After growing up on the south coast, where groceries are expensive and not as diverse, I count myself fortunate to live and shop in the Rogue Valley.
Contrary to a pair of stories in today’s Mail Tribune and Daily Tidings, the Rogue Valley seems like a paradise of food availability with its numerous independent, locally owned grocery stores, many of which stock their shelves at much lower price points than chain competitors. While the term “food desert” — coined by the government, no less — may seem a bit sensationalized, the stories do point out some valid issues facing consumers beyond the cost of food. Transportation to and from the nearest grocer is difficult for residents of North Medford, White City and even areas of Ashland, according to the government’s report.
The cost of food also was raised by residents interviewed for each story. But just as the government’s report excludes nonstore sources for food — farmers markets, farm stands and gardens — consumers often dismiss farmers markets as too expensive.
In reality, there’s less waste from farmers-market purchases because they’re fresher (think picked from the field that morning instead of trucked over long distances and stored for days). Proximity and freshness also mean the food hasn’t lost nutrients, so it’s a better value for the money.
And most consumers likely don’t realize that many grocery-store items are artificially cheap because the companies that produce them are subsidized by the government, despite costs tacked on for transportation, storage and middlemen. A local farmer’s product doesn’t carry those tariffs.
In this difficult economy, it pays to spend a few more pennies per pound to support local businesses and jobs. Family farmers, in particular, are not high up on the income ladder. Judging from the 16-percent increase in farmers markets nationwide from mid-2009 to mid-2010, according to the Chicago Tribune, consumers must be jumping on the bandwagon.
If this still sounds beyond the realm of low-income shopping, the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market has proof that customers on government food assistance increasingly are turning to local farmers for their fruits and vegetables. The market processed 71 Oregon Trail transactions — a record number — at last week’s Tuesday market in Ashland, says manager Mary Ellen DeLuca. Last year, Oregon Trail accounted for $44,000 in market sales, almost 2,000 transactions in Medford and Ashland, she says. The online growers market, Rogue Valley Local Foods, also accepts Oregon Trail.
While transportation to these markets is likely more problematic than to grocery stores, opportunities for shopping are growing. The growers and crafters market added a Saturday session in Medford from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Black Oak Village off East Barnett Road. A dozen vendors came out for the inaugural day last week, and 18 to 20 are expected this Saturday, says DeLuca. Oregon Trail tokens purchased at other markets will be accepted, says DeLuca, but the new market isn’t yet able to process the cards.
Even better, low-income shoppers can use Oregon Trail at the market to purchase plants that produce food. What better way to plant seeds of nutritional and societal change in a so-called food desert?