In Food

Are local and organic foods affordable?

Posted by: on Mar 16, 2013 | 4 Comments

roosterI’ve been thinking a lot about affordability of local and organic foods lately. In the United States, 50 million Americans were food insecure in 2011, meaning they did not know where their next meal would come from. That means 1 in 6 Americans are hungry. Poverty is closely related to hunger but unemployment is a better indicator, according to Feeding America. I live in one of the poorest regions in Virginia. Both counties fall within the highest range (17.9-100%) for poverty rates in the state. The United States unemployment rate for February 2013 was 7.7%, the lowest in 4 years. The state of Virginia had an unemployment rate of 5.6% in December of 2012. However, Northern Virginia has some of the richest counties in the country. Accomack, where I live, had an unemployment rate of 6.9% and Northampton, the neighboring county, had an unemployment rate of 8.8%. There are few industries providing jobs here. The largest employers are the county governments, school system, Perdue, Tyson, and Wallops Flight Facility. While we may not be the poorest or hungriest state, it’s clear that any food system changes must address hunger here as well as throughout the nation.

Both local and organic are complicated terms. But, in general, ‘local’ means grown within a specific region or distance. For example, local for me may mean grown within the two counties of the Eastern Shore, Northampton and Accomack, or it could mean grown within the state of Virginia or a radius of say anywhere from 100-400 miles from where I live. The USDA uses 400 miles to identify local. Many farmers’ markets also define local using distance (often much closer than 400 miles). Organic usually means that it complies with the standards set by the federal government and their National Organic Program. These terms may overlap but they don’t always.

One of the greatest criticisms of local and organic foods is that it is not affordable. So, I decided to do a little digging. I found a very interesting study from right here in Virginia conducted by Anthony Flaccavento and Scale, Inc. Flaccavento is a farmer in Southwest Virginia. He founded Appalachian Sustainable Development and Scale, Inc. The study asked the question, “Is local food affordable for ordinary folks?” Researchers compared farmers’ markets and supermarkets in nineteen communities in the southeast, including Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The study communities ranged in size from 10,000 people to more than 250,000. Surprisingly, when researchers compared “apples to apples” or conventionally grown to conventionally grown the study found that produce was less expensive at farmers’ markets than supermarkets in 74% of the communities by an average of 22%. Additionally, organic produce at farmers’ markets (when compared to organic produce at groceries) also cost less in 88% of communities by an average of 16%. However, meats and eggs were always more expensive whether comparing grass finished and free-range to grass finished and free-range or conventionally raised. The meat and egg category was significantly skewed by the high cost of free-range chicken compared to conventionally raised chicken. Ground beef and free-range eggs were much closer in price to their counterparts.

This study shows that it is possible to save money while purchasing quality produce from your local growers. It may depend on the community and the variety available at the market. However, I find it hopeful that farmers’ markets are competitive price wise. I hope to do a little comparing in my own community this summer once the market is open (May cannot come soon enough!). I’ll also be able to compare those prices to that of the CSA I had last summer, which averaged around $20/week for the two of us. Meat is more expensive. But that’s because the product is so different. The inputs for organic/grass-fed/pasture raised (whatever you want to call it) are much more expensive than for conventional and producers are often producing far less. Grass-fed beef or pastured chicken cannot meet the economy of scale that a large-scale conventional chicken house or feedlot can. Additionally, farmers’ markets all over the U.S. are accepting EBT cards, making it possible for families on SNAP (the supplemental nutrition assistance program which replaced the food stamp program) to purchase food from the market.

It would be nice if things were that simple–that we could simply compare prices at the farmers’ market and choose the best quality most competitive priced product. However affordable food is much more complicated, especially fresh, healthy affordable food. For one farmers’ markets are not a one stop shop, which may mean multiple trips to multiple stores/marketplaces for all household items. To be fair, I end up making multiple trips to different stores anyway. In fact, the other week, I went to Food Lion for my groceries; however, I also needed a comb. Food Lion didn’t have a single comb and I had to drive to Walmart. But for lower income citizens, multiple trips means more gas money and some don’t have cars. And in rural communities like mine, public transportation is slim if not non-existent. In many places, it’s easier to access processed foods or even fast food from McDonald’s or Wendy’s than it is to find fresh, affordable, healthy alternatives.

