The dilemma of eating locally-sourced foods

In my pediatric nutrition practice, I often preach about getting more fruits and vegetables into the diets of the children I see. Eating more vegetables is a proven way to fight obesity and promote better health.

Sometimes the question of where and how to find healthy food comes up during my conversations with parents. Many of my clients reside in the Bronx, where sometimes the closest vegetable is the pickle on a greasy hamburger or some deep-fried potatoes.

A recent experience I had at a local farmers’ market really got me thinking about how difficult it is for some of my patients to practice what I’m preaching.

On a recent Friday when I happened to have a day off, I finally had time to stop into a relatively new farmers’ market in my suburban town. I love farmers’ markets, but the operating hours of this particular market were never in sync with my schedule.

Now I had my chance to pick up some fresh veggies to cook for a weekend dinner and to choose local summer fruit for breakfast. I was excited. Eating seasonal foods and supporting small family farms come naturally to me, as my family had a small business when I was growing up. So supporting small farmers always seems right. Besides, eating locally grown food is all the rage. What’s not to like?

I picked up two pint-sized baskets of strawberries, along with three ripe tomatoes and four ears of corn. I’d purposely avoided buying corn at the local greengrocer because I’d heard that local farmers were selling it here.

As the cashier tallied my purchases, I strained to take in the final tab. “That’ll be $15.50,” she said cheerfully. I was floored. I knew there might be some difference in price between this and what my neighborhood supermarket charged, but I never expected that much of a difference. How much of a difference? On the way home, I did a price check at the local supermarket and the same items came to only $6.50. Much less than half the price.

My shopping trip highlights the dilemma eating locally can sometimes pose. It’s better for the planet and it’s supposed to give us food that’s fresher and tastes better (though not always; the corn I bought had seen better days), but if it’s more than twice as expensive as the stuff that comes from farther away, how can people — especially those on a low or fixed income — afford to support local farmers?

Now, I do realize that this was just one farmers’ market in one suburban town — hardly a representative sample — but when you consider that one in three poor people lives in a suburban area, farmers’ markets might be out of reach for those outside resource-challenged urban areas as well.

The reality of my experience creates a challenge for me professionally. After all, I can’t ethically tell my patients to patronize these farmers’ markets when I know it would squeeze the last breath from their already tight food budgets. Some farmers’ markets do accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds. That’s great, but people will still get nutritional value for their SNAP budget at the local grocers’ and their benefits will go a lot farther.

On the other hand, it is important to connect with the people who actually grow and pick your food. Doing so reminds us all that food doesn’t grow in a store; it grows in the ground and it’s planted by people who actually care about what they produce. For that reason, I’ll support patients who want to go to a farmers’ market; I’ll just ask them to choose wisely.

Consumers can also look into whether there is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in their area that might provide an even more direct link from farm to table — and at a cost savings. In a CSA, shoppers get access to locally grown food through the purchase of a share of produce from a farmer. It’s a great way to support farmers and your health, though there is an up-front cost to consider. Einstein has a CSA of its own. It usually requires a payment up front for the season, however, which might be a sticking point for people with low or fixed incomes, and may also involve going to a central location to pick up produce, so it might not be appropriate for those without cars.

For myself, I’ll still go to farmers’ markets and I may even return to the one in my town, but my “gold strawberries” experience has given me a fresh perspective on the local supermarket. I’ll be spending plenty of time there. And I’ll be suggesting that my patients do the same. That way they can afford to eat more fruits and vegetables, which is the main goal in the first place.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob is director, nutrition clinic, Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY. He blogs at The Doctor’s Tablet.

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  • querywoman

    Fortunately, in Texas, we can get fresh local food almost everywhere. So much grows here!

  • Suzi Q 38

    It is expensive at the farmer’s markets.
    I go to Costco, where the vegetables are fresh, yet not too prohibitively expensive. The problem at that store is the huge quantities, which sometimes goes to waste.

