Sunday, June 7, 2009

Cheapness goes to the market

In some thread, somewhere, about local-sustainable and all that, someone asked a question I thought needed to be asked: why does food from farmers' markets, which cut out the middle-man, and which promise only to grow what's appropriate for the region/season, end up costing so much more than even groceries from upscale chains? I go often to these markets, and... yeah. Asparagus at $4 a small bunch, bell peppers at $4.50 a pound, newly-trendy scraps from the garlic plant, $6/lb, and so on. And, either because this food really is fresher than equivalents elsewhere or because I've been brainwashed by the great Alice Waters hovering like so over Park Slope, I recently bought some, not tons, of all of the above.

So are the prices just a question of economies of scale (as in, the food at markets actually does cost more to produce), of look-what-the-rich-urbanites-will-pay-for-'rustic', or something similarly obvious? Is the idea that the desk-job-having urban consumer feels guilty questioning the price of items the farmer must have worked really hard to grow/slaughter, when it's the farmer himself (or someone we assume to be a farmer) selling the goods? I'm not hating - I remain a fan of the farmers' markets, and happily give them whatever they ask so long as the resulting extravagance will at least end up garnishing a 40-cent mound of pasta. But I am curious about the reason why even the stands not promising 'organics' make Whole Foods seem the more sensible option. So if you know, by all means...

(The new and much-hyped gourmet market that just opened on Flatbush, where the ice cream is $9 a pint but 'housemade'? On that, I'm not conflicted in the least.)

22 comments:

PG said...

I think economies of scale make a significant difference. But I'd want to see what's charged at the farmer's market in a small town near an actual farming area and compare that to NYC (taking into account cost of trucking back and forth, of course) before I reassured you that there is little or no "what the market will bear" markup.

Sarah said...

The farmer's market in Detroit I recall as being cheaper than the supermarket, but I wasn't the one doing the shopping. The presence of restaurants willing to buy certain ingredients at relatively high prices because they can sell the resulting dish for absurd prices no doubt has an effect on the market, especially at Union Square.

However, I haven't seen much in the way of price-dropping this year, which suggests to me that actually their margins aren't particularly large.

FLG said...

"So are the prices just a question of economies of scale (as in, the food at markets actually does cost more to produce"

Agribusiness is frighteningly efficient. There was an article, I think in the economist I can't find it right now, a while back about how the pressure to buy locally grown for environmental reasons may be completely off-base because it is certainly more economical and even might be more energy efficient to grow food in the best climate for it and ship it to the rest of the world.

I have no idea whether local food is, as Waters also argues, more healthful. However, I do agree with Anthony Bourdain that I don't really care if my tomato is the most cruelty free; I want the tastiest tomato I can afford.

WhatKathyDid said...

Rule of thumb: if food is advertised as being "sourced", it will be expensive. It might, or might not taste nicer than food that is whatever food is when not "sourced" ("bought"?).

An aside about getting expensive food cheaply from markets: the extremely middle-class Borough Market in London(http://www.boroughmarket.org.uk/) sells extravagently-priced, often delicious food. Go down there on a Saturday afternoon and it's like the credit crunch never happened. Go down on a Friday at 6pm however, and they are happy to give away anything they couldn't sell that day.

Phoebe said...

Sarah,

"However, I haven't seen much in the way of price-dropping this year, which suggests to me that actually their margins aren't particularly large."

I'm assuming you mean on account of the economic downturn. The thing is, that downturn happened to coincide with what may well have been the peak of the Waters-inspired trend towards spending more for quality groceries. Farmers' markets are one of the last socially-acceptable indulgences, because the idea is, you're not just buying tasty food, but also contributing to a good cause.

Sarah said...

I don't think that matters. NYC restaurants have cut back in a big way, and I think they prop up the prices at Union Square. And, while the evidence is less obvious with respect to home cooking, I think there's been a dip in spending there, too. (Plus, maybe Alice Waters is only peaking in the heartland now, but that trend is already looking aged in the city.)

