Avoid the Organic Food Swindle

Was rereading Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist this morning and as always was taken by his incisive commentary surrounding prices and consumer behavior. Harford’s basic thesis is that national chains (he uses SBUX and Whole Foods as examples) charge more for premium goods than their costs would dictate. In other words, while those organic vine ripened tomatoes DO cost Whole Foods more than conventional tomatoes, Whole Foods covers their cost and more with their pricing strategy. Why do this? Simple – Whole Foods customers are willing to pay for perceived quality, and Whole Foods would be insane to NOT charge the maximum that its customers are willing to pay.  To avoid this trap, Harford recommends that consumers:

“vote with your wallet by supporting any retailer – or direct supplier – who brings the price of organic and nonorganic food closer together.”

In our house, this means purchasing a CSA. Community Supported Agriculture operates as follows: Consumers prepay for a “share” of a farm’s crop, which gives the farm operating capital and distributes risk in the case of a poor harvest. In return, shareholders pick up (in our case) 8-10 pounds of fresh, seasonal, and local organic produce each week. A typical summer pick up might include a pint of strawberries, a melon, 4-5 bell peppers, 2-3 large carrots, radishes, beets, eggplant, tomatoes, and the like. Obviously, later in the season there is a shift toward apples, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other root vegetables.

Does the quality compare to Whole Foods? Undoubtedly. Everything is fresh, having traveled only 90 miles to reach us, as opposed to several thousand in the case of the average east coast Whole Foods organic carrot. In addition, we enjoy a wide variety of purple carrots, zebra tomatoes, curly eggplants, and other non-standard veggies that rarely if ever appear in a chain store.

OK OK, you’re thinking that this must still be a deluxe option only for the affluent, right? Think again. We pay a total of $715 for a 20 week season. $525 for veggies and $190 for the fruit share. That works out to around $35 per week for fresh, tasty produce. That’s $140 per month, which for us is manageable, especially considering that fruits and veggies make up the lion’s share of our diet.

Are there drawbacks? Not many. You have to like cooking and eating vegetables (though there are fish and meat CSAs as well), and you have to pick up on the same day each week, but other than that it is a win win for everyone. So please, when you have a moment this winter, visit this site to learn more and locate a farm near you for next season. By doing so, you will support local agriculture, help the environment, and keep more money in your pocket.

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