted by digitalprimate at 1:29 AM on October 21, 2012 [21 favorites]


I live in Yakima, Washington, only ONE Farmer's
Market vendor actually takes EBT. Prices are a bit higher than grocery store.
And if you don't drive, and don't have a ride, the bus runs hourly on Sundays, if you need to transfer, it can be 2 or 3 hours to get home again.
Plus, I've gotten sick off Farmer's Market veggies a few times. So I get the big bags of frozen. There's some vegetables Mr. Roquette and I grow, with varying success. We have to fight mice and the neighbor's furry poop-machinesOOOPS! I mean the Sacred Dogs to get any home grown veggies. Oh and ear-wigs. I wish I could have a couple chickens, but somehow in the Land Of The Sacred Dog, chickens are not an urban animal.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 1:46 AM on October 21, 2012


Variety is expensive. Healthy is not. Rice and beans with supplements will keep you going.

And yet I believe we should make sure everyone has a varied, tasty and nutritious diet no matter their income. And health care. And education.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:48 AM on October 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Can we please stop doing the "You don't know what being poor is really like" and the "You suck at being poor" stuff? It's happening in two threads now and is both a derail and offensive.

No bloody kidding. For the record, $24,000 is about 125% of the HHS poverty guidelines for a family of three. It's not destitute, but objecting to calling an income of that order "poor" is like insisting that when you were a kid, you had to walk to school, uphill, in the snow, both ways.
posted by valkyryn at 4:52 AM on October 21, 2012 [15 favorites]


Am I naive in thinking that one measure to make good food more affordable is (re)introducing farmers' markets?

Minneapolis probably thinks they've accomplished this brilliantly. To their credit, they do have small farmers' markets scattered throughout the city and they may even be legitimately distributed throughout the city, though I can't find a comprehensive list. The one near me, however, gets a whopping two farmers. I'm pretty sure they both take WIC (certainly one does). They are, however, not particularly cheap and for some reason you buy things in pre-determined lots, not by weight. So you can only buy four zucchini, not one. But at least they're local farmers, selling local crops, which is more than can be said for the farmer's market downtown, which features fruit and veg that transparently don't grow in Minnesota (pineapple and bananas, anyone?) unpacked from boxes with labels saying places like California.

In the interests of full disclosure, I live really close to downtown, which may explain why my neighbourhood farmers market gets only two famers--we could just walk to downtown on Thursday instead. The other small ones get like four or five farms. Someone once suggested that to sell things by weight, you probably need a certified scale, which could be fairly expensive for the small farms (where one family is doing all the labor), but it's a trend that holds downtown, where we're really talking about produce re-selling operations not farms, for a good chunk of booths.
posted by hoyland at 5:02 AM on October 21, 2012


Forktine: b) the ways we subsidize industrial food production helps keep local and organic food out of the mainstream;

Or, from the other angle, the way we subsidize industrial food production makes her able to feed a family for $5.06 per meal, on relatively healthy and decent food. It's not as good as she would like; it's a little less appealing, and maybe a little less nutritious, but it's still very good food by any reasonable standard. It's nothing like eating at, say, Burger King.

I wish her well, and I hope she can increase her income a little so that she can get back to the super-premium food she'd prefer, but at least she's showing that's very possible to eat quite healthily on food stamps. I worry much more about the other mothers that aren't as smart as she is.
posted by Malor at 5:24 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


where these mythical cheap farmers markets are

We have one in Houston -- if you visit us, it's Canino Produce. It's local food, for the most part, and it's about the same cost as at the local grocery stores. This is not the kind of place that has "heirloom" anything, or where you can get soaps made with exotic spices and goat milk, or where budding culinary artists sell delicate macaroons from a stand (that's all our other farmers markets). It's mostly Hispanic farm workers from outlying areas who have put their farm produce in boxes, loaded the boxes into a pickup, and driven to the market where they've bought a space. The further back you go (it is very big -- 20,000 square feet), the cheaper the costs get because in the back you can negotiate prices while in the front it's run with set prices and a cash register. In the back, it's hard to negotiate prices with our food stamp debit card. However, nobody there will tell you that they don't spray for insects or use chemical fertilizers.

That area does have some poor people, but it's become a fashionable place to live so poor people are being shoved out. Public transportation is possible, but we're talking about taking a bus, with kids in tow, which still costs money. Getting a couple of kids ready and then paying the bus fare both ways and lugging groceries on the bus are all things that would have to be considered. The place closes at 8PM, so if you are working you really have to hustle.

Let's say you live by the Astrodome, as a lot of poor people do. You can be at the bus stop at 6PM. The bus will take you from there to the farmers market by 7:09. Get back to the bus stop by 8:32, and arrive at the Astrodome at 9:21 PM. Cost: $1.25 for the adult, .60 for each kid, each way (so, a total of just under $5 with two kids). Now you have two exhausted kids, and you're walking at night in a rough neighborhood carrying your groceries. Nobody's had dinner, everyone's tired, and you got to get them bathed and in bed to be ready for school. So much easier to go to the Fiesta grocery store --- which has lots of cheap and good produce -- just a few blocks from home. Like the farmers market, Fiesta doesn't really do the organic thing, either, though, although a lot of their produce is also (unmarked as such but still) local.

