When I came to live in America in 2005, the first place I shopped for groceries was the Giant at Van Ness Street NW. I filled my bags with tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, apples, oranges, grapes, bananas and plums — the way I used to do back home in Israel. The friendly cashier seemed puzzled for a second. Her expression seemed to say, why would someone buy so much fresh produce all at once?
Then her face lit up. “I know,” she said. “You’re making a fruit salad!”
At the time, I didn’t get what was so noteworthy about my purchases. Like many other new immigrants, I was used to relying on fresh ingredients to feed my family.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that produce in the quantities I was used to buying was just too expensive. It took a few more years to discover the low prices for produce (not to mention the more unusual veggies and fruit) that the many ethnic supermarkets, and especially the Asian ones, around Washington were offering. Once again I could fill my bags.
The shopping experience at one of the Korean or Chinese owned supermarkets might be what the USDA wants to see in every grocery store in America. There, the produce aisles are the most crowded, with shoppers perusing stacks of colorful fruits, vegetables and herbs at reasonable prices. The wide array and reasonable prices make it easier to follow the MyPlate recommendations, for sure.
Prices of fresh produce in national chain supermarkets are up to four times as high as those in the Asian supermarkets around the Washington area. Over a few weeks in August, I found that the price of tomatoes on the vine, all red, firm and about the same size, was $3.99 a pound at Whole Foods in Friendship Heights; $2.99 at Safeway in Chevy Chase; and 99 cents at the Rockville location of Great Wall, an Asian supermarket. Prices of other vegetables were between 30 percent to 50 percent lower at Great Wall and other Asian supermarkets, compared with their prices at Whole Foods, Safeway and Giant.
According to Cathy Burns, president of the Produce Marketing Association, there are many factors that drive up produce prices in national chain supermarkets: higher salaries and worker training costs, prime-location real estate, expenses on high-end equipment and periodic renovations, and even the cost of giving back to the community.
One way some Asian supermarkets keep prices down is by buying produce that has been downgraded, meaning the fruits and vegetables are not all uniform in size or are more likely to be overripe or bruised. Another method is buying just before closing time at wholesale produce markets, after other small grocery stores, restaurants and chefs buy their fruits and vegetables for the day and the farmers are ready to pack up and get rid of whatever is left, at minimum profit.
Another explanation for the produce bonanza at the Asian supermarkets might be the market structure in Asian immigrant communities that causes those supermarkets to compete for clients by offering low produce prices.
Asian communities in the United States tend to rely more on a fresh-produce diet, according to a 2007 article in the trade magazine Produce Business (which cites a recent estimate of $900 spent annually per Asian household on fresh fruits and vegetables) and a 1970-2010 University of California study. The latter study showed that a typical Hispanic household spent about $408 on fresh produce in 1998, compared with $292 for a white household and $217 for an African American household. It suggests that white and African American families are paying the price, literally, for not relying on fresh-produce diets.
And how is it compared with the rest of the world? Numbeo.com, an online database of user-contributed data of cost of living around the globe, shows that while average prices of tomatoes, apples and oranges in Washington are about 65 percent of the price of chicken breast, in major cities in Europe as well as in Toronto, those produce prices are much cheaper: about 35 percent of the price of chicken.
Here’s another way of looking at it: Although the price of chicken breast is similar in Washington, Madrid and Amsterdam and runs from $3.18 (the District) to $3.69 (Amsterdam), average produce prices in Washington are almost double what they are in Madrid and Amsterdam: $2.20 a pound or more in Washington compared with $1.10 and less.
Though many Americans might resent the idea of taking a lesson from the French, there’s at least one initiative in France that has showed success in reducing produce prices. The supermarket chain Intermarche is selling lower-grade produce in all its branches at 30 percent off, calling it the Undesirables. These ugly veggies became an instant success. Turns out consumers don’t really mind if an apple doesn’t meet the beauty standards, as long as it is priced reasonably. Intermarche’s Undesirables not only offer more reasonably priced produce to the masses but also help reduce food waste. To that end, Trader Joe’s Doug Rauch is planning to open Daily Table, a grocery store in a low-income suburb of Boston that will sell those undesirables at rock-bottom prices.
As the Intermarche example shows, prices of fresh produce matter. Research published this year by the Department of Public Administration and Policy at American University indicates that policies and programs aimed at reducing the costs of fresh fruits and vegetables may be effective in promoting healthy weight outcomes among young children of low-income families.
According to MyPlate, half of our daily food intake should be composed of fruits and vegetables. But is that advice at odds with USDA recommendations that we consume canned, low-sodium vegetables as a way to save money? The colorful bounty of fresh produce certainly keeps home cooking interesting and tempting while still being healthful.
As it happens, many immigrant communities across the United States already know where to procure fresh produce on a budget: at their neighborhood ethnic markets. So until produce prices go down dramatically at the chain supermarkets, I’m going to keep shopping where they do.
Guttman writes the Modern Manna food column for Haaretz.com and is chef an¿d owner of Cardamom & Mint Catering.