Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores?

We made some ice cream at home last weekend. Someone had given one of the kids an ice cream maker a while ago and we finally got around to using it. We decided to make orange sherbet. It took a pretty long time and it didn’t taste very good but the worst part was how expensive it was. We spent about $12 on heavy cream, half-and-half, orange juice, and food coloring — the only ingredient we already had was sugar — to make a quart of ice cream. For the same price, we could have bought at least a gallon (four times the amount) of much better orange sherbet. In the end, we wound up throwing away about three-quarters of what we made. Which means we spent $12, not counting labor or electricity or capital costs (somebody bought the machine, even if we didn’t) for roughly three scoops of lousy ice cream.

As we’ve written before, it is a curious fact of modern life that one person’s labor is another’s leisure. Every day there are millions of people who cook and sew and farm for a living — and there are millions more who cook (probably in nicer kitchens) and sew (or knit or crochet) and farm (or garden) because they love to do so. Is this sensible? If people are satisfying their preferences, who cares if it costs them $20 to produce a single cherry tomato (or $12 for a few scoops of ice cream)?

This is the question that came to mind the other day when we received an e-mail from a reader named Amy Kormendy:

I emailed Michael Pollan recently to ask him this question, and nice guy that he is, he promptly answered “Good question, I don’t really know” and suggested I pose it to you good folks:

Wouldn’t it be more resource-intensive for us all to raise our own food, than if we paid an expert to raise lots of food that s/he could sell to us? Couldn’t it therefore be more sustainable to purchase food from large professional producers?

We’re taught that the invention of division of labor gives us a more efficient way to use resources on a societal scale. I love gardening, but it takes me more time and overall investment to get inferior produce to what I could buy from a professional farmer nearby. Similarly, a friend once attempted to sew a skirt for herself. Adding up the time and energy to visit the store, select and buy the fabric & pattern, go home and measure, cut, and stitch, she says the skirt cost her $200, resulted in lots of wasted fabric, and she stitched the hem crooked. “I could have bought a better skirt for $50 at Nordstrom,” she said — her experiment in self-sufficiency was a bigger overall resource hog than the conventional supply chain to her local retailer. So, some of Professor Pollan’s advice seems to be that we would be better off as a society if we did more for ourselves (especially growing our own food). But I can’t help but think that the economies of scale and division of labor inherent in modern industrial agriculture would still render the greatest efficiencies in resource investment. The extra benefit of growing your own food only works out if you count the unquantifiables such as the sense of accomplishment, learning, exercise, suntan, etc.

I very much understand the locavore instinct. To eat locally grown food or, even better, food that you’ve grown yourself, seems as if it should be 1) more delicious; 2) more nutritious; 3) cheaper; and 4) better for the environment. But is it?

1) “Deliciousness” is subjective. But one obvious point is that no one person can grow or produce all the things she would like to eat. As a kid who grew up on a small farm, I can tell you that after I had my fill of corn and asparagus and raspberries, all I really wanted was a Big Mac.

2) There’s a lot to be said for the nutritional value of home-grown food. But again, since one person can grow only so much variety, there are bound to be big nutritional gaps in her diet that will need to be filled in.

3) Is it cheaper to grow your own food? It’s not impossible but, as my little ice cream story above illustrates, there are huge inefficiencies at work here. Pretend that instead of just me making ice cream last weekend, it was all 100 people who live in my building. Now we’ve collectively spent $1,200 to each have a few scoops of ice cream. Let’s say you decide to plant a big vegetable garden this year to save money. Now factor in everything you need to buy to make it happen — the seeds, fertilizer, sprout cups, twine, tools, etc. — along with the transportation costs and the opportunity cost. Are you sure you really saved money by growing your own zucchini and corn? And what if 1,000 of your neighbors did the same? Or here’s another, non-food example: building your own home from scratch versus buying a prefab home. With a site-built home, you need to invest in all the tools, material, labor, and transportation costs to make it happen, and the myriad inefficiencies of having dozens of workmen’s pickup trucks retrace the same route hundreds of times all for the sake of erecting one family’s home — whereas factory-built homes like these create the opportunity for huge efficiencies by bundling labor, materials, transportation, etc.

4) But growing your own food has to be good for the environment, right? Well, keeping in mind the transportation inefficiencies mentioned above, consider the “food miles” argument and a recent article in Environmental Science and Technology by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie-Mellon:

We find that although food is transported long distances in general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

This is a pretty strong argument against the perceived environmental and economic benefits of locavore behavior — mostly because Weber and Matthews identify the fact that is nearly always overlooked in such arguments: specialization (which Michael Pollan mostly dislikes, and which has been around for a long, long time) is ruthlessly efficient. Which means less transportation, lower prices — and, in most cases, far more variety, which in my book means more deliciousness and more nutrition. The same store where I blew $12 on ice cream ingredients will happily sell me ice cream in many flavors, dietetic options, and price points.