So, if she lived in Houston and wanted SOLE, she'd be going to Whole Foods (what we call Whole Paycheck). These are primarily in the wealthier neighborhoods, but there are 3 inside the loop and available by public transport. But, "whole paycheck" when you don't have a paycheck makes no sense. She can, however, get shade-grown coffee beans instead of a generic store-brand coffee.
posted by Houstonian at 5:36 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


hoyland - there are two sections to the downtown farmer's market; the "real" section has local farmers and authorized resellers, the other half is not affiliated with the market proper but has an adjacent lot so in most people's eyes is viewed as part of it. The authorized resellers are fine selling produce from out of state, at a reduced price vs. local supermarkets. The remaining folks are local growers selling local products. You make it sound like the whole thing is resellers...
posted by caution live frogs at 6:13 AM on October 21, 2012


"Local rednecks," to be clear, are the people who steal irrigation pumps from local sustainable farms.

Well where do they shop and/or shoplift, if it isn't the places she has to hold her nose to enter? "Rednecks" is obviously a derogatory term here - she's not calling her organic local farmer friends rednecks, she's using it to refer to some unpalatable class of people. It's not just a synonym for thieves or criminals.

I think that if Mitt Romney was to casually say something like that about rednecks, there would be no question that he was talking down to a stereotyped group of people. Ms. Gienow shouldn't get a pass on it because she has more agreeable views on agriculture and the food industry.
posted by XMLicious at 6:39 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


This just seems like another article about the powerlessness of a consumer. As far as I can tell, all she does is attempt to buy this stuff from whatever over-priced retail establishment she went to before.

She's quite clear about her membership in a CSA, the fact that she frequents farmers markets, etc. She mentions a couple of grocery stores by name, but she talks far more about the other places she acquires food.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:53 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is "local assholes" better?
posted by josher71 at 7:04 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is "local assholes" better?

"Tweakers" is probably the correct term, especially if they are stealing copper line or aluminum pipe at the same time.
posted by Forktine at 7:09 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Emphasis is mine. "Local rednecks," to be clear, are the people who steal irrigation pumps from local sustainable farms. As far as I can tell, she has no words of derision for the people who shop at Walmart – although, again, I'm happy to be corrected here.

it illustrates the point that there is class-warfare going on in the US and young, idealistic, organic/sustainable farmers are not on the same side of that fight as poor rednecks.

I think this thread illustrates that metafilter just can't talk about class issues in the US... but I'll add my two cents anyway....
posted by ennui.bz at 7:18 AM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think that the young, idealistic, organic/sustainable farmers probably ARE on the same side of that fight as poor rednecks. Although outreach between the two groups is poor and they likely don't know they are allies.

The group which isn't on the same side is the one which goes around stealing things off other people's property. But then, they aren't on the same side as anyone.

The characterization by her was poor, and leapt out at me immediately during reading her piece. It betrays prejudices she holds which she likely hasn't thought much about (otherwise, as a seasoned blogger, she would avoid using loaded language such as that). It would have been better if she had phrased it another way entirely.
posted by hippybear at 7:31 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


What upset me wasn't her article at all; she has my sympathy for trying to get the best food possible for her family. What upset me was the topmost comment on the article - "Are there no poorhouses?". Jesus wept.
posted by arcticseal at 7:33 AM on October 21, 2012


I know it's different in rural areas with fruit stands, etc. but I've always wondered where these mythical cheap farmers markets are.

Dunno if we count as "rural" but our Farmer's Market here in Portland, Maine is certainly at least as cheap as the supermarket. They also have a token program that allows you to use your WIC/SNAP benefits at 90% of the forty or so vendors at the market. I'm not sure if it will continue, though, because the token program had a recent indiegogo fundraising campaign that only raised about 20% of what they needed to continue the token program.

But, yeah, at least in our community, the farmer's markets are a) accessible; b) affordable; and c) actually used by people in need of food assistance.
posted by anastasiav at 7:35 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


... and not abuse the edit window:

I'm in almost exactly the same boat as Ms. Gienow. So, I'll say, along with esmeralda that it's not so hard for a family of three to eat well on ~$400 a month... if you eat a lot of rice and beans and if "well" means totally disregarding any attempt at SOLE food. I tried introducing more potatoes, but my youngest rejected them and if you think middle-aged middle class women are the most demanding eaters in the US, think again.

But, I have to say. The point being made here is really fucking obvious and it's amazing how far you people will go to avoid the basic fact that EXPENSIVE FOOD IS EXPENSIVE AND IF YOU ARE ON A BUDGET YOU CAN'T AFFORD EXPENSIVE THINGS SOMETIMES. That's the whole point of Gienow's article, and esmeralda's comment.

It's like everything in America, every discussion of real issues, and food is a totally realy issue, just goes into lala land instantaneously, so you have the libertarian brigade yelling "try harder, citizen" the liberals bemoaning how paltry food stamp aid is, and crypto-libertarian "progressives" muttering about the evils of subsidized food. I supposed the conservatives are sitting back and saying "see Ms. Gienow, this is what you get for leaving your husband."

I think that the young, idealistic, organic/sustainable farmers probably ARE on the same side of that fight as poor rednecks. Although outreach between the two groups is poor and they likely don't know they are allies.

except the young idealistic farmers seem to come from "middle class" families and they are making expensive food for other "middle class" people. my next door neighbors are at the center of a catalytic converter theft ring, so believe me I have little sympathy for thieving rednecks. but i think the sides there are clear.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:36 AM on October 21, 2012 [11 favorites]


Well where do they shop and/or shoplift, if it isn't the places she has to hold her nose to enter?

