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Sunday November 19, 2017

Why consumers really want to grow their own vegetables

Omaha Sen. Burke Harr's LB544, introduced into the legislature in late January, would allow community organizations to establish community public vegetable gardens on vacant public land. Harr said the measure "would help address food insecurity in communities across the state."

Tim Rinne, state coordinator for Nebraskans for Peace, told the legislature's Agriculture Committee it was the state's role to encourage citizens to grow more food locally in order to prevent hunger. “The farther we get away from our food supply, the more food insecure we are,” he said.

But Harr and Rinne's conclusions assume a reality that may not necessarily hold true, according to study scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values. In it, French and Canadian social scientists conducted in-depth interviews of 25 gardeners in Paris and 14 in Montreal working in collective gardens across those cities. The aim of the  questionnaire was to assess how important actually producing food was to the gardeners.

The found that of the 39 gardeners interviewed, 33 did mention the possibility of producing food as one of their motivations. However, only about one-third--14 of the 39--said growing enough food to eat at an affordable price was a motivating factor in working the public gardens. That handful of gardeners who said they considered the public garden economically beneficial said so for one of two reasons:

  • They ate only the produce they grew themselves and learned to live without fruit and vegetables they couldn't raise themselves.
  • They chose to produce the most expensive produce themselves and then to buy the cheaper products in supermarkets.

 More than half of the gardeners interviewed considered that the garden was not economically advantageous, the researchers reported. In fact, some gardeners considered that the vegetables produced at the garden ended up costing more than those bought in shops. It's also noteworthy that although "sharing" the bounty of the public garden with other people was one of the food-related reasons for participating, the check-box on the questionnaire for "food bank"--an option city officials advised the research team should be included because it was a common destination for public-garden produce--went unticked on every respondent's questionnaire.

So why do they garden? In contrast to the production of food, users of the public space to garden cited these "multifunctions," according to the research:

  • It gives them a "social place," where they can meet and interact with people and foster a sense of community.
  • It improves their physical health through physical activity and their mental health by improving self-esteem.
  • It permits them a natural space that makes them feel free of the city's confines. "It’s a consolation for not having a house with a garden," in the words of one respondent.
  • It puts them in more direct contact with nature.
  • It allows them a formalized place to learn and teach.
  • It provides a leisure activity.
  • It improves the city and its landscape--a benefit mentioned only by the public garden's authorities but not by a single citizen who used the garden space.

Although production of food is often rooted within those other functions, the research team noted, in the relatively affluent northern hemisphere, self-production of food doesn't typically have a subsistence function, as it does in the relatively less affluent southern hemisphere, "where food-producing urban agriculture has a very important role in the food supply.’’

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New study proves all is not as it seems with farmers markets

Local foods: Go figure.

Driven by a renewed interest in food grown close to home, support for local farmers, cutting the number of "food miles," protecting the environment, concerns for food safety and the hunt for high-quality foods, the number of farmers markets grew 180 percent between 2007 and 2014, USDA says, to a total 8,268 farmers markets in the United States last year. The new, and controversial, Dietary Guidelines Advisory Report cautiously endorses them, citing two studies and noting, "Despite...variability, a consistent relationship was identified between farmers’ markets/produce stands and dietary intake."

With market momentum like that, backed by regional branding campaigns and local food-policy lobbying, it's little wonder consumers express the glowing endorsement for farmers markets identified by a Canadian study scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.

Consumers give local and farmers markets glowing reviews. Are they earned?

Farmers markets are thus "almost universally regarded and promoted as mechanisms to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to areas lacking access," writes Bronx Montefiore Medical Center's Sean Lucan, lead author of another study scheduled for publication in the journal Appetite. Even the editorial board of the McCook Gazette, arguing in favor of permitting Nebraska farmers markets to offer prepared foods in their wares, editorialized, "Government shouldn't get in the way of people who want to create a closer connection between consumers and those who provide the food they consume."

But what if promoting farmers markets actually does that very thing?

Lucan's research set out to actually overcome the "surprisingly little research," he says, on how accessible farmers markets really are to their customers, as well as what they really sell and, most importantly, how they compare to neighboring stores in terms of variety, quality and price.

