Monday, October 11, 2010

What Happens When You Take the Same Shopping List to Four Very Different Markets?

From the Riverfront Times (Missouri).

"To dispense with the obvious: A chicken from Pete's Shur-Sav is not a chicken from your local farmers' market."


"Now is a time when the national conversation about how and what we eat — from "food miles" to "food deserts," from back-yard chicken farms to genetically modified salmon — is at its loudest and most interesting. But sometimes, it's important to take the debate out of the hypothetical and, well, onto the plate. What would happen if an identical menu was sourced from four different stores? How would the shopping experiences differ? How greatly would the costs vary? And, most important, how would everything taste — and what does that say about how and what we eat?"


"hopping teams were dispatched to Pete's Shur-Sav, Whole Foods, the Hampton Village Schnucks and the Tower Grove Farmers' Market. Armed with identical lists, the shoppers were told to find every ingredient they could and make substitutions at their discretion. The shopping trips were a study in contrasts: the crush of harried Friday-evening shoppers at Whole Foods and Schnucks, the leisurely stroll though the Saturday-morning farmers' market, the pleasant exchange with the butcher at Pete's Shur-Sav, who offered a free length of his own twine for chicken-trussing.

All the ingredients were brought to the Steve Adams Studio, a gorgeous space with a commercial-grade kitchen and enough equipment to prepare a meal for several high school football teams. As the amateur chefs (more frequently referred to as "RFT writers and editors") unpacked the grocery bags, differences among the hauls were immediately apparent. Hours before the first fork was lifted, we could tell that the four iterations of the tomato-and-goat-cheese salad would be very, very different.



"This raised an uncomfortable question, one that echoed throughout the preparation and the meal itself: How can we all eat better when the superior products (vegetables and meat, in particular) are most readily available to those with more money and, in many cases, more time?

Somewhere, in the back of our minds, we wanted the less-expensive ingredients — the chicken from Pete's Shur-Sav, say, or the tomatoes from Schnucks — to be on par with their pricier brethren. This wasn't born of any desire to prove avowed foodies wrong or to fly in the face of the locavore movement. Quite the contrary. Those who care about their food and where it comes from are part of the solution, not part of the problem. But the hope was that maybe, maybe, the more affordable meat and vegetables wouldn't taste so different from the more expensive ones.

This was one experiment in which we all wanted to be proven wrong."


"Eating is not a numbers game, except when it is. When the menu ingredients sourced from Schnucks tally up to nearly $27 more than those purchased from Pete's Shur-Sav, it begs the question: Is this meal $27 better than its nearly identical counterpart? Is the $7.52 chicken better than the $3.99 chicken? (Not really, especially when you consider paying for a second chicken to replace one that reeked of decay.)

Place the Whole Foods receipt on the table and the stakes are even higher: The Pete's Shur-Sav ingredients were purchased for $65.46, while the Whole Foods ingredients came in at nearly twice that, with a total of $118.56.

What's going on here?

Pete's Shur-Sav provides the five food groups at across-the-board reasonable prices. For families on a tight budget — and that describes an enormous number of families these days — it's vital to have a place where food is not prohibitively expensive. This is particularly true when it comes to pantry staples and shelf-stable items: sugar, flour, salt, oil. All can be purchased at Pete's for good prices.

Move toward the produce aisles, though, and the value becomes questionable. The tomatoes from Pete's totaled $2.48; the heirlooms from the Tower Grove Market totaled $3. The differences in appearance, firmness and flavor would suggest a far greater price disparity.

But getting to the farmers' market is not a reality for every family, and that brings us to another tight economy — one of time."


"The neatest solution would be to pick up basic items at stores that offer the fairest prices, and to pick up items whose quality depends greatly on growing and shipping conditions at a farmers' market or co-op. In theory at least, that could rein in the budget without sacrificing high nutritional value and plain old deliciousness."


"Indeed, most families probably rely on one-stop shopping for convenience's sake, a decision that comes with a cost. If that one place is somewhere like Schnucks, the "cost" might be subpar tomatoes. And if that place is Whole Foods, the cost is literal: We're paying $4.99 for a roll of kitchen twine and $6.99 for a box of salt.

Another part of our experiment suggested just how much foodies (or those simply pressed for time) may overpay for staples as a result."


"For both the foodies and the novice gourmands in the room, the results of our little experiment were clear. Clear, and disappointing, in that we'd wanted to be proven wrong but weren't — locally sourced ingredients, farm-fresh and seasonally appropriate, simply taste best.

This was a foreseeable but wholly unsatisfying conclusion, because there remains that lingering question: How can we help everyone in our communities eat better? We cannot accept with a clear conscience that tasty tomatoes and non-rubbery chicken are available primarily to those with enough time to shop at various places and enough money to pay $4 per pound at the farmers' market.

The argument becomes not just one of taste, but of health and equality. When these inequities are immediately visible on the plate — and quickly confirmed by the palate — we know we have work to do."

This article outlines the adventures of making one dinner menu--salad to dessert--from ingredients found in 4 different grocery settings, and the differences in quality, availability, and price of each version (from basic acquisition of ingredients to finished product).

Naturally, the higher-quality items finish first, but we are shown the hurdles that can get in the way of achieving that higher quality.


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