I'd be surprised if the Walmart she's going to is right beside the small organic farms her friends work on. I think the "rednecks" were "local" to the farms, not to where she's now doing her shopping.
posted by yoink at 7:37 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm in California and despite being local to a large variety of produce (not bananas or pineapples) farmers markets are still pretty expensive. And they're not year-round.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:40 AM on October 21, 2012


I'm in California and despite being local to a large variety of produce (not bananas or pineapples) farmers markets are still pretty expensive. And they're not year-round.

I guess that depends where you are. I'm in Southern California and there are three or four year-round Farmer's Market's within a 15 minute drive from my house. Of course, I could get almost everything I buy there cheaper at the local supermarket (that is, lower-quality and/or non-organic equivalents of the same produce).
posted by yoink at 7:44 AM on October 21, 2012


> Her kids would survive just fine eating peaches only in the summer

She's trying to buy peaches in season. Her point was that the local peaches were more expensive than peaches trucked in from 3,000 miles away.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:25 AM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


We have exactly one farmer's market in my area, and it's pretty much a joke. There's a tiny corner of locally-grown produce...usually a few ears of corn, some zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, etc. All priced over double the price of their supermarket cousins.

The rest of the store is given-over to a few shelves of the usual-suspects in the pre-packaged/canned organic stuffs (Muir Glen, Kashi, etc.), a bank of bulk dried-grain and bean dispensers, and refrigerator cases with regional artisinal cheeses and meats, all priced far in excess of my budget's ability.

The dirty secret re: farmer's markets is that, unless the market is located in the middle of a truly diverse farming region, most of the vegetables, fruits, etc. are bought from wholesalers that also supply regular markets. There's usually scant-little actual locally-grown produce in a lot of farmer's markets.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:31 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


What upset me was the topmost comment on the article - "Are there no poorhouses?". Jesus wept.

"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?" The bell struck twelve. Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not.
posted by Nomyte at 9:36 AM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Mild derail but -- where I come from (rural Florida), rednecks don't get a red neck by stealing stuff. They get it by working long hours in the sun, typically either doing farming or construction (both of which dictate the quintessential redneck accessory -- an F150 longbed). So while rednecks are often poor and often have rough hands and coarse speech, they're also pretty good folks to have as friends. And while some of them are scoundrels and some are drunks and some are thieves, most of them are just trying to make their way in the world with the assets they've got, like the rest of us.

.. back in the 80s the joke was you'd ask a redneck how come he's called a redneck and he'd say it was from the bright red glow of the display of his in-cab CB radio.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:43 AM on October 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thorzdad, what you describe is a traditional retail shop, rather than a farmers' market, which is a place where multiple independent vendors can rent spaces and sell to consumers directly. If that's all you have, you have zero farmers' markets in your area.
posted by grouse at 9:47 AM on October 21, 2012



From someone who spent a few years growing (although a small amount) of veggies and selling them at farmers markets. I had big dreams when I started of being part of creating a local food heaven for everyone. Then reality set it.

As a small grower, growing and getting food to market is a crap ton of work for very little payback. Without economies of scale, profit margins are very tight. You're also dealing with all the fun things that come with farming that make every growing year different. Weather, bugs, crop failures or low yield (can be different each year). Wonky weather (climate change) makes patterns harder to predict now. Smaller growers also tend to have less capacity for things like short term storage so there is a lot more planning needed to get the food to the customer while fresh and before spoilage. I could go on and on. The main point is lots of work for small margins.

When I was growing if I calculated the hours spent verses money brought in and averaged over the season I was making just over our provinces minimum wage. In areas where local and organic food growing has been for some time systems that support this type of growing are developing that decrease costs which is great. It can be a tough slog though. In a nutshell the corporate, industrial system that has changed the landscape of food growing areas does not support local/organic very well and the system that supports this type of growing has to be rebilit or built. There are a lot of behind the scenes farming support systems that most people don't know much about.

As a grower in this sort of situation as it is with any business the question is 'What can I grow and sell to support myself." The answer unfortunately is not so conducive to getting great food to people with tight incomes.

When looking at a market both large scale or market as in farmers market you end up having to make decisions around things like sale prices. More urban markets tend to bring in more money for the same bit of produce. People in the closets small town to me will generally be willing to pay a little bit more for a cucumber then the grocery store price. Drive an hour and half and the price that people will pay for that same cucumber goes up. Take that same cucumber to some of the markets around Toronto and you could get double that price.

In larger urban markets there are more people with the money and are willing to spend that money for this type of food. For some produce the average farmer market price can be quadruple in the GTA then around my locale. This is one of the reasons that a few growers that I've know over the years now truck a good portion of their produce down to TO once a week, or sell to a distributor who collects from several farms and goes to market.

People are also willing to pay more for foodstuffs that are different. I could make more money growing purple carrots, purple potatoes, uncommon type tomatoes and fancier varieties of greens then just planting generics varieties in the same spot. In general this is one of the reasons you find a lot of smaller 'local' food producers focusing on artisan type foodstuffs and varieties of veggies. I know at least two growers that once served the whole community but now grow specific things and sell mostly to higher end restaurants.

It's not greed at play here or lack of general desire to grow accessible local, quality, organic food for everyone. It's sheer economics both internally and externally. It's hard to convince someone that it's better to sell a cucumber for 50 cents when there is someone out there that will pay 2 dollars and if they grow polka dot cucumbers in the same space someone will pay 4 dollars for it. For many growers it's choice between having good food on their own tables and someone elses.

Right now in most places the entire system and it's supports is just not set up in a manner where the economics of providing this type of food to those with lower incomes appealing or even economically viable for people producing it. It sucks, especially for people who actually want to do it.

