The price of food – Part IV: Salad

There’s more to running a farmers market then you might at first think. That’s my excuse for such a long gap between blog posts in this series about the price of food. But at the Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering at Gerringong last year, Costa Georgiadis — one of Australia’s best communicators — reminded us how important it is to keep up the work to talk about local food systems and to reconnect people with their food through stories. Well, that was back in Julyand I started writing this post months ago, but as I always say: we get there in the end.

This series is about shifting the conversation about food from price to value and we’re doing doing that with some product comparisons using the 5 reasons why we believe you should shop at a farmers market. These reasons are:

  1. the food is fresher and therefore tastes better
  2. the food is fresher and therefore lasts longer
  3. the food is fresher and therefore is more nutritious
  4. the market connects people to each other and builds community
  5. the market keeps money local

The hard data

We’ve talked about carrots and sausages. Now, we’re going to look at salad. By the end of this series, we’ll have effectively compared an entire, simple meal.

Brand/product Woolworths Select
Leafy Mix
Old Mill Road BioFarm
mixed salad
Supplier/grower address Harvest Fresh Cuts
79 Tile Street
Wacol, Qld
Old Mill Road
Turlinjah, NSW
Distance from place of
purchase (as the crow flies)
approx 960km 13.3km
Packaging unrecyclable plastic bag compostable bag
Net weight 0.201kg 0.328kg
Number of units na na
Total price $3.00 $6.00
Price/100g $1.49 $1.83

So far, the supermarket products have won 3 for 3 on price. The supermarket leafy mix is $0.34/100g cheaper, but as we know by now, there’s more to food than the price tag, so let’s delve a little deeper.

1. The food is fresher and therefore tastes better

Once again, the supermarket can’t compete on freshness. I know the Old Mill Road BioFarm salad was picked, washed and packed the morning of the day I bought it. I know this because I asked Kirsti, who grew it. The supermarket salad had a “use by” date, but no packing date. The produce was grown by Harvest Fresh Cuts in Queensland, but they have no website, making them very opaque. Neither are they listed as a producer on the supermarket’s website, so we really have no idea of where the salad was actually grown, other than “Queensland, probably near Brisbane”. The best we can do is pinpoint the processing plant in Wacol, Brisbane. How long does it take to get to Moruya from the point of harvest? No idea. How long does it spend in storage or on the shelf in Moruya? No idea on that, either.

When it came to comparing taste, I managed to pick out some lettuce leaves of the same variety (red coral). Once again, there was a clear difference in taste between the two samples. The younger of my two blind tasters preferred the Old Mill Road lettuce sample, remarking “it made a spark in my mouth!”. The older preferred the supermarket sample, because the Old Mill Road lettuce tasted bitter. Well, red coral lettuce is supposed to, so I’m going to interpret that as another win for the Old Mill Road sample.

Texture and crunchiness? Well, it was pretty close. If anything, the Old Mill Road lettuce was crisper, but the difference was pretty marginal. The most obvious difference was in the taste. The true characteristics of the lettuce variety were better expressed by the local leaf.

2. The food is fresher and therefore lasts longer

I have come to learn that the bags of mixed salad I buy at the farmers market each week — whoever I buy from — last aaaaaages. Sometimes I go through a bag in a couple of days, but sometimes I’ve still got a bag going over a week later and the leaves are still firm and crisp.

We did the salad test so long ago, my memory is dim on this part. But from my notes, more of the local salad mix was still edible when I decided I’d tested long enough. I think there’s something to be said for the packaging here. The compostable bag has a ziplock closure (I wash and resuse these bags loads), but the supermarket bag was a one-time, rip-it-open type job, which wasn’t helpful for storage.

Although we don’t know exactly when the supermarket leaves were picked, we can pretty safely assume it would be no more than 48 hours prior to the moment of purchase. Big Ag don’t muck around with highly perishable stuff and there’s some super high-tech on-site processing for salad mix these days. So perhaps the supermarket salad mix lasted longer overall, but from the point of purchase, which is what we’re interested in, it couldn’t keep up with the local product.

[Aside: and think for a minute of the resources required to get that salad to our local supermarket! Would you like some embodied energy with your salad, ma’am?]

