I've been mulling over my reasons for buying the food that I buy for the past few weeks and during that time May Day rolled around, as it always does. Every year I forget how much I love the first day of May in France. The floral burst always takes me by surprise as the streets sprout vendors of lillies of the valley and lilacs, blooming on every corner and by each sidewalk café. Purchasing and selling these flowers is a tradition open to all, with a few euros buying budding branches and perfumed flowering shoots that brighten up your home.
Vendors come from nearby fields and no one thinks twice about the price of a small bouquet- because a few euros is what it costs to help your neighbor out and participate in a modest ritual that celebrates a season. It is a simple gesture that reminds us of so much on this day set aside to honor hard work and what hard work is worth.
Recently I received some feedback on my Facebook page that made me feel compelled to write this post. The comments were in regards to the cost of locally-grown vegetables at the market, which some readers found to be unreasonably high. I have to admit that I rarely pay attention to the prices of locally-grown, fresh produce at the markets I visit, not because I'm extraordinarily wealthy (I'm not!), but because I'm just so excited to find farmers from nearby regions selling their seasonal produce in Paris. It is such a rare discovery that cost doesn't even occur to me.
Having said that, I understand that price is a consideration and every family budgets for food differently. I have a two-income household that consists of two people- which is a very different situation from one-income-five-people households, or other variations that may require a more fixed budget on groceries. I am not oblivious to the fact that money is a real issue that may make one person's daily expenses seem like another person's luxury.
Before talking a little about buying food, I'd like to make it clear that my intended audience has never been readers with a large expendable income, that's why I don't promote expensive food trends (eating local, I'd argue, isn't a trend but a tradition) or advocate exorbitant expenditures on the blog (you can make wholesome food at home with seasonal recipes rather than spending half your paycheck at a restaurant). My target audience is people who love whole food- whether at the farm, the market, in the kitchen, or on their table- and want to learn how to support the local farmers that bring it to them.
We all make choices on where and how to spend our money and I think that food is one thing that is worth paying for. I don't own a lot of shoes, or much clothing- I don't spend a ton of money on things that make me look better, but good food makes me feel great in an invaluable way that I love to share with the people I care about. Besides the fact that fresh fruits and vegetables make me happy, here are a few other reasons why I spend a little more at the market instead of the supermarché :
The Forget/Forgive Factor
I go to a lot of markets. Sometimes my eyes are bigger than my mouth when shopping and oftentimes my eyes even outgrow my fridge- which is constantly stuffed with impulse buys and way to many vegetables for two people to get through on a weekly basis. Sometimes when scouring through my little French fridge to find a carrot or turnip I remember buying at Marché Daumesnil I'll stumble upon a bag of beets that I bought weeks before. Humble and forgotten these earth covered roots are always forgiving- even ten days later they are waiting for me, fresh and flavorful and anticipating being eaten. There is a value in that- investing in food that is so fresh that it waits for you to get around to it, ready to be forgotten and forgive.
Nothing Added, Nothing Taken Away
I'm always surprised at the markets by how much gets thrown away- when I buy whole foods, I want the whole food- the greens, the skin, the roots, and the sprouts. I like my food like my wine- nothing added and nothing taken away.
When I think about vegetables that are sprayed with pesticides or treated chemically I wonder what is left to enjoy- and what do you have to take away in order to feel okay eating these modified foods? What fun can you have with chemically treated lemon zest? What do you do with waxy cucumber and apple skins? What do you keep and what do you need to take away in order to feel okay?
The state of industrial foods begs the question of what we are taking away from the environment when we practice this form of agriculture. While Monsanto lobbyists have done a stellar job impeding studies on the impact of genetically modified foods on our health, the affect that pesticides have on our earth has been largely documented and the efficiency of organic farming has been affirmed. The Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania has lead an impressive 30 year study on organic farming compared to industrial methods and found that the former is “better equipped to feed us now and well into the ever changing future”
Being a Good Neighbor
I think that a lot of the time people expect to pay more for produce that has been imported and passed through several middle men. The added cost covers the added mileage and transactions that took place before your Spanish strawberries or imported pineapple gets to you. This in turn advances the expectation that locally grown food, sold directly by the grower to the consumer should cost less. In my opinion, this is an unfair assumption for two reasons:
- Investing in local agriculture is better for the consumer, the farmer, and the environment. I believe it is a worthwhile investment to cut out the middlemen (and carbon imprint) inherent in transporting produce from afar and to chose to support your local farmer, who is singlehandedly standing up against the industrial food complex, keeping regional agriculture alive, and accepting to act as producer, transporter, and vendor of their own produce in order to ensure that you have access to fresh goods at the market.
- Local farmers aren't getting rich off of the “locavore” movement. Despite comparatively elevated prices at the market, these farmers live simple lives and constantly feel economic pressure. Farmers are already hard pressed to tend their land with small teams of workers, to transport their goods to the city, and to pay rent for a plae in the open-air markets. A rough winter (like the one we just had) can bring catastrophe, much like farmer Nicolas Thirard experienced when one of his three greenhouses collapsed during a harsh snowstorm that hit his farm in Northern France. Nicolas saw his lettuce crop freeze in the bitter cold and is only now rebuilding what was taken away.Farmers choose to continue or to undertake this lifestyle in order to feed us. That's a pretty big job and an undeniably awesome gesture that I'm humbled by and appreciative of. So when farmer Hermione Boehrer wakes up early in the morning in her home- that could be generously described as a large shed- on her farm 39 miles outside of Paris and harvests the kale that she'll bring to hungry ex-pats and curious French shoppers at Marché Batignolles or Marché Raspail, my first reaction isn't to cost check, but to smile and say thanks- because you can't put a price on the work that she and her colleagues do for us.
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