The study's investigators conducted a detailed cross-sectional assessment of every open-air, local farmers market in the Bronx, comparing them against nearby traditional stores. Results of the 26 farmers markets and 44 food stores studied showed some surprises:

  • Every farmers market was located little more than one-third of a mile from a traditional food store that sold fresh produce, with the average being only 0.15 miles away--well within the half-mile walking distance community food-security advocates typically recommend as the minimum distance shoppers should have to travel to access healthy food.
  • In stark contrast to all 44 of the grocery stores which were open year-round and seven days a week, offering fresh produce on average 98.5 hours per week, three-quarters of the farmers markets were closed eight months out of the year, were typically open just one day a week and generally operated fewer than eight hours on any day they were open--some as few as four hours. Just three of the farmers markets stayed open on any weekday past the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. window, and only five opened on weekends.
  • Of the 430 distinct produce items Lucan's team identified after eliminating duplicates, the average farmers market offered 26.4 fewer fresh produce items on average than neighboring grocers. Only 96 fresh produce items could be found exclusively at a farmers market, compared to 224 fresh produce items at stores. A total of 110 could be had at either outlet.
  • Farmers markets did beat food stores in how frequently they offered local and organic food, although their produce as a result often  tended toward less-common, more exotic and heirloom varieties.
  • On average, any given produce item offered at both a farmers market and a neighboring store was 24 cents more expensive at the farmers market, a statistically significant difference even for the more expensive of two groceries located nearby. When comparing items generally within broader categories, the supermarkets were an even better bargain, under-pricing farmers markets by an average 43 cents. Considering that the higher presence of organic produce--which typically carries a higher pricetag--might skew the results against farmers markets pricing, Lucan re-ran the analysis excluding organics. When he did, farmers markets remained just as expensive in their other offerings, while grocery store pricing actually fell.
  • And finally, Lucan's study found that nearly one-third of what farmers markets offered was not fresh produce at all but instead refined or processed products like jams, pies, cakes, cookies, donuts and juice drinks. Workers at 10 of the 26 farmers markets acknowledged that at least some of those not-so-healthful products were among their best sellers, and at seven of the farmers markets vendors were openly promoting those non-produce items.

All-in-all, Lucan acknowledges, "Although farmers markets might increase access to organic produce, and produce that is fresher, their lower accessibility, restricted variety and higher cost might provide little net benefit to food environments in urban communities, especially when so much of their inventory is refined and processed non-produce fare."

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What consumers really want from 'local'

"'Local food' or 'regional food,'" says the Lyons-based Center for Rural Affairs, "have no precise definitions....  Some consider 'local' to describe food from a 50-mile or 100-mile distance from where it is sold. Others say a one-hour drive from the market or other place where sold. Thus, it is important to define what is meant by 'local' when using the term in food marketing or sales."

That kind of dwelling on the simple logistics of local, or "food-miles," according to authors of a recent review of the subject in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, is too narrow. Defining local as simply the number of miles food travels creates a "local trap"--a sustainability red herring that ultimately interferes with the real goals of the new food movement. Instead, according to these University of California professors, "...we need to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, cognitively and behaviorally and institutionally, and participate more in the public dialog about alternative local food to help move the discussion toward enabling change."


Standing on the shoulders of a blistering 6,000-word "expose" alleging widespread animal abuse in the service of ugly profit at Nebraska's Meat Animal Research Center at Clay Center, the New York Times teed up its perennial factory-farm metaphor and unloaded on America's "industrialized" animal farmers in a follow-up editorial last week:

Is the home cooked meal over-idealized?

"Everybody knows" bringing back the home-cooked meal as an important part of the solution to American's nutrition-related health problems. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert proclaimed the last week of October Family Dining Week in that city, citing studies showing children who eat at home try more new foods and eat better and asking families to pledge to keep their kids around the dinner table. Meanwhile, the food-focused Dining section of the New York Times, for instance, last month published its own "home-cooking manifesto," advising readers to, "Just cook. Just cook dinner. It is a habit as easy to form as a bad one, and more beneficial by far."

Not so fast there, Betty Crocker, says a trio of North Carolina sociology professors.

They argue in the Summer issue of the American Sociological Association's journal Contexts that this infatuation with the family meal is romanticized, unreal, even elitist and moralistic myth-making. It is so stressful to working mothers, particularly poor working mothers, as to be, in the words of the headline on the Slate story reporting their work, a "tyranny."

