Sunday, November 11, 2007

Weekend Update

$ 6.75

That's what I paid at the local farmer's market for one head of broccoli and a pint of Brussels sprouts.

Does that seem reasonable to you--$6.75?

I went to my calorie counter and did a little math. Together, this head of broccoli and pint of Brussels sprouts contain about 250 calories. For the same amount of money, I could have purchased more than a pound of pork shoulder worth at least five times as many calories. Should I be concerned?

Well, I am a bit concerned. I find that my enthusiasm for fresh, local produce is being tempered by issues of price and equity. I'm all for supporting the local farmers. God knows, they need our support in order to survive. But after a visit to the farmers market, I have to wonder who the audience is for the produce we are supporting. Or maybe it would be better to ask who the audience isn't. Because to tell the truth, the shoppers I saw at this inner-city market did not seem to be particularly representative of the diversity of folks we have living in our neighborhood.

For some reason it bothers me that our farmers market is not more of a full-service shopping experience. Even a little more would help. Onions? Garlic? Potatoes? Carrots? In fact, this market--one of several that have sprung up recently--comes dangerously close to being a boutique for designer vegetables. And look at the prices! How are average people supposed to afford this?

I'm sure the prices we are seeing--$6.75 for a head of broccoli and a pint of Brussels sprouts being just one example--accurately reflect the true cost of growing organic vegetables within driving distance of the nation's capitol. We trust that these are the prices the farmers must charge to stay in business. But they do raise those hoary issues of a class divide that advocates of local, naturally-grown food--me being one--are loathe to address. Remember, a third of all children in the District of Columbia live below the poverty line.

With crude oil selling for nigh on $100 a barrel, I have a feeling these issues of price, class and availability are going to grow more acute, not less. But maybe by the time it becomes a crisis, we will all be growing our own. In any case, this seems to be a bit of theme running through the news this week.


There's a new term being bandied about to describe areas where you cannot purchase real food, only the over-processed industrial kind. These are "food deserts," and they exist in both rural and urban areas.

Anyone who has seen the documentary King Corn is now familiar with the concept of farmers growing acres and acres of food they can't eat. It would be safe to describe large swaths of Iowa as food deserts.

Likewise, anyone who has lived in the inner-city knows there are some neighborhoods--read poor neighborhoods--where supermarkets do not exist. Poor urbanites often have to get in a taxi to go grocery shopping. Or, they shop for dinner at a corner convenience store where they are sure to find only industrial, processed foods at grossly inflated prices.

Some are now referring to this form of urban food dessert as "nutritional apartheid," a harsh, but regrettably apt, description. You can read about it here.


The production of ethanol from foodstuffs to make automobiles run continues to press on the class divide, and increasingly on a global scale. Here's one of the latest examples, courtesy of writer George Monbiot at The Guardian:

Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava.

Monbiot, who is no shrinking violet on this particular subject, notes that one United Nations official has called this sort of fuel pimping in the face of hunger a crime against humanity.

This week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will announce the lowest global food reserves in 25 years, threatening what it calls "a very serious crisis". Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry because they could not afford to buy it. With every increment in the price of flour or grain, several million more are pushed below the breadline.

The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%. Biofuels aren't entirely to blame - by taking land out of food production they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand - but almost all the major agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major governments are ignoring them.

You can read his entire screed here.


Meanwhile, government agencies seem to be more concerned about individuals taking matters into their own hands, especially farmers skirting health laws to deliver products the public clearly wants at prices farmers can live with.

We have previously written about the case of Virginia farmer Richard Bean, a trained butcher, who for years it turns out was selling meats to restaurants and farmers markets around Charlottsville without submitting the meat for inspection. Armed state troopers raided Bean's farm, confiscated his computer and took Bean away in handcuffs. He now faces several years in prison.

Here's a local magazine takeout that looks at the case of Richard Bean in depth.

In California, meanwhile, some dairy farmers fear the state is on the verge of wiping out all vestiges of a raw milk trade.

Here's the tale of one California dairyman who thinks the state is out to destroy him personally.


In the category of How Desperate Are We to Maintain Our Polluting Lifestyle, the New York Times ran a piece about a private company that hopes to profit from the business of carbon offsets by seeding the oceans with iron that will promote algae blooms that suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

Check this discussion at the Carl Safina blog.


Finally, it is the Slow Cook's fervent desire that when he has written the last of ethanol and food deserts and nutritional apartheid, he can retire to a life of roaming about the globe in his search for the perfect sausage.

Yes, we've called it the The Great Sausage Quest, and it is our ultimate fantasy of a food enthusiast's last gasp--or gulp. Thus we leave you with this final link to a most fascinating discovery: the world's oldest recipe for German Bratwurst.

As usual, bon appetit...


tai haku said...

Global quest? Bratwurst? I may be biased but surely a global sausage quest must begin and end in Lincolnshire, England where Pork and sage are used like monet's paints or michelangelo's lumps of marble?

Mark said...

I have the same problem with the farmer's market here in Houston. There are a few farmer's markets here on Saturday mornings. We generally have a good selection of foods, but the prices are ridiculous. I've talked to a number of the vendors, and they see their competition as Whole Foods. And they are charging Whole Foods prices -- or higher. Most of the people who shop at the markets are high income people that can afford the prices, but the rest of us are out of luck. The only thing I buy at the market is raw milk -- which I can't get anywhere else.

As a good example, there is a vendor that sells local honey at the market. I can buy the same honey, from the same producer, at a local store for half the price. So the honey producer can sell her product profitably for less than half the price that she charges at the farmers market.

I would love to be buying local organic produce and suporting our local farmers, but they have priced me out. Shame.

Ed Bruske said...

tai, I would love to start my sausage quest in Lincoln shire. I hope when the time comes you'll give me some good directions. (nice blog, by the way)

Mark, I think the vegetables at Whole Foods are cheaper. But don't get me wrong: cheapness is not a priority for me. I was just floored by what I paid for this broccoli and Brussels sprouts and what it indicates about local foods as a viable alternative to commercial food. And how lucky you are that you can buy raw milk at the farmers market in Houston.

Great Big Vegetable Challenge said...

Ed -
You should invite people from around the world to buy the broccoli and brussel sprouts if it is locally available and say how much it costs them. I would be interested to know how it compares, currency issues aside.

Tai Haku is completely right - England is the place to start your sausage quest. Freddie will join you in a flash. He is very keen on sausages. We can recommend a wonderful butchers in Fowey in Cornwall where the sausages win prizes!

Ed Bruske said...

Charlotte, we would love to have you and Freddie give us a sausage tour. I'm starting to think there is no place more enthusiastic about its sausages than England--except maybe Cleveland. Can we call that a date?