3. The food is fresher and therefore is more nutritious

I’ve already talked about how nutrition diminishes over time in the last post of this series, so I won’t go into that again. Let’s just make a note that we’ve already established that the Old Mill Road BioFarm salad is fresher and it’s a given that whatever nutrition each product started with, the Old Mill Road salad has had less time than the supermarket salad to lose any before it hits the plate.

But how much nutrition is contained in each product at the moment it’s harvested? Again, I can’t answer this quantifiably… and neither can the supermarkets, quite frankly. This is where we need to consider production methods. Why all this fuss about a lettuce? It’s just some crunchy green stuff to go with the main dish, right? Wrong. Leafy greens, particularly dark and bitter leafy greens, are a great source of nutrition, providing all sorts of vitamins and minerals (make sure you have Flash enabled for that link) and do all sorts of good things to keep our bodies healthy. So, the fresher the better when it comes to lettuce.

If you talk to Kirsti or Fraser, they’ll gladly tell you how they grow their salad greens. They take their soil fertility very seriously and they also feed their crops with biofertilisers made from natural sources, such as seaweed, rather than non-renewable resources, such as mined or synthesised fertilisers. Consider also that they aren’t supplying a ruthless and demanding supermarket chain, so the pressure to make their soil produce, produce, produce and never rest is almost non-existent. All of these factors contribute to the nutritional content of the salad at the point of harvest and because it was picked the morning of the market, none of it has been lost by the time you buy it.

Are you starting to think differently about your salad?

4. The market connects people to each other and builds community

This is a real thing. “Studies show” this is a real thing, because real studies have been done that show this thing. In 2014, The Australian Government Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) published a report “Understanding the characteristics of Australian farmers’ markets“. It is the biggest survey of farmers market stall holders, operators  and other stakeholders (like customers and local government) conducted in Australia. The data revealed that stall holders value the connection to their customers and to other stall holders above everything else. Above profit. Above business. That doesn’t compute in the world of mass production and down, down, prices are down.

But in our world, it’s the very foundation on which a local food system is built. This connection is what motivates farmers to keep improving their businesses, improve the health of their soils and the ecosystem that supports their farms. It inspires them to keep improving the quality of the food they produce, because they have immediate feedback from their customers. They know that they matter. It makes both the growers and the customers want to stick around. And when people stick around, they put down roots and then — voilà! — you have a community.

In the 2015 study on the social impacts of our market on our own community, conducted by the University of Canberra, stall holders reported that an important aspect of their participation in the market is “their sense of belonging and connectedness within the community”. Connected people invest in their community both financially and socially, building the economy and wellbeing of us all.

5. The market keeps money local

The market facilitates the direct exchange of money for goods between local customers and local businesses. Those local businesses then spend their money with local businesses and so on. We all understand the basic principle.

But it’s worth thinking a little deeper about what that looks like in the local food economy.

Ideally, a stall holder will sell out at a market. But, when a local grower has excess product at the end of a market, a few different things might happen. They might value-add it and sell it as a chutney or a pickle or something. That brings new products onto the market. That’s a good thing. Or they might find an outlet that they can wholesale it to. That expands the availability and awareness of local food, basically finding new customers, so that’s a good thing too. Or they might take it home and chuck it in the compost. While that’s not a total waste, it’s not a great thing either, because they’ve put time and labour into that product and didn’t get a return.

But what does happen, is that result gets entered into that grower’s database of what worked and what didn’t (whether it’s a spreadsheet, or a diary or in their head… they all do it differently), so supply is reacting to demand in a really quite immediate way. The economic forces of our local food economy are driven by us. If the growers don’t grow what we eat, we won’t put our money into the local economy. So the market doesn’t just keep money local… it keeps it local because it gives us what we demand. I think that’s so cool!

Which salad mix?

Well, it depends on what you value more. I value freshness, nutrition and flavour more, so it’s the Old Mill Road salad all the way. But you might think differently, so let me ask you:

Is the extra $0.34/100g worth the better taste, the longer shelf life, the better nutrition and the contribution it makes to the community and the local economy?

Or this one:

Is the extra $0.34/100g an investment in healthier people, healthier soils and conservation of energy, effectively offsetting hidden costs, making it a cheaper salad mix in the long run?

Tell me what you think in the comments below.

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