"The vision of the family meal that today’s food experts are whipping up is alluring," write sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton. "Most people would agree that it would be nice to slow down, eat healthfully, and enjoy a home-cooked meal. However, our research leads us to question why the frontline in reforming the food system has to be in someone’s kitchen. The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal. Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held."

The research team spent 1.5 years interviewing 150 black, white and Latina mothers, including more than 250 hours actually observing 12 working-class and poor families in their homes as they prepared and ate meals, shopped their local grocery store and carted children to medical check-ups--that is, "sitting around the kitchen table and getting a feel for these women’s lives," as the authors phrased it.

The result, they argue, is far from a call for more dinner time. U.S. mothers are buying into society's message that “home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen.” The problem, they argue, is that most can't scrape together the time, money or capability to meet those unrealistic expectations. Torn by often unpredictable, service-industry work schedules, poor mothers often face schedule conflicts with a traditional evening meal. Even the middle-class women, they suggest, are "overwhelmed" by the competing demands on their time in trying to get dinner on the table every evening.

What's a grocer to do?

Leaving aside whether the authors' conclusions are valid based on their research, the family-meal focus still presents opportunities for grocers to present solutions:

Be the home-cooking educator. One point emerges from the Contexts study: The problem with home cooking is as often about education and capability as it is about money. "We observed homes without kitchen tables or functional appliances," the trio writes, "...lacking basic kitchen...." Similarly, they write: "And, of course, cooking isn’t just about the time it takes to prepare the meal. It also involves planning ahead to be sure the ingredients are on hand, and it means cleaning up afterwards. Samantha, a single white mother of three, was blunt when we asked her if she liked cooking. 'Not really,' she said. 'I just hate the kitchen…having to come up with a meal and put it together.... If it was up to me, I wouldn't cook.'"

Grocers, whether by themselves or in cooparation with public and private partnerships, are in a perfect position to help shoppers learn the often simple, but daunting, meal planning, pre-prep, cooking, clean-up, storage and re-use skills that have gone dormant in today's society.

Challenge the economics. The North Carolina study challenges one of the notions held dear by today's new-food-movement advocate: The mothers they interviewed who were barely paying the bills were in fact routinely cooking--not feeding their families fast food. And they reported they cooked because they perceived it as cheaper than eating out. That positive message offers opportunity for supermarkets to take back the conversation about their role in healthy, economical family meals.

Meanwhile, the middle-class women the interviewers investigated voiced another economic paradox. They, too, expressed concern about not having enough money to cook healthy home-cooked meals, but they expressed it in terms of not having the financial wherewithall to buy they foods they perceived as healthier: particularly organic and fresh produce. Issues about relative profitability of those categories for the grocer aside, middle-class mothers who feel priced out of home cooking because they "can only afford" conventional produce and meat, or frozen and canned fruits and vegetables as opposed to fresh, should be seen as an opportunity to educate on the real health benefits of each of those food categories.

Offer creative short cuts. The researchers noted many of the women talked about experimenting with different means of cutting time and effort from the home-cooking process, like make-ahead meals, assembling meals from processed items as opposed to true cooking from scratch, using slow cookers and finding ways to get their children involved in meal prep. All should offer the grocer with his ear to the ground opportunities to present his store as the solutions center.

Give subtle support. One point you can agree with the North Carolina researchers on: A number of sociological issues arise behind the simple focus on family mealtime. Today's quest for authentic food from authentic farmers mirrors a wider need which cultural historians have identified to find roots in a rootless society. Since the 1970s, both academics and the affluent, suburban culture they tend to spring from have taken a wider interest in taste, craft, health, status and authenticity, observes food historian Warren Belasco, an authority on how '60s radicals tried to change the food system. From The Waltons to Joel Salatan, Aunt Jemima to Michael Pollan, the hunger to rediscover authentic "connections between eating and the land" has driven a new generation to distraction looking for validation in their food decisions. Women of all socio-economic classes appear to not be immune to that attraction. If, as the study authors write, "...being poor makes it nearly impossible to enact the foodie version of a home-cooked meal," then the solution should be less about passing up that meal as it is about injecting some reality into the romantized notion of the foodie meal.

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