The Problem with Inexpensive Produce

Bargain hunting is so much fun. Finding the lowest prices feels like winning some sort of a game and I enjoy the thrill of a good sale or a low grocery bill just as much as the next person. However, there are some things that are just not worth skimping on. One of those things is fresh fruits and vegetables. While there are some very compelling reasons why people shift from buying from local producers to the produce aisles at the grocery stores, there are as many reasons to re-evaluate that decision. Richard Marosi and Don Bartletti of the LA Times have been investigating the conditions of the laborers in Mexico, called “Product of Mexico”. This is where most of the produce we see in the grocery stores comes from (especially tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers). I highly recommend that you read the full, eye-opening article here. After reading this article, I have seriously re-evaluated my decisions.

Here in Austin, we have a thriving food scene. From restaurants to producers’ only Farmers’ Markets, local is hip. However, for most people (me included) shopping at grocery stores is still a part of the reality of our food system. Without even taking into account organic vs. conventional, produce imported from other countries (especially if it is out of season in Texas) tends to be either the cheaper or the only available option. However, those savings are the results of workers being paid low wages (reportedly about $8 a day) and poor living conditions of workers. In the article, Marosi and Bartletti found that laborers working in the fields and living in the labor camps suffer basic human rights abuses including withholding wages, unhygienic living conditions, insufficient or overpriced food, and more.

While this is a huge and complex problem, the good news is that there are actions that are being taken to improve the current situation. The documentary Food Chains (full disclosure: I haven’t seen it, although I am dying to!) follows the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida and their Fair Food Program (FFP). One of the elements of the FFP is a “penny per pound” increase in pay by participating buyers that goes directly into the paychecks of the workers. Other elements include more legal protection and ongoing audits of the farms. Read more on their website here.

What can you and I do? We can reflect on the ripple effects that our shopping habits have within the local, national and international food systems; we are not shopping in a vacuum. We can prioritize strengthening our local farmers by eating in season, shopping at markets and farm stands and signing up for CSA’s. By checking the stickers on our produce at the grocery store, we can choose Florida-grown tomatoes over Mexican until conditions for workers change. Also, we can vote with our money; if we stop demanding artificially cheap produce from our grocery stores, they will stop providing it. The article states, “American companies have not made oversight a priority because they haven't been pressured to do so.” You and I can make it a priority!

Will this require some flexibility with your budget and with your diet? Yes, definitely. Is that inconvenience on our end really worth the mistreatment of workers? I don’t think so. I do also want to acknowledge that not everyone has the privilege or the means to make these kinds of changes in their grocery shopping habits. But if you do, let’s work together to stop hunting the grocery aisle for bargains and start demanding a more just food system!