“Junk” vs. “real” food vs. farmers markets: What’s practical?

There’s a large misconception about how severely limited access is to healthy, nutritious food for many people living on low incomes. In his article “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?,” Mark Bittman compares costs between fast food and “real food” found at grocery stores to be prepared at home. However, the article doesn’t take into account that even food purchased at the supermarket isn’t necessarily “real food.”

Thinking of the kind of groceries that a person living on a low income might buy, the following among others may come to mind: meat containing pink slime, mass-produced eggs, pesticide-laden vegetables, and also, processed foods galore with plenty of additives and preservatives that have a much longer shelf life than fresh produce. (And which, for someone working multiple jobs with dependents who might not have time to take weekly shopping trips, can be miracles as they are often easy-to-prepare, long-lasting foods.)

Grocery shopping

Compare the ingredients of a typical sesame seed bun on a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with cheese and an inexpensive package of Sara Lee sesame seed buns found at a typical supermarket chain. The ingredients are practically identical. Little do we know where the meat comes from (or what, truly, goes into their “beef” patties), how the cow is raised and butchered, and how the meat is then treated and packaged for McDonald’s (pink slime). But the same goes for the largest meat retailer in the United States.

Before the truth about what pink slime is (lean, finely textured beef trimmings) and why it is pink (it’s treated with ammonia hydroxide) came out, large supermarket chains had been selling products with this meat filler in their stores. It was only after the story broke that a couple of them immediately pulled it from their shelves. Others said they would remove the product “as quickly as possible.” For someone who doesn’t always have a stable income, waiting is not an option.

What does one do when they seek a healthier lifestyle by not just buying “real food” from a supermarket but by eating truly all natural and organic produce, grass-fed meat, whole foods grains and dairy? Certainly farmers markets would be a great place to start. They provide access to fresh organic fruits and vegetables by cutting out the middleman also known as retailers. Buying directly from the farmer should reduce costs, right? Nope. According to a recent study, farmers market prices for produce were higher on average than your local grocery store.

squash, tomatoes, vegetables in bowl

On occasion, I admit to spending more on seasonal, organic produce at any given farmers market in Seattle when the exact same quality is available for less at the local natural foods store (PCC in my experience). However, this personal encounter seems to be unique to Seattle – one of the most expensive cost-of-living cities in the U.S. When I’ve visited markets in Portland, Oregon, Salt Lake City, Utah and Chicago, Illinois, I noticed the prices were much more reasonable. So without delving into the exact reason why our produce is so much more expensive than some other metropolitan areas, take a moment to really think about whether you, as an individual or supporting a family, can access organic, sustainable and affordable produce with your own personal budget, regardless of where you are in the world.

Those with higher incomes quite possibly live in more upscale neighborhoods in which local, natural markets and farmers markets are within walking or a few miles biking or driving distance. Since the housing prices in Seattle have made it difficult for middle class to find affordable housing – looking to those living on middle-to-low incomes or at poverty level – we can’t expect high-end organic markets to be available in neighborhoods where residents cannot afford their products. Expensive farmers markets won’t help much, even for those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, a program that has received recent cuts and is constantly threatened with more.

At a recent Community Alliance for Global Justice meeting, in which concerned folks from all over Seattle came to talk about racism, classism and sexism in the global food system, one woman spoke about the Safeway in Rainier Beach, a neighborhood in South Seattle. “You all talk about there being no access to grocery stores in ‘food deserts,’ but even the Safeway close to me…their produce is horrible,” she explained. “I went into a Safeway in Ballard a few months ago, and it was like night and day.” Ballard: a popular, up-and-coming and expensive neighborhood in Northwest Seattle.

Some local farms, P-Patches and guerrilla gardeners in the greater Seattle area are working hard to ensure healthy, organic and culturally appropriate foods are available to the community. Some are listed here. Through Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link program, the Seattle Community Farm and our Giving Garden at Marra Farm are two other examples of efforts to create access to fresh organic produce. But a couple hundred acres in a metro area of 3.5 million people is only one small part of working for food justice. Real, systemic change in our food system is in order – not just talking about “real” versus “junk” food.

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