Fetishization of Fresh Produce

“Eat your fresh fruits and vegetables!” is a message blared through American media. How can you object? Big piles of brightly colored, marvelous looking produce is the standard illustration for news articles on being healthy. I myself love walking through a produce department, handling familiar and new vegetables, smelling them, imagining what I could cook with them, admiring them for their sheer aesthetic sexiness.

But the overwhelming emphasis on “fresh” where produce is concerned may be doing a disservice to both affordability and nutrition. Fresh produce is the single biggest source of food waste in grocery sales because it goes bad pretty rapidly and may not last long enough to be donated to food banks or other emergency food provision operations. This drives up food costs because it cuts into sales margins. Waste in the Produce department translates into higher costs in other departments, even if the cost increase per item is marginal.

This recent article in Quartz about a regional grocery chain, Sprouts, that got it’s start a long time ago in San Diego, “The secret to America’s most “disruptive” supermarket—fruits and vegetables” was of great interest to me not so much because Sprouts makes produce (literally) the center of operations, but that it’s approach to purchasing and display of produce is so different from the other “nice” grocery stores in the area, like Ralphs, Whole Foods, Vons, even Trader Joe’s. Read the article, there’s some great diagrams of conventional vs. Sprouts’ store layout. I can attest that this is how my local Sprouts is arranged, and has always been arranged since two branding cycles ago, when it was Boney’s. (The chain started as a family-run business named for the family, then one kid went to Arizona and founded Sprouts. Meanwhile, the local chain was renamed “Henry’s” after the pater familias and because local people kept calling it “Boners,” then it got bought out by the Sprouts chain and has been relabeled again.)

First off, they supposedly aggressively price the produce in comparison to the local big chains, though I don’t notice them being that much cheaper than Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons. They are often more expensive than Trader Joe’s (but have a much wider selection) and rarely can they compete with the local second-tier produce vendor, North Park Produce. The quality of the produce varies widely from week to week, their organic offerings are just as expensive as anyone else’s, and I find that I tend to shop there more for the produce specials than for regular vegetable purchases.

The other point in the article, the one I found most interesting, was that they allegedly display the produce differently, putting it in to low, wide, shallow bins:

A key source of waste seems to be the the giant piles of produce stores rely on to catch the eyes of customers. These are designed to create a feeling of abundance. But in reality they lead to over-ordering by the store and over-handling by both customers and staffers, and to spoilage when the stuff at the bottom rots. (Interestingly, in its annual report, Sprouts refers several times in passing to its “low displays.”)

This both is and isn’t true. There is a portion of the produce display area that meets this description. It tends to be given over to high-profile sales items, like bell peppers, green beans, fruit in season, etc., things that need to be moved fast and aren’t too exotic. The rest of their displays look like what you’d see anywhere else (narrow, high, visually interesting), and usually have more produce in them then I’ll find at other places. Conversely, I’ve been seeing smaller, flatter displays at conventional stores, and an increase in the use of foam and plastic bases that sit in the bin areas and allow produce to be piled up in appealing mounds without actually having a mound of produce. Overall, I just think that this is always how Sprouts/Henry’s/Boney’s has sold its produce and that the market analysts are only now noticing. Locally, Sprouts has always been the first place to go for produce purchases.

The overall point, however, remains the same – fresh produce is perishable, more likely to be thrown out than other food products, often large and bulky making it difficult to transport, priced in such a way that it may not fit well or routinely into lower income households’ food budgets, and then require storage and prep when they are brought home. It can spoil quickly at home if not temperature controlled and, if you’re not a good cook, you may end up rendering some pricey produce inedible. We won’t even go into the difficulty of getting some people to eat fresh vegetables. Fresh produce may not be affordable for a significant portion of the population.

A slightly different aspect comes up when evaluating so-called food deserts. Here’s a slightly older article from The Guardian, “Atlanta’s food deserts leave its poorest citizens stranded and struggling,” where the writer visits and evaluates food availability and variety in certain neighborhoods of Atlanta. Rebecca Burns notes:

Atlanta’s west side, with its stark contrasts of wealth and poverty, is a microcosm of the region’s food desert dilemma. The communities near the Georgia Dome, home of the Atlanta Falcons NFL team, are served by one supermarket (Walmart), one well stocked small store (Shoppers Supermarket), and at least 60 convenience stores that carry little but packaged snacks.

We have a similar situation in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, where the only major grocery store, Albertson’s, pulled up stakes and fled a few years ago. The major chain stores are located west, north and east of City Heights, plus there is my beloved North Park Produce (small specialty) and a Pancho Villa local chain that occupies an old Lucky market. Throughout, there are small bodegas and convenience stores, some of which do have small produce and frozen food sections.

