Leopold Center Study Compares Local, Non-Local Food Prices

      Posted On: December 15, 2009

From Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, 12-14-09

AMES, Iowa – If you think local foods are more expensive than their conventional counterparts, think again. Research conducted last summer by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture shows few differences in price for Iowa-grown vegetables, eggs and meat when compared to similar non-local products.

“We wanted to look at prices for some of the fresh foods that might be found in a typical Iowan’s shopping cart,” said Rich Pirog, Leopold Center associate director who collaborated on the study with Iowa State University graduate student Nick McCann. “We found that during peak season, produce items at farmers’ markets were very competitive and in several cases lower than prices for the same non-local items found at supermarkets.”

The study surveyed prices for eight different vegetables sold at Iowa farmers’ markets in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Ames and Iowa City. On the same day, prices were documented for similar produce from national or international sources being sold at supermarket chains in those cities. Prices were checked on five days during July and August.

The results showed no statistical differences for local and non-local vegetables during Iowa’s peak growing season: an average price of $1.25 per pound for locally grown zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, string beans, cabbage, onions, tomatoes and sweet corn from a farmers’ market, compared to $1.39 per pound for non-local items from a supermarket.

The lower prices for the local items can be attributed in part to competitive pricing of zucchini and summer squash at farmers’ markets. A two-week supply of those eight vegetables for a family of four, based on per capita consumption, would cost $15.03 at a farmers market, compared to $16.91 at a supermarket.

A second part of the study looked at prices for lean ground beef, pork chops and brown eggs sold at supermarkets, natural food stores and butcher shops in those four Iowa cities in June, July and August. Pirog said it was difficult to find products with similar attributes available at all venues to make meaningful comparisons. However, they did find that locally raised lean ground beef and bone-in pork chops from butcher shops are similar in price to their non-local counterparts from supermarkets.

Pirog said the study did not look at relative freshness, taste or overall quality of local and non-local products. The study also did not examine produce or food items sold under organic certification.

“Keep in mind that this study was conducted during the height of the Iowa growing season when produce was in plentiful supply from multiple vendors at farmers’ markets, and their prices were lower than at other times during the farmers’ market season,” Pirog said.

He added that the study also points to an obvious opportunity for growers who extend their production season by using greenhouses or high tunnels and market their harvest at competitive prices. “Given the increase in construction of high tunnels in the past two or three years, Iowa growers may be able to increase the supply of locally grown vegetables and sell to a wider array of market venues,” he said.

For more details, including comparative charts and tables, see the new report, “Is Local Food More Expensive?  A Consumer Price Perspective on Local and Non-Local Foods Purchased in Iowa,” on the Leopold Center Web site at: www.leopold.iastate.edu/pubs/staff/prices.html.