There is good news though. Over the years I have seen changes and see systems being built that make for more accessible food and good prices. The demand for it is growing which is great. The kicker is that many of these changes are occuring because the larger industrial system is jumping in. Things like large grocery chains promoting 'buy local' etc.
I see both positive and negative in this.

I should stop now. I could go on and on about this issue.
posted by Jalliah at 9:48 AM on October 21, 2012 [34 favorites]


I'd be surprised if the Walmart she's going to is right beside the small organic farms her friends work on. I think the "rednecks" were "local" to the farms, not to where she's now doing her shopping.

The farms that are "raising righteous vegetables" are local to her - that's part of the whole point of this exercise. It's all in the same local area.

But regardless of where she thinks the rednecks live, the hoity-toityness makes me feel less sympathy for her plight of having to shop at Walmart for food from God-knows-where with the rest of us.

On another note, though, yay for purple carrots. I just accept that I might have to pay more for them, and more to buy them locally, and maybe give up eating the Joe's O's in exchange; and that yeah, once you're in line for social services the days of patronage of artisans as though you're a member of the nobility, even artisanal farmers and bakers and the rest, is over. At least any substantial patronage. In fact you may end up mostly growing your purple carrots yourself in your window boxes.
posted by XMLicious at 10:06 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find it hard to reconcile the $426 per month she mentions with my food stamp allotment works out to just $5.06 per meal for my three-person family. Is she counting two or three meals a day at $5.06 each? I think most people trying to live frugally would budget for a dirt-cheap breakfast, very basic lunch, and one reasonable meal a day. Out of a food budget of $14 or $15 a day, I would expect to spend $9 or $10 on dinner and a lot less on lunch, rather than counting it as '$5.06 per meal'. I can sympathize with her plight, but I'd like to see her arithmetic laid out more clearly.
posted by Azara at 10:27 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The word organic is sadly misused. What the FDA allows to be labeled organic is ludicrous. If you're buying perfectly formed "organic" fruit and vegetables, I'll bet they've been treated in various ways. I garden, and organic vegies and fruits are often smaller and have blemishes. They usually taste wonderful, and you can pick them fresh when they're young, but they just don't look the same. I've never had strawberries the size of a baseball!

Here, ethnic markets (Latino and pan-Asian) are a surer bet, but the provenance of the veggies there is dubious at best.

This for truth. Even our so-called locally produced farmer's markets carry more out of state foods than not. People expect to have things that are not in season, or items like bananas, avocados, oranges, etc.

Jalliah has it down. Farming is WORK. Artisan type foodstuffs and exotic varieties are where the money's at. Shopping at an upscale weekend farmer's market is a wonderful experience, but that's stuff's pricey. If I had the room and the setup, I could raise a couple happy organic pigs for butcher, but it's real work, feeding and caring for animals. You don't take vacations or be late for feeding unless you want to mess up your weight gains. I can't afford to buy organic pork, because producers want a profit, and catering to the (upper) middle class makes it worth their time.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:34 AM on October 21, 2012


Organic certification is another broken part of the whole broken system. People want yes/no answers and are reassured by the idea of certification. They don't want to get into the details of things like plant derived pesticides. And the idea that small farms can't afford to buy into certification.

You can also tell when things are grown in hoop houses vs exposed to the elements. Especially with the extreme heat this summer, I could see the difference.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:51 AM on October 21, 2012


This reminds me of those Soviet era movies where the Russians get culture shock after seeing an American supermarket. I wonder what those Russians would think about this article.
posted by Brocktoon at 11:51 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wah! I applied for the "free car assistance program" and all I can get with it is a crappy Ford Focus!

It sounds like you'd rather that, instead of complaining about her food situation in the pages of a newspaper, she find a way to increase her income by earning money in the private sector using her skills and experience, which consists of... writing about food in the newspaper.
posted by escabeche at 12:18 PM on October 21, 2012


The remaining folks are local growers selling local products. You make it sound like the whole thing is resellers...

I'm talking about the farmers' market on Nicollet, rather than the one over on Lyndale, which isn't the most accessible thing ever (I'm sure it's possible to get there on foot, but it's a trick I've yet to manage). There are actual producers at the one on Nicollet, but they seem to overwhelmingly be selling prepared food items. There's definitely an issue of the farmers and resellers not being obviously distinguishable, aside from the people selling obvious non-local produce.
posted by hoyland at 12:20 PM on October 21, 2012


"All shopkeepers are thieves."
posted by box at 1:01 PM on October 21, 2012


This reminds me of those Soviet era movies where the Russians get culture shock after seeing an American supermarket. I wonder what those Russians would think about this article.

I was born in the former USSR in 1984 and came to the US at the age of 12. My mother was a divorced parent and we lived in my maternal grandparents' house: me, my mother, her sister, her sister's husband, and eventually their toddler. It was a sturdy brick house my grandparents built with their own hands after the war on a decently sized plot of land at the edge of the city.

The house had a cellar with a trap door, and a bunch of crawlspaces, and an attic that smelled like pine resin. Over their lifetimes, my grandparents kept making gradual improvements and additions to the house: indoor plumbing and gas heat, a detached garage, a workshop with extra kitchen space, a coal shed.

I was aware of the fact that my family wasn't as well-off as others. Across the unpaved street from my grandparents there lived a retired army doctor and his dentist son, with their spouses. Their house had two floors with better Christmas lights and a fancy grandfather clock, and the dentist's young daughter always had new imported toys. I didn't like that very much.

Our neighbors next door also had a young daughter who came outside to play, but I was never invited to visit her house. I had no idea what her family did, and no one ever told me or talked about them much. When I visited most recently, their home had become a compound with a tall brick wall, security cameras, and a strong metal gate.

