Should Produce be Free?

(What?) Would you pay for fresh local salad mix?


We’ve been working on spring community garden plans in a couple of Big Stone County locations in the last few days–talking about growing produce to donate to the schools, senior centers, and nursing homes.

I believe whole-heartedly in providing access to fresh, healthy foods–especially to seniors and students who are basically “captive audiences” to whatever’s put on their plates where they are living or going to school.

One of my past CSA members was a woman residing at an assisted living facility in Vermillion.  While she was happy to be closer to her family, she was appalled at the quality of the food being served in her home, and even more so that no one else had any complaints (or at least any they were vocal about).

Until she moved back east, she was one of my most appreciative customers–always excited to see me and always exclaiming about how much she enjoyed the fresh, whole foods I brought.

Because she was not sufficiently mobile to get down to the farmers market, it meant the world to her to get that delivery every week during the season.  In terms of cost, there was never any question.  She knew the value of what she was getting.

Since moving to Big Stone County, I have come across a different attitude toward fresh produce–but not one I am completely unfamiliar with.

I remember on more than one occasion, while selling my produce at the farmers market in Vermillion, being asked something to the effect of, “why would I pay you for this when I can get it from my neighbor for free?”

The only logical response is, of course, “you wouldn’t pay me for it.”

That question tended to come from people of sufficient age to remember when everyone had a garden and no one (except city folks) paid for produce.  You grew it yourself, and you traded for what you didn’t have, and you probably gave some excess away as well.  Maybe you brought a little to town to sell along with your eggs and cream.

Because of this tradition, it’s easy to understand why many people don’t see produce as having monetary value.  The irony is, that whole paradigm changes the moment you walk into a grocery store–you wouldn’t ask the produce manager why you should have to pay for lettuce there, would you?

So, it’s not that produce doesn’t have monetary value; it’s that local produce, grown by neighbors in rural areas, often isn’t seen the same way. Produce is simply free–or very, very cheap.

And that can make growing food locally a helluva hard way to make a living–you almost have to ship it off somewhere else (paying for all that packaging and transportation and fees for the middlemen in the process) to create a false value under the lights and sprinkler-heads of a distant supermarket.

False value in the sense that you’re paying not for freshness and nutrition at that point–you’re paying for plastic and fossil fuel.  And the farmer herself ends up making very little in that system.

Now, I don’t have anything against neighbors sharing produce, but I do wonder how we will make the transition between the generation that grows their own produce and sees it as something to share or give away and the generation that does not, on the whole, have the time or skill set to maintain those gardens and traditions.

And I also wonder why, when it comes to institutions, money spent on food tends to go to companies outside the area–spent on foods that are less fresh and less healthy than what could be gotten locally, at the same time that many of those institutions are soliciting donations of better, fresher, healthier foods from the local area.

Yes, I do understand the varied logistics that go into the institutional equation here–the point is really to cast light on a system that sends money out of the community for inferior products (enriching the middlemen and corporations) while cheating the local economy of dollars for local producers with a vastly superior product.

The corporations get paid; the local producers get to “feel good” by donating.  Donating does feel good, but going out of business doesn’t.  Growing food and giving away the bulk of it just isn’t a sustainable business plan.

As a parent of a grade-school-aged son, and as a producer, I’m torn.  As a mother, I absolutely want to see more fresh, healthy local food in my child’s school lunch, but as a farmer, I’m indignant that there’s money for buying pre-packaged carrots from a distributor, but not for the carrots local producers grow.

I do like the community garden movement because I think it teaches incredibly useful skills.  I helped start one in Vermillion, and I am committed to helping organize the new and existing community gardens here in Big Stone County.

I just wonder if we are teaching our kids–by having them grow and then give away produce to local institutions that are spending real money on foods from elsewhere–that same old lesson: produce–at least of the local variety–is free.

Feel free to share your thoughts and sentiments in the comments!


One response

  1. Not long ago someone told me they planned to bring their apples to a F/M and put up a give-away sign. I asked them to please not do that. if they knew of someone who needed it, give it to them, or else sell it.
    I have a garden, but I don’t grow everything, some of the things I grow, don’t grow well. I don’t put things in early, sometimes I want more than what i have to ‘put up’ for winter. I like to try different varieties. For all these reasons, i am a pretty good F/M customer.
    We really must learn to honor the time, effort, and dedication of the producer as well as the quality of the produce.
    Also, there are local producers who produce things we can buy at their place. It is so far superior to anything that has traveled. My dollars spent at the F/M, to on farm producers, to the Granary and UNFI truck for those ‘can’t get’ items have completely inverted to what I used to spend at the grocers.

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