Basically, just about everyone and their mother that I have commercial transactions with (except *(&@*(&! AT&T and their iPhone plans) has cut prices or introduced value options over the past year. It's been very informative in some cases (if Sundance Catalog can afford to sell half its catalog at 75% off, well...). The Union Square greenmarket seems remarkably immune to this. I think that does indicate something about how much margin they have to give back. It's not just the crazy efficiency of agribusiness, I think; it's the limits imposed by natural growing seasons and selling in small batches.

There was actually an article in the NYT recently about how organic milk producers are being pushed right to the brink, as their fixed costs are high and the market has dried up.

Phoebe said...

Sarah,

You may be right about fixed costs being what they are. I don't know whether Union Square prices affect Grand Army Plaza ones, but I shop at both, and have not noticed any difference between the two price-wise. I'd just figured that either the prices are what they are because that's what they have to be, or that, for different reasons in each location (restaurants in Manhattan, do-gooder brownstoners in Brooklyn), the demand is such that the prices can be high.

I'm going to have to disagree, though, about when the food-movement trend hit - I grew up in the city, going to Greenmarkets, and only noticed the Watersian trend in the city in the past couple years. I'm sure to the early adopters, in NY and elsewhere, it all looks like old news, but the proliferation of establishments promising 'sustainability' is something quite new.

Matt said...

The little farmer's market near Columbia is cheaper than the Union Square market on some things (apples, ramps, etc.) fairly regularly. Not lots and lots cheaper, but noticably. I wonder if lots at the Union Square market cost more, adding to hire fixed costs. (In Philadelphia the less attractive market spots often had slightly lower prices, too, though it's hard to know what's doing the moving here w/o knowing more about the books of places.)

Phoebe said...

It's hard to guess, then, what are fixed costs and what's what-can-be-gotten. Typically, a pricey item sold in a posh area owes its cost in part to rent, in part to what the item costs to produce, and in part to the willingness of locals to pay more than most. So another question would be, does this Columbia-area market charge more or less than the nearest... whatever comparable store might be up there. (Gourmet Garage? Fairway?).

PG said...

Right by Columbia there is Westside Market (why, why did it not open until I had moved away?!), D'Ags and Morton Williams. A little further away (108th-ish) is Garden of Eden, where my mom was so blown away by the presentation of the produce and the variety of it that she took pictures to show at the office back home. (Why yes, I grew up in the middle of nowhere.) Fairway is 40 blocks south of the Columbia gates. I know not this Gourmet Garage. Westside Market is quite expensive, but according to one of my friends who still lives in the area, offers rosewater (which she needed for a cake she was making at midnight) and will deliver.

Matt said...

Fairway is 40 blocks south of the Columbia gates.

Or about 21 blocks north, up on 12th Ave. I prefer the Harlem Fairway, not only because it's closer to home for me, but also because it's a little bit bigger and less crowded than the one in the 70's.

As for the prices at the market by Columbia, I think it's a bit lower on a few things, but as high or higher on others. (The thing I've bought most there lately was various types of goat cheese, and they were expensive, more so than at Fairway, but also very small-batch stuff. I think it's not too different from Fairway, maybe a bit higher, for apples and the like.

Phoebe said...

Huh. I was thinking of the uptown Fairway as the one near Columbia, since I've been led to believe that it's near university housing... but as I've revealed, I know very little about grocery options in that area.

But Miss Self-Important has asked me to refrain from NYC-specific ramblings, and she has a point. I'm thinking, then, that the question of why which groceries cost what will remain unanswered until I (or a reader better-versed in economics...) takes the time to look into it.

PG said...

I tend to discount the Harlem Fairway since even the company website doesn't propose a public transport method of getting there, and the walk seems to be like trying to get to Dinosaur BBQ. I didn't know of anyone living in student housing who shopped there.

Phoebe said...

PG,

You have a way of winning at every argument. All I'll say is that the Fairway in Harlem is pure convenience compared to the one in Red Hook. A lot of good it does the Brooklynites it purportedly serves that there's an Ikea shuttle from Manhattan...

PG said...