But my grandparents weren't exactly poor, either. A bit down the road there was a shaggy, overgrown lot with a higgledy-piggledy fence and a dilapidated old house that looked like a witch's hut. Inside it lived several retirees who either didn't have a lot of local relatives, or whose relatives could not otherwise support them. And our neighbors next door in the other direction also had a dilapidated house that sat on an oversized, overgrown lot. (Later on, that lot was also bought by some New Russians who put a 12-foot brick fence around it.) My family members also weren't the kind of big-city folk who lived in highrise apartments in nuclear family units, like some of my classmates in elementary school did.

Lots were big and land was cheap. The infrastructure in place simply didn't support sprawl.

What my grandparents lacked in wealth they made up in industry. They were superhumanly industrious. Neither of them made it past 70. My grandfather was in decline when I was little, but he (and his father before him) had made all the furniture around the house and did all the plumbing and electrical work. There was a well, and he had rigged a kerosene pump to draw water from the well and irrigate the lot via a series of steel pipes. I've never seen anything quite like it since.

My grandmother was a WW2 orphan born in 1938. I never saw her come to a standstill when the weather was warm. She worked at the steel mill as a machinist until retiring at 50 to take care of me. But decades before retiring, she had filled the lot with fruit and vegetable plants and flowers. The garden and orchard consumed her exhaustively.

The flowers were for sale to supplement the family's income. They grew in plots about ten by three meters, separated with boards to walk on. Depending on what they were planted with, some plots might have rotated in the course of a single year. She planted dahlias, gladiolas, mums, peonies, tiger lilies, lupines, and lots and lots of tulips. I can still tell you what flowers when.

The tilling, fertilizing, planting, watering, covering, weeding, cutting, digging up, and storing required constant and backbreaking work. I remember these seasonal rituals with nostalgic fondness, but by then my grandmother had already retired. My mother still recalls with horror having to come home from school over lunch to cut flowers.

Besides flowers, we grew fruits and vegetables. To keep the soil from getting exhausted, the plots rotated at least once a year, more often with plants that grow from bulbs, which could be dug up after they flower and wither away. (We also fertilized extensively with phosphates). We almost never had to go to the market for anything. Every year, we had potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, radishes, eggplant, beets, onions and garlic. Herbs like parsley, dill, and sorrel were self-sowing and grew everywhere in impenetrable thickets. The lot was ringed with trees bearing three kinds of apples (fruiting early, mid-season, and late), sweet and sour cherries (several kinds), plums, peaches, and apricots. Something was always in season, always bountiful, always fresh off the tree, and always absurdly bountiful. An hour's drive outside town my grandparents also had a dacha plot, which they also somehow tended in their spare time, with yet more potatoes and pears and strawberries, and forests of prickly raspberry canes, and bushes loaded with three kinds of currants, and gooseberry bushes armed with inch-long thorns.

Several times each summer huge cauldron-like pots would be set up to save the surplus. Apples were juiced. Plums and strawberries boiled, lava-like, with kilos of sugar, turning into jam. (As a young child, my aunt upended one of these cauldrons on herself. One of her arms is extensively scarred.) Uncountable tomatoes were crushed and boiled down into puree, stored in corked bottles sealed with tar.

Each year was a rotating magical cavalcade of growing and harvesting, slicing and boiling, sprouting and flowering. Your supermarkets are a pale shadow by comparison. Whole Foods is really the closest you come, and even that is just a fraction of what I grew up with. Your supermarkets are constrained by what grows fastest and travels best. All of your fruits come in a single variety the size and texture of an underripe baseball. You pay an arm and a leg for squishable fruit like raspberries. Others, like currants and gooseberries, you see rarely or never. The two distinguishing features of American supermarkets are the tropical fruit, which is a legacy of American imperialism in the early part of the 20th century, and the fact that everything is trucked in out of season. Yes, growing up I ate what was in season, and things like bananas, figs, and persimmons were a rare treat. But in terms of variety, fragrance, and flavor, I've never seen anything that comes close to the garden of Eden that my grandmother tended.

P.S.: We never took any of our fruit or vegetables to market. It never made sense financially.
posted by Nomyte at 1:21 PM on October 21, 2012 [39 favorites]


organic vegies ... usually taste wonderful

The evidence from blinded studies is that organic veggies taste no better or worse than conventionally produced veg.

(I'm sure your veggies do taste wonderful, but I'll wager it's because they are (a) fresher (b) younger and (c) tasty heirloom varieties rather than veg selected for appearance).
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:48 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


We've lost a lot of knowledge that must have been universal before WWII. I am lucky to have been taught how to manage a household by my gran, rather than my mother. My mother is a good cook, but she cooks and thinks a lot like the writer here.
When I was young, and lived a lot of the time at my grandparents, they were not poor at all. But my grandmother had been born poor, and she had managed a household of 5-9 people with very many guests (up to 80!) and no money when she was young. Till her death, she always thought of cooking within the context of household management. This meant she would always look at what was in season and cheap at the stores. She only bought best quality, and in huge amounts, and then worked with her freezer and different forms of preservation to use every tiny part of everything. Vegetable peelings would go into a broth along with the bones of something. She had lots of jars of fat, with or without some content. She made sausages, and pickled fish and vegetables. Fish leftovers would become salads. She loved beans and lentils, and we'd get them in a thousand different variations. At one point she had ducks and hens, and really enjoyed how nothing went to waste, but she wasn't good at keeping the fox out. Specially when she was old, and couldn't do anything on her own anymore, she'd chase me around the markets and stores, and afterwards the kitchen: I'm grateful, because it was like going to school again.
BTW she embraced organic foods to some extent. At the market, she'd touch and turn every single vegetable and fruit, and often but not always, the organic food won. Milk and butter had to be organic.
posted by mumimor at 4:58 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


How possible this is must vary greatly by location.

