What would you pay for a healthy dinner—$115, 150 or $220?
These are the prices per person for three farm to table dinners that happened within less than a 70-mile radius of Rye during August.
The dinners sponsored by Outstanding in the Field ($220), Dinners at the Farm ($150), and March Farms ($115) in partnership with The Litchfield Saltwater Grille, offered the opportunity to eat multi-course meals and wines at a farm. Most, if not all, of the proceeds go to charities that support sustainable, local eating. The dinners provided the chance to eat local food, meet the people who produce and cook that food, and of course meet other foodies.
They were also expensive. Many of us want to support our local farmer, but it's hard to justify spending that type of money when you have bills to pay.
These types of dinners represent the extreme of local eating, but they do nothing to refute the idea that local, organic, sustainable food is to be enjoyed only by the wealthy. With the economy heading into what is being dubbed a double-dip recession, just how possible is eating locally on a budget?
Susan Coyne of Community Markets, an organization that works with towns, farmers, and vendors to create farmers markets, including the one in Rye, says the organization does not play a role in setting the prices at markets.
"It is a free market system, so vendors set their own pricing," Coyne said.
According to Coyne, four of the organization's farmers markets accept food stamps. The Rye Farmers Market is not one of them and at this time there are no plans for the market to accept food stamps in the future.
While food stamps are the other economic extreme, what about the average American family – just how affordable is eating locally for them?
My parents instilled me with the idea of supporting the local economy at a young age. I grew up bypassing the bookstore chains for a small independent bookstore in town, buying at least a few produce from local farmers' markets and buying locally whenever possible.
Those childhood activities have stayed with me, and I've been to the Rye Farmers market on several occasions. While I like buying food there, it would simply be too expensive for me to buy each week's groceries there. At the beginning of the market season, for instance, I could pick up a pint of strawberries at the Rye Market for $7.99 or go to Stop & Shop and by a quart for the same price.
I was in Utah recently for a wedding and decided to take my family to Whole Foods, a place they had never been before as there aren't any near where they live. As we walked down the aisles, my family thought it was neat to see the signs of where food came from but they also commented on how expensive the food was. While we brought some locally-made cheese and pastries, I know if my family was doing regular grocery shopping at home, we would be comparing prices for the best deal, and I think Whole Foods would come up short.
That may be the biggest problem concerning local food—it just can't compete on an everyday playing field. Fancy dinners may be fine every once in a while, and although I still think paying $220 is extreme, there are some restaurants in the area known for using local foods that don't have those prices. The bottom line remains that when buying food individually or for a family, purchasing local food tends to make less economic sense.
Every day more information is generated about the benefits of eating local. This month, The New York Times ran a story about doctors in Massachusetts giving out coupons for farmers' markets. However, most people won't feel the benefits of eating locally until they feel it's affordable enough for them.
The Sustainable Food Laboratory is a Vermont based organization and a leader in the field of sustainable food.
"We define a sustainable food and agriculture system as one in which the food we eat is affordable, safe and promotes our health; the fertility of our soil is maintained and improved; the availability and quality of water are protected and enhanced; our biodiversity is protected; farmers, farm workers, and all other actors in value chains have livable incomes," according to the organization's website.
"The food we eat is affordable and promotes our health; sustainable businesses can thrive; and the flow of energy and the discharge of waste, including greenhouse gas emissions, are within the capacity of the earth to absorb forever."
In other words, local sustainable food should benefit the environment, the economy, the farmers and the consumer. But with current prices, it may be hard for this movement to achieve that last objective.