Sam over at Becks and Posh did a little comparison shopping, and discovered to her surprise that by shopping at the Farmer’s Market last weekend, she saved 29% over what it would have cost her to buy the same items at the supermarket. Considering that she was shopping at Ferry Plaza Market, what’s so exciting about this is that Sam’s also been keeping track of her food expenditures all year — and what she’s finding is that for ordinary produce shopping she’s ahead by going to the market.
I’ve shopped Farmer’s Markets for 20 years (scary, that thought — I’m that old? I’ve had 20 years of adulthood?) starting when I’d spend summers at my Aunt’s house in downtown Chicago. There was a market in a nearby school parking lot and while I originally started shopping there because it was a good bargain — huge bundles of produce for less than the supermarket — I was quickly won over by all the factors that seduce us all about Farmers’ Markets — fresher produce doesn’t spoil in the fridge, it tastes *so* much better, you get to talk to actual farmers, and most of all — it’s fun to shop the Farmer’s Market. It’s festive.
Right out of college, I spent two years in New York, working as an editorial assistant. Now “editorial assistant” is code for cheap labor — it’s a segment of the labor force where they assume you have parents in Scarsdale that will pay at least part of your rent. Since this wasn’t the case, I was jaw-droppingly poor. My main source of entertainment was food shopping and learning to cook (it didn’t hurt that I was working on cookbooks at the time, either). A girl has to eat, right? And I lived about five blocks from the Union Square Greenmarket, where for about 20 bucks I could get enough veggies and fruit to last me through the week, and if I’d shopped really carefully, sometimes I could even get cheese or flowers for a treat. I loved that market. I was stupendously lonely in New York, and Saturday mornings I’d go over to the market where there were people, and life, and I felt like that brief contact with people who lived outside the city and who did something real like farming would keep me going for another week. The greenmarket saved my life that last year, when I was really afraid I was going under.
It was a thrill when I got to California after grad school to be back in a place with Farmer’s Markets. Our little market over in working-class Hayward wasn’t fancy at all, and it’s a good bet that all those Indian and Pakistani grannies were shopping there because the prices were good. There were more vegetables I didn’t recognize than those I did since that part of the Bay Area has large Indian, Afghan and Pakistani populations — but again, it gave me the chance to learn to cook things like tiny white eggplants, bitter melon, and greens — lots of greens. We were there one day when an Asian woman, who looked like she’d been a war bride–her husband was a large white man of that age, and they had the body language of the long-married, I’ll never forget seeing her point to a pile of peppers and burst into tears while telling her husband, “Look honey! I haven’t seen these since I was little in Vietnam.” She picked up a handful of those peppers and just looked at them for a long time.
We have a very tiny Farmer’s Market here in the summer, but it’s still an event. It’s fun to go over to the park on Wednesday evenings and see everyone (it’s a small town, after all). Here you can buy local lamb, and pork and beef from folks who actually raise it. There are veggies from neighbors backyards and from the few local folks who are going into raising vegetables on a more professional level (tough here because of our short growing season — ranching is the traditional ag activity). The Hutterites usually show up with their schoolbus full of veggies. There’s music and people selling soaps and jewelry and a lady who sells homemade pies and jam. It’s not actually cheaper to buy stuff at our local Farmer’s Market than it is at the grocery store — largely because good meat costs so much more than industrial meat, and the economies of scale just aren’t really working yet for vegetables in a place where the season is so short and there aren’t very many people. But the market is growing a little every year, and there are two or three markets over in Bozeman, which is bigger, and there are good folks like the Corporation for the Northern Rockies working to build a local, sustainable food system. And that’s a good thing to be a part of — especially if it helps you avoid travesties like those mutant crunchy peaches I bought at the store the other day. We like our Farmer’s Market — it’s fun. And although right now it’s still not a bargain, as it grows, as people are willing to support it, the hope is that we’ll begin to draw in those folks who shop primarily for price — that we’ll be able to bridge that class gap that is still such a problem for the real food movement.