I work in center city Philadelphia and live in a neighborhood a 15 minute el ride from my office. I shop largely at Reading Terminal Market which sells a little bit of everything in something like 100 stands, but emphasizes local and fresh produce. You can buy hand-foraged herbs and fancy heirloom veggies, but there are also several vendors who sell vegetables for prices that are consistently less than supermarkets. Importantly, many of the vendors accept WIC and EBT cards. It's conveniently located a block or so from a subway stop and a regional rail terminal.

We also have The Food Trust, which runs over 25 farmer's markets in and around the city. Most again take WIC and EBT, and additionally give a $2 coupon for every $5 of EBT spent.

In my neighborhood there is "Farm to Families" program that sells boxes of fresh local fruit veg, eggs, and poultry for $10 or $15 (two large sizes) weekly. Greensgrow Farm, located in the neighborhood, also has a weekly program that you can pay for with SNAP benefits. It's $13/wk, gets you the box of veggies plus $4 in coupons for more, and also a class on cooking if you want (complete with childcare during the class). This neighborhood, while rapidly gentrifying in parts, is also part of one of the poorest congressional districts in the country.

So it helps that the Buy Fresh, Buy Local pro-organic crew here are also very actively trying to make this food affordable to everyone.

But it also helps that we're located where we are. SE PA, especially Lancaster County, is home to come of the most fertile non-irrigated land in the US and never seems to have switched to the all-corn-all-the-time ag model of the rest of the country. NJ, as far as I can tell, also seems to grow just about everything except tropicals. PA is fifth in the country in dairy production, and Kennett Square in Chester County produces half the mushrooms in the country. When things are in season they are almost definitely local even if not advertised as such. It's going to be vastly easier to buy local food affordably here than many many other parts of the country. Our settlement patterns no longer directly relate to where food comes from.
posted by sepviva at 6:56 PM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just a data point from China (Beijing):

Veggie & meat markets are on every block. Fresh food? Hell yeah. It's awesome. $2 would cover a decent family dinner.

How do they do it? Factory farms for only the most factory-able stuff (milk, eggs, pigs, cows), huge government subsidies for smallhold farmers (they are not taxed, period), major government investment in experimental farming techniques (greenhouses are a common sight in the countryside), daily imports from every freakin' province and , dogs banned, chickens and gardens a common sight outside major business districts and core urban residential areas, insane pesticides, little if any attention to organic food, well over 40% of the population owning farms, family structures that encourage having someone at home to do the cooking, a foodie culture that doesn't acknowledge "heirloom" anything, a willingness to eat just about any part of anything that was once alive, and a national fiscal policy to keep prices of staple goods down as far as they can go so the smallhold farmers/peasants don't start food riots, and so that they can afford to eat on, like, $2000/year incomes (and much less in some places), and mandates that space be set aside in every neighborhood for these markets, no matter how much it costs, because otherwise farmers would just plop a tarp down in whatever thoroughfare they could find.

It's almost the opposite of what the US is doing (subsidizing factory farms, huge mechanized farms, handing out food stamps, trying to revive farmer's markets, local/organic food movement), but it presents a whole new set of problems to the food prices issue. There is no perfect answer to the problem of food and never will be. The optimum policies are going to be a managed middle.

And that's what gets me about "organic" and "local" and "SOLE" or however they're trying to brand labor-intensive dirt-digging these days. They make it "high-end" so they can sell it for higher prices, and I think it should exist where it's justifiable at what it costs, but I also think that branding is kind of shooting us in the foot. The biggest difference I see in China is that what passes for "organic", "heirloom", "hand-reared", and other such labels here is often subsidized by government initiatives under the rubric of "experimental agricultural development", or whatever the official-speak is this year. Say what you will about stodgy Communists, but this is one place they get it right. Why is it heirloom? Why can't it be research? Why can't it be part of a program to find out what else we can grow sustainably and eat? Why does it have to be a luxury?

Food isn't my field, so all I know about it is from what I get from anecdotes and news articles, but the larger picture I see in the US is that we're not doing ourselves any favors by focusing cheap food subsidies on staple crops.

Scrap government-sponsored farmer's markets, I say, and pay farmers to grow unconventional foods and experiment with ways to grow them better. Pay local businesses to find ways to use them for a few years. Build local tastes for certain crops, and where they will sustain themselves, cut them loose before they have time to hire lobbyists to make the subsidies permanent. Where they won't sustain themselves...we tried, cut 'em loose, I'm sure there's certainly a small but determined demographic for heirloom durians who would pay whatever it takes to get them, if we had something like a national food exchange on the web, and that's the kind of market that would pay for the packaging, refrigeration, and fuel needed to make it happen. And for god's sake, allow people on food stamps to buy them at a discount while we're testing these new foods and trying to find new recipes/develop new local markets for them. Wouldn't that be more equitable than trying to hike up the price of what's effectively garden produce with labels like "organic"? And wouldn't that be a better use for government money than more f**kin' corn?????
posted by saysthis at 8:22 PM on October 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


hoyland -- All the action is at the giant farmer's market on North Lyndale. It is kind of hard to find, but it is seriously 1000 times the size of the ones on Nicollet and West River. The season is almost over, but on a nice summer day it is actually hard to buy anything because of the huge crowds.

