No Free Locavore Lunch
The Wall Street Journal, "Commerce & Culture" , September 25, 2010
Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and a leading advocate of buying locally grown food, recently upset many of his fans by daring to put numbers on his oft-repeated prescription to "pay more, eat less." Eight dollars for a dozen eggs? $3.90 for a pound of peaches?
Those figures were way too specific and way, way too high to go unnoticed. The humanistic foe of industrialized eating suddenly sounded like a privileged elitist, and the local-food cause seemed insensitive to cash-strapped shoppers.
But Mr. Pollan was only being honest. Patronizing local farmers who produce in small batches tends to cost more. You may find some peak-season bargains at the farmers' market, but there's no such thing as a free locavore lunch. Getting fruits and vegetables only from local farms necessarily limits variety—few crops are available everywhere all the time—and it doesn't come cheap. Economies of scale apply even to produce.
Mr. Pollan's critics sound a lot like Jackie Mason back in the 1990s, mocking Starbucks for "charging you three dollars for 50 cents worth of coffee." Taste is subjective. So is economic value. The right price is the one you're willing to pay.
Take those peaches. Last week, my local supermarket ran a one-day sale: yellow peaches for just 47 cents a pound. Compared with the usual $1.99 a pound, it was quite a bargain. And unlike the store's mealy, full-priced white peaches, the cheap fruit didn't taste bad. I've had worse from farmers' markets. By the standards of my South Carolina childhood, however, where peaches came in baskets from roadside stands, these crisp, faintly flavored orbs were an entirely different fruit.
Ripe peaches are soft and hard to ship, so supermarkets and many farmers' markets sell ones that haven't ripened fully. An unripe peach will soften if you wait a few days, but it won't sweeten. For that, it has to stay on the tree. The only peaches I've ever bought in California that tasted properly delicious cost $3.25 a pound—
enough to make up for the ripened fruit inevitably lost between orchard and market. Other buyers may not care, but I consider cheap peaches a waste of money. I don't blame San Francisco foodies like Mr. Pollan for paying $3.90 a pound. They can always cut back on the cappuccinos.
Like tastemakers from Anna Wintour to Steve Jobs, Mr. Pollan is just trying to persuade the public to share his sense of excellence and, with it, his willingness to pay. The real problem with his prescriptions isn't economic elitism but produce xenophobia. The locavore ideal is a world without trade, not only beyond national borders but even from the next state: no Florida oranges in Colorado or California grapes in New Mexico, no Vidalia onions in New York or summer spinach in Georgia.
Fully realized, that ideal would eliminate one of the great culinary advances of the past half century. Unripe peaches notwithstanding, today's supermarket produce departments are modern marvels. American grocery shoppers have choices that would have been unimaginable only a few decades ago. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the only way to get fresh spinach or leaf lettuce was to plant a garden. Avocados were an exotic treat, asparagus came in a can, and pomegranates existed only in books.
Now my neighborhood supermarket sells five types of lettuce, plus spinach, endive, escarole, radicchio, frisée, rapini, three kinds of chard, mustard greens, dandelion greens and kale. That's not including all the cabbages—or, of course, the prewashed salads in a bag that have particularly boosted fresh-spinach purchases. In this ordinary produce department, you can buy not only avocados, asparagus and pomegranates, but everything from purple baby cauliflowers to spiky kiwano melons that look like some kind of scary deep-sea creature. Need portobello mushrooms, Japanese eggplant or organic ginger at 2 a.m.? The store is open 24/7.
This cornucopia of choice and convenience is a tribute to logistical ingenuity and gains from trade, the very progress the local-food movement is sworn to overturn. For those of us blessed with a Mediterranean climate, giving up imports means higher prices. For everyone else, it means a far more limited diet. New Yorkers sometimes complain about farmers' markets that seem to sell only varieties of apples. Were they expecting locally grown oranges and mangoes? Coffee and spices from the plantations of East Hampton?
The local-food movement's ideological parochialism would be dangerous if it were somehow enacted into law. But as persuasion, it tends to focus on the positive: the delights of local peaches and fresh cider, not the imagined evils of Chilean blueberries and prepeeled baby carrots. In this regard, it resembles the English Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. William Morris, who is remembered today more for his wallpaper and book designs than for his social theories, didn't manage to overturn the industrial revolution. But he and his allies left a legacy of beautiful things. Pleasure is persuasive.