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How much should our vegetables cost?

December 13, 2001

We readily pay $1.29 for a super-size soft drink at a local fast food outlet and after a few swallows we discard the cup and ice. Yet we balk at buying head of cauliflower or tomatoes when the price is more than 99 cents a pound.

Why do we consider a large bag of chips at a cost of $2.49 to be a better value than a pound of asparagus that sells for same price? Which would you rather have someone give you — chips or asparagus? Many of us would consider a gift of asparagus a special treat. Yet how many of us fail to buy fresh asparagus at the market because of price? Some may say I won't buy it unless I need it for a recipe or for a holiday. What is the reasoning that perpetuates these distorted values?

As consumers we have developed a warped perception as to the true value of fresh produce items. We have preconceived ideas on how much each product should cost, rather than calculating how little the purchase costs vs. the other items in the store. We rarely buy the items above what we have fixed in our mind as to the fair price.


Consider the price of a loaf of heavy bread or the cost of a half-gallon of milk. Have they not increased significantly over the last few years? Somehow we accept those price changes because we feel we "must" have bread and milk, that there are no real alternatives. In the case of fresh vegetables, there are options. If broccoli is cheaper than cauliflower then we buy broccoli. We buy broccoli not because we prefer the taste, but because it seems to be a better buy. And besides, we are saving money. Then on the way out at the checkout stand we buy a magazine, a few packs of gum and perhaps a candy bar without giving much thought as to the price.

Blemishes pose other problems in the difficulties farmers have in marketing vegetables. Most consumers want perfect vegetables; however, this is not possible. We want our vegetables to be exactly the right size, the right shape and the right color. We have stored in our memory the criteria that make a product normal and acceptable. We tend to avoid broccoli with a flat, non-uniform shape of the head. Yet we take broccoli home and cut it up for steaming or throw it in a blender for preparing a casserole. Does a flat head really matter when the broccoli reaches the dinner table?

There are two types of blemishes on vegetables: those that are not cosmetically perfect and blemishes that are due directly to wounds or decay. Cosmetic imperfections are not harmful and, if the price is right for the product, then we should purchase it. If the product has decay then it may be unsafe to eat and should be discarded. The presence of mold, an abnormal odor, internal discoloration or a fermented taste can usually be used to identify decayed produce.

The choice on what to buy ultimately rests in the eyes of the consumer. Let's hope in the future that we develop a new legion of educated consumers that make healthy choices of fruits and vegetables for their families instead of bringing home grocery bags full of junk food.

>> Keith S. Mayberry is the farm adviser at the University of California-Imperial County Cooperative Extension.

>>The Cooperative Extension serves all residents of the Imperial Valley.

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