The St. Paul farmer's market is good too, it is only local farmers (no resellers, no crafts) so it is smaller but preferred by the foodies.
posted by miyabo at 9:25 PM on October 21, 2012


These days, farmers' markets come close to pissing me off more often than not. They're generally waaay more expensive than normal markets for reasons I can't fathom.

Here's one example. A bunch of locally grown broccoli is available for sale both inside my co-op and outside at the farmer stand. The same amount costs $1 more at the stand. Why? I don't know. But I suspect it's because these markets have become more about the show and entertainment of buying food outdoors, rather than actually getting food from farmers at a reasonable price.

I laugh at articles written a few years ago that encourage farmers' markets as a way to save money over supermarkets. If that ever were true, it was maybe 10 years ago. Now you're guaranteed to be paying a premium over what you'd pay in a grocery store, even for local produce. Another example -- local low-spray apples are $1.52/lb (or $4 for a quarter-peck which is often an even better deal) and every Weds/Thurs they have a special sale and knock them down to around $1.05/lb. Good luck finding any outdoor market in the area that sells apples for less than the equivalent of $2/lb.

Meat used to be actually something you could buy for reliably cheap at markets vs. stores. But locally raised meat is now so popular that most places (including, again, my trusty co-op) also offer it too. If it is slightly cheaper at the market (it usually isn't) that's offset by the selection -- the market stalls generally sell out of the cheaper or more popular cuts first thing in the morning, leaving anyone unfortunate enough to show up after 10-11 am only puny frozen slabs of filet mignon at genuinely unthinkable prices.

We did a CSA last year and decided to pass this year because we knew we just couldn't do it with the kid around. We might go for it next year. Our CSA is really cheap, averaging around $16/week or so. The weather last year was pretty disastrous for our CSA; we only had 2-3 weeks of tomatoes before a combo blight/bad weather obliterated the crop. Still, when it comes to buying direct it's maybe the best deal going. You get a lot of produce (although, not always of your choosing) for the money you spend.

I think the key is to combine some reliable but fairly cheap local option -- like the CSA -- with realistic non-local and non-organic choices to fill out the rest of your diet. Not to mention that there are a lot of factors to balance out when buying these things. Transportation isn't always the most environmentally harmful aspect of getting food to your fridge. In fact, the largest carbon footprint is usually the drive to the store. So if you're driving 20 minutes out of your way to the farmers' market just to save the environment, you might skip that and go to the big name store that's a 15 minute walk (and I realize that there are plenty of other reasons for supporting small & local businesses).
posted by Deathalicious at 7:31 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nomyte, I enjoyed your story, but I'm looking at a much bigger picture here. Where there not severe food shortages and crippling bread lines in Soviet Russia during the the 1980s? And it's only an example. Say what you will about how disgusted you are with supermarkets (which are much more than just shitty fruit); your grandparents started a garden, my grandparents gave us food security across all social strata, and accordingly I reject your moral superiority.
posted by Brocktoon at 9:43 PM on October 22, 2012


I'll just add that re: milk, my local grocery store is craaap (every few months I make the mistake of buying a piece of produce there to my misfortune) but the one thing it does offer that is very nice is that its generic store brand milk is rgbh-free and relatively cheap.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:58 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Where there not severe food shortages and crippling bread lines in Soviet Russia during the the 1980s?

The lines of the 80s were nothing compared to the lines of the 90s.

Also, since last night, the word "crippling" has lost all meaning to me. Crippling!
posted by Nomyte at 4:36 AM on October 23, 2012


This drives me a little crazy: "I’d already checked the supermarket, which was offering pale, mealy peaches from California, on sale for 99 cents per pound, picked before fully ripened so as to withstand transport. The fiscal legerdemain of agricultural subsidies makes it possible for industrial-scale producers to truck crappy fruit all the way across the U.S. and sell it—profitably, one assumes—for less than local producers can afford to sell the glorious, in-season fruit they grow right damned here."

Having worked for the California Tree Fruit Agreement, the marketing order for California peach, plum, and nectarine growers, for several years, during which I heard innumerable complaints from our growers about how the U.S. subsidizes crops that are not generally leading to better health...does this *food writer* not know that produce doesn't receive subsidies?

I won't argue that there aren't California growers who pick their fruit too soon, because there are (and as to paleness, the color of peaches and nectarines is a matter of their variety and has nothing to do with their ripeness, except for right around the stem area, where it should be yellow rather than light green), but when you're confronted with a mealy peach...mealiness is largely the result of temperature abuse (holding the fruit at refrigerator temperatures before it's soft), and temperature abuse happens after the fruit is loaded on the truck and leaves the control of the packinghouse. We tried our utmost to combat temperature abuse, but when you have one small-volume commodity that needs a special kind of handling (as opposed to a large volume one like, say, bananas), not a lot of supermarket chains do a good job with them. In California, strangely, it wasn't generally difficult to get a great peach at the supermarket in my experience.

The other complaint I heard most often from growers, and can testify to because I was the analyst responsible for tracking retail prices, was that no matter how low wholesale box prices went, the supermarkets never dropped their prices an appropriate amount in response. Growers have absolutely zero power over retail prices, believe me. When you're selling a box of fruit to a supermarket chain for $0.50 per lb., and they're selling it for $1.99 per lb., that rankles growers. When the wholesale price drops to $0.30 per lb., and the retail price drops to *maybe* $1.49 per lb....that really angers them.