It's often not even consciously intentional; more like an unfortunate reflex. When I was about 11 and my older sister was studying for the SAT, she jumped out of her chair one day and said, "That's it, that's PG!"

The vocabulary word was disputatious.

Sarah said...

Better for most everyday purposes that you go to the Harlem Pathmark at W. 145th and FDB. Two blocks from the ABCD at W. 145th and St. Nick. 24/7. Only a couple of years old. Almost the size of a medium-sized suburban store. Selection decent; nothing high-end, but you could meet the vast majority of the requirements for the average middle-American diet there. Requires that you be able to stand being around actual icky long-term poor people, though, which I consider to be one of the tests that separates the frugal from the slumming.

Phoebe said...

Sarah,

All useful advice for readers living in Harlem! Won't help me much on my Brooklyn-NYU loop, but hopefully some readers live uptown.

In terms of being surrounded by "actual icky long-term poor people", most New Yorkers do take the subway, right? And beyond just a few stops in mid-Manhattan?

Anonymous said...

The peach at the Giant - it got picked by specialists (probably working for $8/hr) under the hot sun at a giant orchard in Georgia, and trucked to a warehouse in Maryland. Cost for picking: 4 cents. trucking: maybe another 2 cents. Warehousing til trucked to your local - tiny. truck to your local with a lot of other fruit and vedge: 2 cents. Stocked on a rack by a Giant Food employee who makes $17 an hour, 2 cents. Cashier also makes $17 an hour, and she spends 5 seconds ringing it up.

The peach at the farmer's market: got driven from the farm with many fewer other fruit and vedge. Cost of trucking at least as high, because less stuff in the F150 which brought it to you. The farmer waited hours with few customers for the end-of-day crush. Farmer spends a minute ringing you up, because all you are buying is the peaches and some tomatoes. You still bought your diapers and milk and napkins as the Giant. Of course the peach costs more from the farmer. dave.s.

Phoebe said...

Dave S.,

You may be right for the rest, but I have never, not once, experienced it taking a whole minute, or even close, to get rung up at a farmers' market. I thought that was only in the Alice Waters scenario of not only buying from but also befriending the farmer.

Sarah said...

Well, there was some discussion of markets in the Columbia area, which I presume means uptown. Obviously not so helpful for downtown.

As for being around actual icky poor people, there's a substantial difference between spending a few minutes in an economically-mixed subway car and spending half an hour behind people who have to hold everyone up because they are unable to understand which brands are WIC-eligible and which are not. Or being in the grocery at 10:30 on a Saturday night and being surrounded by crying babies. Whatever crappy racist gunk is sloshing around at the bottom of your psyche (and we all have it), that kind of experience is liable to call it up. The question is whether you or your lizard brain are master. It's a good thing to find out, actually.

Phoebe said...

Sarah,

I agree that people are more racist than we'd think, etc., etc., but as for the rest... I think you vastly underestimate the length of subway commutes as versus the amount of time one spends at the supermarket. (Or at least, I spend a lot more time on the subway than at the store, and I don't even live that far into Brooklyn, and I go grocery shopping what feels like all the time.)

But in terms of yuppie NYC whites fearing shopping around poor blacks... I don't really know how true that is. The Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, at least, has stands that accept food stamps, and I would be surprised if there aren't more educated white Brooklynites congratulating themselves (in a patronizing way and all that) for having a shopping experience that's not only local/seasonal but also racially and socioeconomically diverse than there are those who find that to be a problem.

In terms of regular grocery stores, it's tough to separate out whether yuppie whites avoid 'ghetto' food stores out of "lizard brain" racism, or because such shops actually charge more for produce, etc. It isn't racist to notice that one can pay less for better food in stores that happen to be filled with the rich. This is true even of the gourmet shop versus the regular supermarket near me in Park Slope - you can feel all authentic and non-snobbish for shopping at the supermarket, but you'll pay more for items both basic and gourmet. Again, it's not that people aren't huge racists/snobs/both, but I don't think it has the same role in grocery shopping as it might in, say, choosing between Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks.

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