    I found a real farmer’s market store. It has everything, even strange vegetables and fruits, not usually found in the regular grocery stores.

    I also encourage friends, family, and students to give me gifts of their homegrown produce whenever they can. I appreciate these “gifts” far more than most things they could buy me.

    I have no idea if it is organically grown, or not. I just wash the produce thoroughly.

    i had a friend whose husband was all organic with everything he ate, and he died at 38 of cancer anyway.

    Anecdotal, but I am not sure how buying all organic foods are of great benefit.

    • SarahJ89

      My own priority is local first, then organic. As it happens there is often a large overlap so I get local and organic, which is nice. I am careful about certain items, like berries. Some produce takes to washing better than others.

  • SarahJ89

    Wait. This will change. Three of my part-time jobs are with an organization devoted to helping local growers become more efficient and knowledgeable in their practices. Over time I have seen the farmers’ markets in my state go from half a dozen card tables at an inconvenient time with prices you describe to bustling entities selling a wide variety of locally produced food at reasonable prices. It takes time, commitment and the energy of a lot of people to rebuild an agricultural infrastructure but it’s happening in many places.

    I haven’t set foot in a supermarket in several years. I buy everything from farms directly, farmers’ markets and farm stands. Farmers’ markets are the tip of the local food iceberg.

    USDA has three food budgets on their site. One is for the upscale crowd. The lowest is for low income people. The middle is for… people in the middle. My CPA husband tracks our purchases religiously so I have the numbers at hand. Despite the fact we eat only locally produced foods (it’s a no brainer commitment since I work with farmers) our food expenditures are smack in the middle of the middle budget.

    This all didn’t come out of the box that way, though. We’ve been working for quite a while in this state to bring about availability of local foods. My guess is there are people in your area working towards the same goal.

    Meanwhile, yes you are quite correct. Healthy food is hard to find in many areas. Plus, it’s no longer the norm which is a powerful force in itself.

  • SarahJ89

    It also keeps the money in the community.

  • ManMedDan

    One answer to the dilemma is buying into a Community Shared Agriculture situation. You pay one price up front and then get a share of the harvest. Some of these cooperatives now enable you to pick and choose what you want, rather than just getting 20 lbs of one thing dumped on you.

  • James O’Brien, M.D.

    Your federal family that promises Obamacare will lead to better health outcomes also sponsors the farm bill and the SNAP program that provides poor people cheap corn based junk food through subsidies for the benefit of Cargill and Monsanto.

  • Patricia

    I’m not sure I understand the last part of this blog: For myself, I’ll still go to farmers’ markets and I may even return to the one in my town, but my “gold strawberries” experience has given me a fresh perspective on the local supermarket. I’ll be spending plenty of time there. And I’ll be suggesting that my patients do the same. That way they can afford to eat more fruits and vegetables, which is the main goal in the first place. How will the doctor’s going to the farmers’ market and suggesting his patients do the same make it more affordable? I think what’s missing from this is the economics of growing food as a small time farmers’ market grower. Having been a vendor I know that this work is labor intensive, and with long hours. This then translates into higher prices. The produce not sold at one market is often then saved for another one later in the week. That’s why some of it doesn’t look so great. Also the venue (outside; hot sun) is not great for produce. I doubt farmers’ market prices will come down and that’s because they are a sort of boutique type experience and sold as such. Poorer people surely cannot afford to shop there. The produce we find in the stores of course is cheaper because for one, cheap labor, for another, farm machinery. Perhaps there is a better way which might involve innovative ideas in getting farmer produce and products to low income people (e.g. farm-to-school; farm-to-jail, etc etc). CSAs present other problems: usually they are expensive and usually a person DOES get dumped with whatever is growing at the moment (e.g. bags and bags of salad greens). And the paying up front ($400 for a family) is prohibitive. Here too,innovative ideas could help. But who is going to put all this together? A doctor on the team would sure help!

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