The other thing that's been going on for the past dozen years or so in California's stone fruit business is that growers, by and large, are *not* performing profitably. In the last dozen years, the number of packinghouses dropped by two-thirds. In that same time, the number of growers had dropped from 700+ to a few hundred. The winter news, every year I worked there, was sobering: Hundreds of acres of stone fruit trees were bulldozed out of existence as people got out of the business. There is less fruit now, and the industry has consolidated enormously, pushing the little guys out in the process.

And now the California Tree Fruit Agreement itself doesn't even exist anymore. After more than 75 years, it was voted out of existence in 2011, because the industry was in such straits that just enough of them didn't feel like it was a reasonable expense anymore, and after all that consolidation, the big guys didn't want to pay for things they could do for themselves that the CTFA was able to help the little guys with.

There ends my stone fruit rant.
posted by jocelmeow at 10:35 AM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why would a 20 cent drop in wholesale prices resulting in a 50 cent drop in retail prices anger tree fruit retailers? I mean, I could see it if they were angry that there was apparently 30 additional cents in profit that the stores could have cut before, but otherwise, I'm confused.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:18 AM on October 23, 2012


Why would a 20 cent drop in wholesale prices resulting in a 50 cent drop in retail prices anger tree fruit retailers?

I would assume because they've cut their prices by 40% and the store then only cuts theirs by 25%.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:36 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jacquilynne, I should have included a little more detail, but I felt like my comment was already getting too long! I listed the prices as per pound, because that's what people are used to seeing at the supermarket, but prices at wholesale are per box. A $0.50 per lb. box of fruit is a $12 box, and a $0.30 per lb. box of fruit is an $8 box. The break-even point for most packinghouses, when I was working at CTFA, was thought to be around $12 per box. So the insult, to growers, is that they're functioning below cost and retailers are making a greater factor of profit - five times wholesale vs. four times wholesale.

But why don't the growers/shippers refuse to sell their fruit below the break-even point? That's where things get complicated.

The problem is that stone fruit is not a product like widgets, which can be manufactured at a steady rate. Over the course of the summer, there are a couple hundred varieties each of peaches, plums, and nectarines, each of which comes ripe and is picked over a period of ten days to two weeks. (This is why you rarely see stone fruit marked by variety at the supermarket...it changes too fast to keep up. Here's a PDF of harvest dates for some major varieties of fruits from one nursery.) Stone fruit cannot be stored for any length of time (as can, say, apples and oranges), and on top of that, there is much larger acreage of some varieties than others, creating enormous peaks in supply.

So basically, everything starts out orderly and at a good price (from the grower/shipper perspective) at the beginning of the season, but when the first massive peak of fruit hits, wholesale prices quickly start to slide. Retailers know where the peaks are and play shippers off each other. Shippers also know where the peaks are - and know that if they don't sell the fruit quickly, because it can't be stored, it'll be a loss. The call gets made to sell it, even if some of it has to go at below break-even. And once wholesale prices have slid, it gets very difficult to get them to recover.

From the grower/shipper perspective, they think that retailers should be setting the retail price to reflect the wholesale price, because they believe that if retailers did so, consumers would buy more stone fruit, and the problem of the peaks would be eliminated. From the retailer's perspective, they have a whole produce department full of items to manage in concert with each other, they care little about the problems of one crop's worth of growers, and aren't about to sacrifice the sales of their other items to sell more of one thing (people can only eat so much food, generally). And why should they lower prices when they can make more profit at less effort by keeping them up? Selling more product will require more labor in the stores.

Why don't growers plant trees to even out the supply over the course of the season, then? They do, as much as humanly possible. The issue there is that fruit trees are not a quick turnaround crop. Let's say you're a grower and you want to add a new variety. (We'll leave aside the near-decade that it takes a fruit breeder to develop that new variety for you.) You have two options: You can cut some of the scaffolds (the large fruiting branches) off the rootstocks (the support system) of some variety you're unhappy with, and graft scions of a new variety on. In that case, the scions can grow to full production size in two or three years - two or three years in which you'll get little fruit from that piece of ground. Or, if you have no trees that are still suitable to graft onto, you can bulldoze some existing trees and plant new trees in their place. In that case, you'll get up to reasonable production in four or five years.

If you choose the wrong variety, one that showed promise in breeding, but failed for some reason in production, or if too many of your neighbors chose the same variety out of the ones the breeders created and you find yourself right in the middle of one of those peaks, you get to start all over again.
posted by jocelmeow at 12:52 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Jacquilynne, I should have included a little more detail, but I felt like my comment was already getting too long! I listed the prices as per pound, because that's what people are used to seeing at the supermarket, but prices at wholesale are per box. A $0.50 per lb. box of fruit is a $12 box, and a $0.30 per lb. box of fruit is an $8 box. The break-even point for most packinghouses, when I was working at CTFA, was thought to be around $12 per box. So the insult, to growers, is that they're functioning below cost and retailers are making a greater factor of profit - five times wholesale vs. four times wholesale.

Factor of profits don't really make sense in an industry with so many fixed costs, though. I mean, it sucks that the fruit sellers are getting screwed and having to sell below cost, but revenues != profits, and there's a lot of costs related to getting that fruit to the customer that have nothing to do with how much the fruit cost. I'm frankly astonished that with only a $.20 reduction in product costs, grocery stores are able to shave $.50 off the shelf price.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:58 PM on October 23, 2012


Why is locally-grown, organic, ethically-grown food equivalent to a Mercedes?

Because to a fairly large extent, this fetishizing of one's diet is about status signaling.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:39 AM on October 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


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