The price of food — Part I

In our blog post about why you should shop at a farmers market, I listed 5 good reasons. What isn’t mentioned is price. Is it cheaper to shop at a farmers market? Well, yes and no.

Personally, I don’t base many decisions about the food I buy on price, so I don’t think about it much. There’s so much more to food than price, as far as I’m concerned. But I’m aware that a lot of people do and it keeps popping up in the context of farmers markets, so I started thinking about it more.

Then one day, I was making my kids’ favourite meal (altogether now!… spaghetti bolognaise!) and I didn’t have any carrots or parsley in the house. The local green grocer was closed, so the supermarket it had to be. OK, and I got a bottle of wine while I was there, I confess.

I’ll let the picture tell the story of what happened next (I’d probably had a glass by then).

Farmers forgive me, for I have sinned… I’m making spag bol tonight and I’d run out of parsley. This is highly irregular. I love my parsley and I always have some. But I lost track of what I had in my crisper and found myself having to emergency shop at a local supermarket for a bunch. I have learned my lesson. $2.49 for a yellowing, slightly slimy, meagre bunch almost entirely lacking in aroma. On the right is what I can use. On the left is what’s going in the compost. When I buy a bunch at the market, for about the same price, maybe 50c more, it’s twice the size, has a strong flavour, is pungent and lasts well over a week in a plastic bag in my crisper. Now… Did someone say farmers markets are expensive? Did someone say farmers markets are the domain of food snobs? #farmersmarket #fresh #parsley #itsaboutvaluenotprice [post by SAGE Farmers Market Site Coordinator Kate Raymond]

A photo posted by SAGE Farmers Market (@sagefarmersmarket) on

The Parsley Incident really got me thinking.

Mass production of everything, not just food, has led to cheaper products, but also lesser quality. The adage “you get what you pay for” can be applied to food as much as to a washing machine. What it’s getting at is value. Is it actually the cheapest washing machine if it is a heavy user of water, inefficient with power and breaks down 4 days after the warranty runs out? Over a period of 20 years, who has spent more money on washing their clothes – the price-focussed consumer or the value-focussed consumer? What if the cheap machine doesn’t even do a very good job? In other words, how much is quality worth? Might quality, in fact, be cheaper?

Academics have done studies on this sort of consumer behaviour thing and you can quickly find yourself a long way down the analysis rabbit hole (I did… it’s a bit scary), but I want to explore this idea of being motivated by price when we buy food in a more direct and simplistic way. A price comparison. Oh, yes. I’m going to go there. And as I write this, I don’t know what the results will be, so the outcome could even backfire on me. I don’t think it will, but it might. It’s also a highly subjective activity, so I’m going to outline some parameters.

What I now refer to as "The Parsley Incident". I paid $2.49 for about 60c worth of edible but insipid parsley.

What I now refer to as “The Parsley Incident”. I paid $2.49 for about 60c worth of edible but insipid parsley.

Firstly, it’s mass production and its bedfellow mass marketing that have skewed our purchasing decisions to be based so primarily on price, so I will be comparing supermarket products with farmers market products. I’m not going to compare with products from independent grocers, organic or otherwise. Just supermarkets. I will also be comparing products from supermarkets that vaguely equate to the products from the farmers market. This means, when I compare bread, for example, I won’t be using the cheapest loaf at the supermarket. I’ll choose products that are located at approximately the same place on the everyday-to-gourmet scale of both the supermarket context and the farmers market context. Subjective, yes, but an attempt to introduce some level of balance.

Secondly, it’s my intention by doing this to shift the conversation from “price” to “value”. Therefore, I won’t just be comparing price. I’m going to drill down into the details of each product to find the value. This is also very subjective, but I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to make some strong arguments that shopping at a farmers market provides better value than shopping at a supermarket.

Get comfortable, this could take a while

Some of these arguments take a lot more explaining than you can fit into one article, so this price comparison exercise is a great way to explore a bunch of much bigger issues over a series of articles. By the time it’s finished, it will be about a lot more than price. It will, in fact, reveal why the 5 reasons to shop at a farmers market are, one way or another, all about value.

I’ve chosen a range of basic products, representing a small grocery shop for a simple meal for my family (me, two kids), plus a couple of other staples. Our first product… my favourite go-to product whenever I need an example: carrots.

Here we go.

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