Supermarket vs. Farmers’ Market: A Clear Winner

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

Buying produce at a farmer's marketOne of the resolutions I made for 2009 was to eat right, and I feel that part of doing that is eating food that isn’t full of things like preservatives and HFCS. By going to the farmer’s market a few times last year, Morah and I have discovered the mouth-watering goodness of fresh produce. I can’t tell you how much more flavor something as simple as lettuce has when it’s only hours from the farm instead of days or weeks.

Unfortunately, the farmer’s market that we went to ended in October and doesn’t start up again until May. Until then, we’re stuck with produce from the super market. (I’ll admit that this isn’t entirely true, as there’s a winter farmer’s market and a grocery store on the South Hill that specializes in farm-fresh produce. But for the sake of this post, please pretend that those don’t exist.)

The problem with buying produce from the supermarket is that almost all of it sucks. The leafy greens are often wilty, and the root vegetables are often dry. Things are either over or under ripe. Mold is not an uncommon sight. Even if you do buy something that looks good in the store, it often goes bad within a few days. Why are conditions in supermarkets so bad, and what can be done about it?

There are a number of basic problems that affect the poor quality of supermarket produce, and it all starts with popular demand. It’s common for supermarkets in the United States (and the United Kindgom) to stock the same produce year-round, even when that produce is out of season (this is abnormal in other countries, such as Spain). In order to stock all of those out of season fruits and vegetables, they have to be shipped in from other states, or even other countries. Just think about how long it takes for the food to get from where it was grown to your plate. How fresh can food grown in South America really be by the time it gets to your supermarket? Don’t forget that it’s not a straight shot, either; there are inspections, customs, and distribution warehouses through which it all has to pass first. Also think about how bad for the planet this whole system is. We’re shipping food all over the place that could be (and probably is) grown on local farms.

But at least you’re eating healthily, right? Well, maybe not. Fresh produce is full of healthy nutrients, but the longer it sits around waiting to be eaten, the less nutritious it actually is.

I heard a story one time (a couple of quick searches could not corroborate it, so I don’t know how true it is) that some apples are stored in huge vaults for months at a time, their environments carefully controlled so they don’t spoil. I know bagged lettuce has a gas in it that slows decay (this is called modified atmosphere packaging. Is it any wonder that these things go bad within days of opening them?). How old is our food by the time we buy it? How many nutrients are lost before we buy them?

Another problem is that all of our produce has to look good. There is actually a process for getting rid of produce that, although it’s perfectly edible, is visually unappealing. Food distributors have guidelines for the size, shape, and color of the fruits and vegetables they’ll sell, and anything that doesn’t fit those guidelines gets rejected and sent back to the farmer. The upside to this is that your food looks nice, but the downside is that it usually doesn’t taste very interesting.

Strawberries are a good example of this. Although there are many varieties of strawberry, the most common supermarket variety is “elsanta.” These were bred for, among other things, their bounciness. Seriously. I wish I were kidding. There’s apparently a test for bounciness that invloves a 5 foot fall onto a kettle drum. How do these long-shelf-life strawberries taste? Not awful, but nowhere near as good as other, more fragile varieties of the fruit.

Did you know that carrots come in a multitude of colors besides orange? Have you ever eaten a purple potato? Did you know there are hundreds – if not thousands – of varieties of apple? There is an entire world of food that you’re not eating if you buy your produce from the supermarket.

Although there has been an increased interest in organic produce, from what I’ve seen, much of it leaves a lot to be desired for the exact same reasons. So how can we change what supermarkets offer?

You can talk to your store manager. Each individual store is usually allowed to carry (more or less) whatever it wants, and there is a much wider variety of food available to supermarkets than they actually provide (this is true for everything they carry, not just produce). In truth, this method probably won’t change much, and local produce may not be available to your store.

The next step is to buy only what’s in season. In most cases, this will ensure that you’re eating the freshest foods. For example, Morah and I love asparagus, and when it’s in season, our supermarket carries Washington-grown. Out of season, however, the asparagus usually comes from California, and just doesn’t taste as good. If enough people adhere to this, it will show your supermarket that produce is most popular when it’s in season, which may help to shift the balance.

Are these suggestions flights of fancy? Yes and no. One or two people changing their shopping habits won’t affect the supermarket much, but if enough people do it, things will change.

The best advice, however, is to forget about the supermarkets altogether. Find your local farms and famers’ markets, and then support those as much as possible. Not only will you giving back to your community, you’ll be eating some of the freshest, healthiest, best-tasting food you’ve ever had.

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3 Comments

  1. Don’t forget Co-ops! They are the wonderful stores in between supermarkets and farmer’s markets. You are lucky to have a wonderful establishment – Huckleberry’s – on the South Hill!

  2. Which is now owned by Rosauers (possibly always owned by them?). I’m not sure how I feel about that.

    They do, however, have a fantastic selection of hard-to-find produce, and usually it’s extremely fresh.

  3. do you guys have PCC out there? I had never gone into one before I read Animal Vegetable Miracle, and have been shopping at them ever since. Their specialty is a small selection of reasonably priced LOCAL produce. often times they buy direct from farmer.

    okay, that’s a lie. But when i live in seattle i shop there. 😉

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