Fresh local food is not just competing against its conventional counterpart. Produce, meat, eggs (whole unprocessed foods) are also competing against cheap heavily processed “food.” The government heavily subsidizes corn, soy, wheat, cotton, and rice. Of these, corn receives the most money by far. If you start reading labels, you’ll see just about every prepackaged item contains corn (often as corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup). These heavily subsidized crops offer cheap calories and for those with a tight budget it’s an efficient way to get calories. However, these cheap calories are not a healthy option. In fact, they are one of the leading causes of obesity. In addition, these processed foods are convenient, not requiring a lot of time to cook or prepare.

Fortunately, we can also choose to grow our own food and share it with our neighbors. However, even this requires time and upfront costs. But driving around the Shore, I do see neighborhoods with large gardens. I certainly hope these are shared food sources. I know my husband and I received lots of fresh vegetables from friends and neighbors last growing season. I’ve also noticed, the Food Bank here has raised beds and just put up a hoop house. I understand they will be growing food there and supplementing shares with fresh vegetables from the gardens.

Affordability is an extremely complicated issue. The more I read, the more I felt I was just falling down a rabbit hole. Local and organic foods can be competitive. However, they won’t compete against cheap heavily subsidized nutrient-lacking foods. We have to change the subsidies. We have to solve the transportation problem, making food accessible. And we have to make sure farmers are getting paid fairly at the same time. But one thing is clear, we have a lot of work to do if we are going to make fresh, healthy, whole foods (like produce, eggs, and meat) available to everyone.


*I didn’t tackle Walmart in this post. However, it is definitely part of the affordability discussion. Here is an interesting article discussing Walmart, affordability, and local food.


  1. Grandma
    March 16, 2013

    Good article, Hali.
    I know our local Food co-op is waaaaaay more expensive than the two local supermarkets or Walmart. The cheapest place to shop is, sadly, Walmart, tho their meat & produce is awful. I would quit eating meat before I would buy it at Walmart. Albertsons has good produce, including organic, but not local. Interesting that the market with the worst quality food is not the cheapest! We have a good farmers’ market, which will also open in May, which isn’t as pricey as the Co-op. A good thing to do is to join one of those co-ops where you sign up to get a box of food every week & you pay a fixed price. You don’t get to choose your food, but it’s all home grown! Don’t remember what they’re called.
    Carry on!
    Love you,

    • Hali
      March 21, 2013

      Food co-ops can be very expensive. You are thinking of CSA or community supported agriculture. We did one last summer and it averaged around $20 each week for the two of us. We got lots of produce. This year we are trying to grow some of our own so we aren’t signing up for the CSA. But we will be shopping at the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings.

      I agree on the quality of fresh food at Walmart. It’s very poor. BUT I was talking with a friend the other day about taking food back to a store when it’s not any good. There was a news story on the radio about it. If you buy something from a grocery and it’s no good when you get it home (oranges come to mind here), you should take it back so the store starts stocking quality. Maybe Walmart needs to see some consumers returning things?

      I’m going to do some of my own price comparisons to get a real sense of it here on the Shore.

  2. Beth
    March 19, 2013

    Organic food for us is just not an option all the time. Walmart offers some organics that we can often get at a reasonable cost, but the nearest Walmart is twenty minutes away. We buy meat in bulk from a local meat locker and they told me they try to do business with growers who try to do the right thing by their animals. Organic is not a label that most processors want to think about because of the expense involved. But gardens here sell shares of their produce and that is our best option in the summer. We also grow our own garden. I think many midwesterners try to do right by their food/vegetables. What I see happening more and more is that kids are suffering from wheat intolerances and the like because of modified grains. Your article is quite interesting. Fresh food is way too expensive compared to other processed food but you save the money in health bills. I know this because I see it every day through many of my clients.

    • Hali
      March 21, 2013

      Agreed! Organic is not an option all the time and there is a cost involved in certification. And it’s not even the greatest option. Organic production (certified organic that is) has its own issues. Many smaller local producers don’t think organic does enough. But it does help identify better practices and fewer pesticides. The meat locker sounds like a reasonable option for you. Shares of summer produce are a really good option. And I think growing your own food is probably one of the best answers. Then you know exactly what went into it and I think it’s probably more cost effective to grow your own.

      Great thoughts on wheat intolerance and saving in health costs. I certainly hope to save there in the long run. :)


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