What got to me as I read the article was the rather limited definition of what constitutes a food desert – the lack of fresh produce. Well, if it’s expensive, and it spoils easily (and is thus a financial risk to store owner and shopper), why would you see it in an economically challenged area? Does it make sense in those areas? (Please note this is not an argument against eating fresh vegetables. It is an argument about the economic place of fresh produce in a lower-income food budget.) The article flatly equates good food with fresh produce and bad food with everything else.

There is the interesting observation that fresh produce is grown in the “food deserts” of Atlanta:

Nkromo’s work underscores another paradox of food deserts, this one particular to Atlanta. While the south and west sides of the city contain some of the neighborhoods most starved for healthy foods, they also are home to at least a dozen urban agricultural businesses – Patchwork City Farms and Atwood Community Gardens, for instance.

There’s a higher density of farms and gardens in this section of metro Atlanta – an arc across the south and west sides that has been dubbed the “fertile crescent” – than elsewhere, but many of them export their produce to other parts of town. …

Previously, when the west side farms have tried to sell to their neighbours, there were “socioeconomic, cultural, and racial barriers”, wrote Barrett. He surveyed 11 sites in the area and found that only one had tried to sell produce to local stores.

When it came to selling directly, some farmers and garden operators seemed confounded, for example, that locals didn’t subscribe to their CSA (community supported agriculture) plans. But a CSA at Patchwork City Farms costs $450 (£270) for 18 weeks; at a weekly cost of $25, that CSA subscription would eat up most of the total allowance for a Georgia resident on food stamps – about $34 a week.

Another farm operated a full season before grasping that the reason its neighbours wouldn’t come to its onsite market was that they could only get there by foot. Walking a mile to market isn’t an obstacle; trekking home with a 5lb melon is.

Hmm. Growers don’t find it profitable to sell to the locals because the locals can’t afford to buy there. They don’t have transportation. The CSA boxes are outside a food stamp allotment. There are cultural barriers. Etc. Urban, local produce is not affordable for a significant portion of urban dwellers.

My attention however, was caught by a commenter in the comment thread. Look for “timecop,” and their comments. Try not to get distracted by the nationalism, and pay attention to what the commenter says about fresh vs. not-fresh. They point out that vegetables come in cans, too, and they are nutritious. They may be less so (but, then again, there’s the need to explain the measurement standard – what nutrition is being counted?), but that doesn’t mean they are void of nutrition. Canned corn is still pretty good stuff. Frozen produce is sort of part way in between. There’s high-end and low-end frozen, and many convenience stores are only going to carry frozen dinners and desserts because they sell well. But a bag of frozen green beans was my family’s go-to vegetable for years. If my parents felt extravagant, they’d buy the french cut beans, not just the chopped ones. Carrots are great, too.

This commenter made clear that there was a class and social bias going on here – that no food could be called good food if it was preserved by canning or freezing. Only “fresh” was considered good enough. Making “freshness” a fetish only serves to undermine other sources of food that may be more affordable and perfectly reasonable from a nutrition standpoint. Canned vegetables are cooked, too (the canning process does that) and so can be eaten right from the can, no cooking required. Stop getting the fucking vapors at the thought, will you? If the choice is cold canned green beans or no vegetable matter whatsoever, I know what I vote for. Cans are heavy to carry, but you can lug them onto a long bus ride and not worry about them getting crushed or taking up too much room.

Frozen gets short shrift, too, even as it may be much easier to introduce into small local stores than baskets of highly perishable fruits and vegetables. They are harder to transport because of temperature, but they are usually much lighter and may be easier to carry. They assume you have a freezer or else are going to cook them right away. They still probably need cooking or at least heating.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the food police (and most of the rest of us) too easily fall into the mental trap that raw and fresh vegetables are of course better for you than any other kind of food, and then quickly invert the logic to declare that things that aren’t fresh produce are not good for you. It’s the class-based icky food factor.  It also is a way to hide the anti-fat agenda of making people bulk up their diets on low calorie, high fiber food, normalizing the permanent restricted calorie diet. If you’re like me and really, truly love fresh vegetables (fresh fruit, not so much…), then you have an additional blindness to the culturally coercive narrative of fresh produce == good food; “processed” anything == bad food.

Fresh produce is good and good for you. It’s also expensive, bulky and time consuming to prepare. It is not the only good food out there and may not be the best food choice given a particular person’s situation.


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Posted in Economics, Food
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