On the real cost of food, or, why your carrots really are worth (at least) $2.50

(A brief contextual note: This blog post was originally written for and published on “Applying Ethics,” a blog that follows my work as an ethicist, academic, activist working outside of academia. Right now I am working for an organic farm that runs a community supported agriculture program or CSA, education programs, and sells at farmers’ markets. I repost here by request of my colleagues.)

I am now 7 months into working the farmers’ markets. My duties on the farm have expanded to included running some of the education programs which means I am now tending 5 gardens and numerous children who come to learn on the farm. That work combined with doing 3 markets a week these days has made me even more sensitive to a phrase that is kicked around the farm quite a bit: the real cost of food.

Rather than expounding on the phrase, allow me to rant, I mean contextualize it:

I worked a particularly long and difficult market today. I spent part of my shift, between restocking vegetables and explaining the concept of a CSA to people, pondering why some of the customers were getting on my nerves a bit. (Before you get concerned–I am pretty good at what Hoschild called “emotional labor.” That is, selling not just the product but the sunny disposition that creates the appropriate atmosphere–even and especially when there is a mis-match between said atmosphere and how you actually feel. I strive to make sure all customers have a great farmers’ market experience.)

Here is what I concluded: I was particularly irked because they were displaying the behavior and attitude that most of us are guilty of at one point or another. They wanted deals on the vegetables or were upset, in whatever way they chose to express it, because they thought the produce was “too expensive.”

I get tight budgets. I can even extrapolate and understand plentiful budgets but wanting to make your money stretch. I recognize that, for some people, getting a bargain is a sport.

What I would venture to guess we all forget (some with more or less frequency) is that bargains come at a price.

So, if I was teaching a class on food justice and talking about the real cost of food and one of my students brought up how they failed to get the farmer to cut them a deal on their carrots, this is what I would tell them:

I hear that you wanted the farmer to sell you the carrots for $2 instead of the $2.50 that was listed. Here is why I find it kind of insulting, albeit unintentionally so, when people feel like they shouldn’t have to pay that 50 cents:

Today was a market day. When my alarm went off at 4:45 am (that is right, that is a 4 in the hour slot) I woke up and removed my wrist braces. Wrist braces I now wear every night to minimize the injury caused by months of heavy lifting of boxes and vegetables, tents, and tables and repetitive motion. Wrist braces I wear because of the hard work I do to make sure you get your carrots.

I left the house well before the sun came up even before the rooster crowed–literally.

In order to get the produce to you, my colleague and I moved and loaded over 100 boxes and crates of vegetable. Your carrots were in one of those boxes.

We spent well over an hour setting up our stall so you had access to your carrots.

I was on my feet in perpetual motion for the entirety of the market. For the two hours before you got up when the market was open. For the 5 hours and 45 minutes after you left the market when you went to brunch, watched the game, took a nap or a hike.

I spent another hour or more packing up the carrots that weren’t quite the right ones for you and all of the other vegetables no one wanted. Along with those same tables and tents, I lifted those boxes of vegetables back into the truck. Lifting them from ground level to shoulder height, and repeating.

Back at the farm I reversed the process from the morning. Realizing only when I sat down to do paperwork (a necessary evil) that I had been working so hard to make sure you got your carrots that I didn’t have time to fill my water bottle or eat during the market.

When I got home after my 10 hour shift, I massaged my aching wrists, stretched my aching legs, and tried to refuel with some of the leftover vegetables that were not good enough to sell. All this knowing I would be getting up the next morning to do it all again.

Is all of that worth 50 cents?

The real kicker for me is that I am just the last person to put the work in for you to get your carrots. The work began around two to three months ago (longer when you talk about field prep and planning) when a farmer carefully planted each of the seeds that would grow to become your carrots. It continued during those months as multiple people tended the seedlings, put them in the ground, weeded by hand to make sure they got the sunlight and nutrients they needed to grow, harvested by hand, washed by hand, and packed up those carrots by hand.

With the amount of labor alone that went into that bundle of carrots $2.50 is a steal! A steal, I tell you!

So, no, I don’t blame farmers who price their produce in such a way as to make sure they cover the full cost of their produce. I don’t blame them for not wanting to drop the price because we feel like we deserve a deal.

In fact, if the prices are truly fair and reflective of the true cost of the food, then I find it dismissive and insulting to ask for a deal. It is as if we are saying, “I don’t really care how much work, time, and energy it took for you to produce this and get it to me. I don’t really care that you bear the physical scars and injuries inherent in the demanding work you do. None of that is worth the extra 50 cents I want to save.”

That is the tale I would tell my students.

That is the tale I remind myself of every time I want a bargain on something local, organic, and sustainable. Or a bargain on a hotel room. Or a bargain anywhere, really, that means that bargain comes at the cost of devaluing someone’s labor.

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