Thursday, August 5, 2010

¿El Idolo?

A Dozen Eggs for $8? Michael Pollan Explains the Math of Buying Local


Michael Pollan, author of "Omnivore's Dilemma" and other popular books, has become a figurehead for the local-food movement, which advocates buying in-season produce from nearby farms.

Proponents say such food is healthier and that the way it is grown and shipped is better for the environment. But it often is more expensive. Mr. Pollan says the real problem is that subsidies keep the prices of some, largely mass-produced foods artificially low.

Still, he tries to strike a middle ground between advocate and realist. In his Berkeley living room, the 55-year-old Mr. Pollan discussed where he shops for food and why paying $8 for a dozen eggs is a good thing:

WSJ: Do Bay Area residents eat and shop for food differently from people elsewhere?

Mr. Pollan: The food movement really began on the West Coast, and you can make an argument it began in the Bay Area. There is a much higher level of consciousness here about where food comes from, about eating seasonally and locally, than there is in the rest of the country.

But we have certain advantages that few other places in the country have. We can eat from the farmer's market 50 weeks of the year—the only reason they close is to get a break Christmas and New Year's.

WSJ: What do you attribute the greater enthusiasm to?

Mr. Pollan: A consumer who is willing to pay more for better food. That's a matter of consciousness and a palate that has been educated by the chefs locally. Paying $3.90 for a Frog Hollow Peach, there are a lot of people here willing to do it. I don't know if you can find a more expensive peach in America. My little rule, "Pay more, eat less," is followed by a lot of people in the Bay area.

WSJ: Where do you shop for food?

Mr. Pollan: I shop at the farmer's market on Thursdays. I shop at Monterey Market, and I shop at Berkley Bowl. Those are the big three, and then I'll get household cleaning products, cereal, things like that at Safeway.

WSJ: How do you suggest people in New York or other places with a long winter eat seasonally?

In much of the country eating seasonally in winter is challenging, though there are options people overlook. A salad of grated root vegetables, for example, is a refreshing change from lettuce, and far more nutritious. But it all depends on how hard-core you want to be. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition.

WSJ: Do you only buy certain things from certain places?

Mr. Pollan: No. I'm pretty flexible. I'm not a zealot, contrary to what people may think. I've told stories about being busted at Berkeley Bowl buying sugary cereals for my son when he was younger.

WSJ: Are there rules for shopping that people interested in eating better should follow?

Mr. Pollan: The most important is to buy things that are in season.

It's nice to skip [things] until they are in season when they are so much better and cheaper. It becomes something of an occasion when the tomatoes come into the market, or the strawberries, or the asparagus.

WSJ: Does eating local, sustainable food have to be a lifestyle priority, or can people do it casually?

Mr. Pollan: People can do it casually. There are people who go [to a farmer's market] every week, and there are people who go when the mood strikes them. To eat well takes a little bit more time and effort and money. But so does reading well; so does watching television well. Doing anything with attention to quality takes effort. It's either rewarding to you or it's not. It happens to be very rewarding to me. But I understand people who can't be bothered, and they're going to eat with less care.

WSJ: Is eating well just an indulgence for people who can afford it?

Mr. Pollan: If you're in the supermarket buying organic versus not buying organic, you are going to spend more. But buying food at the farmer's market, if you compare it to the prices at Safeway for stuff that's in season, it actually beats the prices in my experience. People shouldn't assume that they are going to go broke at the farmer's market.

WSJ: What do you wish people here understood about their food that they don't now?

Mr. Pollan: We've been conditioned by artificially cheap food to be shocked when a box of strawberries costs $3.

But it's important to know that farmers aren't getting wealthy. When you see strawberries being sold for $1 a box, picture the kind of labor it takes to pick those strawberries and the kind of chemicals it takes to produce those kinds of strawberries without hand weeding.

Eight dollars for a dozen eggs sounds outrageous, but when you think that you can make a delicious meal from two eggs, that's $1.50. It's really not that much when we think of how we waste money in our lives.

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