Fresh produce: too precious for its own good?

By M.E. Malone

Policy

Buying fresh produce from a farm was nearly unthinkable for city dwellers a few decades ago. Restaurants with menus anchored by seasonal, local vegetables and fruits? You had to go to France or Italy for that kind of experience. If you craved a nice, steady supply of just-picked veggies, well, window boxes were often your only option.

Today, we have online access to CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), farmers’ markets in multiple neighborhoods, plots in community gardens, and farm-to-table dining experiences that are part of life in Boston and many other American cities. But are we doing enough so that everyone shares in the bounty? The perception lingers – as does the debate about its validity – that fresh fruits and vegetables are a luxury that most can’t afford. Especially when that produce is local.ME1

What do you think?

  • The Boston Globe recently featured seven area farms that are serving farm-to-table dinners this summer. The average price tag was $85 per person. At one end of the spectrum, the Verrill family farm in Concord offers an affordable option at $30, while the highest priced farm menu is set at $175 per dinner.
  • Heirloom tomatoes – the farmers’ market equivalent of the Gucci bag – have come to symbolize upscale fresh produce. The Farm Prosperity Project, out of North Carolina State University, tells local farmers, “Consumers are willing to pay high prices for heirloom tomatoes, and the demand for locally grown, organic heirloom tomatoes always exceeds supply.”
  • In Cambridge, some community garden plot wait lists are as long as two years.
  • A study of the federal Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program found that just 59 percent of mothers participating in the WIC program (Women, Infants, and Children) redeemed coupons for fresh produce at participating farmers’ markets nationwide.

In part because of the perception that fresh food is too expensive, the debate over “fat taxes” on high-calorie food items such as sugar-sweetened beverages has led to suggestions of “skinny subsidies” of healthier foods. A study of WIC participants a few years ago concluded that the women participating in the program saw the value in adding more fruits and vegetables to their diet. That was followed by a report from the Economic Research Service (ERS) that a 10 percent subsidy of produce would increase consumption among lower-income Americans by two to five percent, but at a cost of about $580 million. The study noted that a 2-5 percent boost would still leave them shy of national dietary guidelines for vegetable and fruit intake.

Another study on the topic that received a lot of press last year, also conducted by ERS, focused on the snack habits of America’s children. Comparing the “cost per portion” of 20 different fruits and vegetables with 20 other snack foods, researchers demonstrated that fresh foods were competitively priced with other snack foods.ME2

Last month, a study out of a New Zealand university but conducted in the Netherlands made one of the strongest cases to date for policies that support price cuts for healthy foods. The 6-month study found that families given coupons for fruits and vegetables purchased, on average, nine pounds more of produce than those who did not. A group given both healthy-eating cookbooks and fruit and veggie discount coupons racked up an additional 12 pounds of produce. The authors suggested that price cuts have more impact when produce prices are high or when the buyers are particularly price sensitive.

Work done by Natalie Valpiani, a doctoral student at Friedman, offers additional insight on the question of whether locally grown produce is priced too high for lower income consumers. For her thesis, she collected data on fruit and vegetable prices at farm stands, farmers’ markets, and traditional supermarkets. Looking for disparities, she found that, while seasonal availability varied outlet-to-outlet, roadside stands and farmers’ markets do offer  fruits and vegetables at prices that are competitive with local supermarkets.

“I thought I’d see more price volatility [in produce prices] at the local outlets compared to the supermarket,” she said. “I didn’t find that to be the case.”

Instead, she said, price fluctuations were more closely linked to the fruit or vegetable item moreso than the outlet that sold it. Valpiani conducted the study in North Carolina while living there, tracking the prices of 11 fruits and 8 vegetables that topped the NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) for popularity in America. Bananas were excluded from the study.  Her survey included more than 32 produce outlets covering almost half of the state of North Carolina.

ME3When asked about the implications of her work for policy makers concerned about access to fresh produce, Valpiani suggested that using smaller, less capital-intensive structures such as farm stands to sell fruits and vegetables year round might provide a less capital-intensive way to bring fresh produce to more people.

“For neighborhoods that can’t afford a full supermarket, this could be a good option,” she said..Farm retailers would likely need to supplement their produce supply by purchasing from wholesalers in the off-season  “For the local food movement, the good news is that local outlets really can provide affordable produce,” she said.

Jeanne Goldberg, principal investigator on the GREEN project – a study of the foods that elementary school children brought to school for lunch and snack – said parents surveyed in focus groups often cited the high cost of fresh foods as a barrier to packing their children’s lunch boxes with healthier options.

“Is this really all about money?” Goldberg asked. “For some families, yes, it’s largely about cost…But we have to stop saying ‘fruits and vegetables are too expensive.’ We have to help parents find ways to afford them.”

Researchers on the project noted that many of the packaged drinks sent to school by parents for their children were more expensive than pieces of fruit, as were some of the high-fat snack foods.

“Can we help people to think of this as a priority, putting money into the fruits and vegetables that make up their diet? The real place to cut back is on sodas, other sugar-sweetened beverages, bright orange-colored snacks,” she added.

And, according to a study out of New Zealand earlier this year, there may be an even greater incentive to include green beans and berries in meals: improved emotional wellbeing. Researchers connected positive moods to higher fruit and vegetable consumption, a finding that did not hold for other foods tested. “On days when people ate more fruits and vegetables, they reported feeling calmer, happier and more energetic than they normally did,” the study concluded.

Improved mood from fruit and veggies? It may be hard to put a price tag on that.

M.E. Malone is a first year MS/MPH student in the FPAN program who is looking forward to the upcoming farmers’ market season in Boston.

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