Fresh Food and Accessibility

The drum of ‘people should eat more fresh food’ is being beaten with increasing urgency these days, and there’s a slow, growing awareness that the obstacles to people eating fresh food might not be so simple as people being lazy and not wanting to eat vegetables. Talk of food deserts has begun to spring from the lips of food advocates as they acknowledge the fact that in some areas, fresh food is simply not available, no matter how much people may want to eat it, and people are also starting to admit that sometimes fresh food works out to be more expensive, especially for people feeding a large family, than prepared items, forcing them to go with the food they can afford rather than the food they might actually want.

But why is fresh food more expensive than prepared food? Because until this issue is addressed, it’s going to be difficult to overcome access issues. When it’s cheaper to buy frozen pizza than to make a pizza from scratch with your own ingredients1, even if you have the time to make pizza, you may be forced to go with frozen.

Part of the problem is perishability, built into the very nature of fresh food. The food needs to be picked, processed appropriately, and rushed to the store for sale. All of this adds to the cost, while the store itself has to price it effectively to move units with minimal waste. Stores need to be conscious of the fact that some foods may become loss leaders, but they have to carry them because they’re expected, and they’re constantly thinking about the risks to their fresh food departments. Mold, power outages, and other issues can interfere with availability, generate waste, and create costs that need to be recouped through pricing on other items.

Fresh food is not shelf stable, and it needs to be handled in special conditions and transported in appropriate trucks. Much of it needs to be kept chilled while in transit to increase its lifespan, and even with practices like picking fruit before it’s ripe and gassing it so it ripens on the way to the store, distributors lose some of their shipments, and stores pay for this, as well. Just as they pay for the more painstaking handling required when people are receiving whole fresh fruits and vegetables and thus have an opportunity to reject food that doesn’t meet aesthetic specifications; an alarming amount of edible food is thrown out every year because it doesn’t look right and stores know it won’t sell.

Contrast this with preserved and prepared items. They can be processed on or near the point of origin and packaged in shelf-stable materials. The most durable of all, of course, are dried, vacuum-packed, canned, and similar foods stable at room temperature. They can be stored and transported in a variety of settings, and have a much longer shelf life than their fresh counterparts. It’s cheaper to make and sell canned peaches than it is to handle fresh ones, even though consumers might prefer fresh peaches because they lack added ingredients and2 taste better.

Frozen foods also reflect longer shelf lives and more stability. While they need to be transported under the right conditions, once they’re at the store, they survive much longer than fresh items. That includes all the frozen vegetables and other basic goods along with more processed foods and readymade meals that just need to be heated to be ready to consume. The cost of production, handling, storage, and overhead is lower, and thus, they end up having cheaper prices. For people seeking the best bargain in the store, driven by what they can afford in that moment on limited incomes, they may be the only thing that’s logistically affordable.

This is underscored by the use of subsidies in the agriculture industry in the United States. Since fresh foods aren’t subject to the kinds of subsidies available for wheat, corn, and soy, an artificial divide is created. Packaged foods often use a high percentage of these subsidised ingredients for filler, and their costs are kept abnormally low, because they don’t reflect true market value. Consumers are again drawn to what they can afford, even if it’s not necessarily what they want to eat.

While it may be more costly in the long term to buy things by the individual prepared package, the up-front cost of fresh food can be unacceptably high for people working with food stamps or very low incomes. For them, the option of spending $60 all at once on staples isn’t available, nor is the ability to visit the store multiple days a week to restock on fresh foods.

Until more pricing parity is established, it’s going to be difficult to argue that consumers have a cost-neutral choice between fresh, prepared, frozen, shelf-stabilised, and other options. And discussions about cost neutrality must take the issue of bulk pricing and packaging into account, acknowledging that what is cheaper per unit in the long term is not always affordable up front in the short term, because we live in a society where the amount of money households have available to spend on food at any given time is shrinking.

  1. Some of this can be the result of the econopack problem; while it may actually be more cost efficient in the long term to use your own ingredients, the initial investment in things like flour, supplies to make a large batch of tomato sauce you can freeze and use over the course of time, etc. may be too high for you to bear, versus buying a single frozen pizza at the store.
  2. In my opinion, at any rate.