Buying Local and Organic: The Price Question

A blog I wrote for Oxfam Australia’s 3 Things Project, in which I profile Alfalfa House, a local community food co-op, and question whether buying organic food will always be prohibitively expensive.

I’ve attempted to buy local and organic food before. But after a few trips down the supermarket’s organic aisle, I’m usually overwhelmed and a little bit poorer.

But is this always the case? Surely it’s possibly to find organic, local produce that will nourish me without starving my wallet?

To find out, I went on the hunt for places in Sydney to buy cheap local, organic food. I soon discovered Alfalfa House in Enmore, a community food co-operative that offers minimally packaged, organic and largely local food.

alfalfa-inside

I sat down with Adam Taylor from Alfalfa House and chatted about their purpose, membership base, and the hotly debated question: is there a way to buy local, organic food that isn’t so expensive?

One of Alfalfa House’s core ideas is that, rather than freedom of choice, they offer freedom from choice. If you’re like me and hate having to choose one muesli brand from 30 options, you’ll click with this. Rather than give you everything you could possibly imagine and ask you to choose, these guys sell items that are hand-picked from food producers that the team know and trust. Not a single purchasing decision is made in this shop without considering the ethics, sustainability and even nutrition of the items.

alfalfa-grains

Alfalfa House also source most of their products directly from the producers: they are on the phone with farmers three times a week and regularly visit their partners in the Sydney region. I’ve been invited to go along to one in Dural in a few weeks (stay tuned for some pictures). This connection with the food’s source is a big part of their appeal, and reflects the developed world’s growing concern with sustainability in the food industry.

“People who are members here and shop here appreciate that we can look farmers in the eye,” Adam says. “We can say, ‘we’re willing to pay a higher rate because we want your business to live and grow. We’re investing in your livelihood.'”

This leads us to the sticky question of organic prices. Having had a look around the shop, it’s clear that at Alfalfa House you would pay more for fruit and vegetables than you would at a supermarket like Coles or Woolworths. I see $3.85 a kg for carrots, but to be fair they are the most spectacularly orange carrots I’ve ever seen (photo below, bottom right).

alfalfa-fresh

However, that’s not factoring in member or volunteer discounts – and this is where Alfalfa House gets very interesting. Members get 10% off every time they shop, and for volunteering in the shop as little as 2 hours per week, that increases to 25% off.

This seems to be Alfalfa’s response to claims that buying local and organic produce is prohibitively expensive. Could innovative pricing structures like these be the answer to making it easier to shop organic?

And yet, while recognizing the need to price stock reasonably, Alfalfa House fundamentally does not exist to compete on price.

“We can’t compete with the big chains,” Adam says. “And we don’t want to. I don’t want to sell milk for $1 a litre. It’s unethical, it’s not right; it doesn’t fit anything we want to do.”

Indeed, Adam urges that the whole conversation around buying local, organic food and supporting small-scale food producers needs to change. For Alfalfa House, the price tags on their products are not about getting the cheapest price for the consumer, but about the fair price.

Perhaps if this were the case for more food sellers in Australia, the ‘fair price’ would no longer be more expensive than all the other options. In the meantime, solutions like Alfalfa House’s membership and volunteer discounts might make it easier for people like me – and perhaps you – to shop local, organic and ethical.

Want to know more?

  • Alfalfa House website.
  • Why eat local? A video from Local Harvest.
  • Get fresh produce delivered from farmers here and here.
  • A map to help you find co-ops, markets and delivery spots near you.
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