Whereas I am now stuck with about 99% of the food coloring I bought, which will probably sit in the cupboard until I die (hopefully not soon).



I eat a lot of local foods. Here's what I have to say about it:

The fruits and veggies from the CSA or farmer's markets or my friends' plum, avocado, and orange trees are MUCH MUCH tastier than storebought. Those people here who say "no way" have probably never tried it. But ripened on the tree/vine then picked, vs. picked early and shipped? No comparison.

And as far as how expensive gardening really depends on your location and methods. Here in So. Cal., with very little input, I can have high yielding square foot gardening. The key is to make your own compost. Highest cost would be water.

In western PA where my family is, stuff just grows like weeds. I picked 12 lbs of green beans in one day from my mom's garden, and that's only 1.5 rows. Last year she planted four tomato plants and got 400 tomatoes from them.


I grow an urban backyard garden, and I sew a lot of my own dress clothes. I'm tall, and unless I want to look like an overgrown teen I need to add inches in length to almost everything. If your friend took her time, chose an easy pattern, and worked patiently, she might get better at sewing- and find a really fun hobby that frees her from the dictates of the fashions of the day (don't like decolletage? No problem!). And you can grow a LOT of food in your yard with very little effort- try Kentucky Wonder pole beans on a fence or trellis sometime. Looks a bit like ivy, only with pretty white flowers and beans. It's fun to come home at the end of a long workday and get a bit of exercise picking dinner and weeding. No gym necessary, or waiting in line at the store for something tasteless. By maintaining your dependence on large corporate entities for your necessities, you may engage economies of scale, but you miss a lot of fun.


Charlie Bader

Baby carrots, broccoli and stwahbewwies are ready in the garden. My 2 year old twin girls BEG me repeatedly to take them out to pick, wash and eat them. You can't put a price tag on that. They eat the broccoli right off the plant! They've never begged for store bought veggies, never mind the junk food. Better make that 5,000,000,002 locavores. Met my neighbor and he gave me a truckload of chicken and goat manure. Free of charge. Giving away fresh greens and turnips.

sam breach

A Locavore is not defined by a mediocre cook in NYC who makes a bad judgment call by following an unimpressive recipe for orange an sherbet using what was probably artificial food coloring as well as already squeezed orange juice that comes from another State at closest. So why hold this pitiful tale up as an example of what you think is wrong with Locavore movement, when what all it really does is illustrate that there is probably something wrong with your own family's skills in the kitchen.

Jack at F&B

"Whereas I am now stuck with about 99% of the food coloring I bought, which will probably sit in the cupboard until I die (hopefully not soon)."

I'm afraid this sums up your post; not smart enough to know you don't need food coloring to make ice cream.

Real food costs real money. Fake food is subsidized by the US Government. You tell me: are the over-weight and obese people eating real food or fake food?


Meanwhile, you would think someone at a blog named Freakonomics would understand the Concept that buying a small amount of ice cream ingredients at retail would cost MANY times more than what a giant agribusiness would pay. But, apparently not from reading your complaints, above.

People who are clueless about food should not write about food.

(And a side comment: Why is it okay for the richest nation in the world (that would be us) to have the cheapest food of any major nation in the world? Shouldn't we also be paying the most for food? Get back to us on these entitlement issues when you have a chance. If you dare.)

- Jack

P.S. And where do you get the idea that you can spend "$20 to produce a single cherry tomato"? My god, tomato plants cost $3-$5 and cherry ones produce stupid amounts of tomatoes, if you have a clue.


Molly Crawford Reidy

We just made ice cream last night. Blueberry. With blueberries from the field. I just looked at my receipt for the groceries involved. $5.98 total for the dairy. Because I know how to make good ice cream, it was at least as good as Ben and Jerry's. And it cost a little less than B&J's. It's all in the details. You can't expect to save money making your own stuff at home if you're lazy about how much and where you get the ingredients.
I'm all about questioning this locavore notion, but you've got to gain some basic skills in order to do it right. You can't just be an idiot and expect it to save you money and bring you joy. (Why on earth would you buy food coloring for your homemade ice cream?)

Poster in Pitt

Once, on a plane from Beijing arriving at Dulles, an elderly Chinese man sitting next to me looked out the window and exclaimed to me: "Wow, look how green it is! You could raise a whole family on one 'mu' of land!" A 'mu' is about 1/6 of an acre.
Here was a guy who could see the huge potential of our land from several miles up.
With a little bit of effort, a small plot will produce lots of food. Maybe not enough to satisfy an American family, but lots of food all the same.
We're so accustomed to abundance, that refuse to fathom dignified survival amid relative scarcity.

Charlie Bader

Ice cream is a bad example. You would have succeeded, except:
1. You don't own the land the grass grew on that fed the:
2. Cow that you don't own.
3. The cow was probably grain-fed instead of grazed.
4. You don't own the orange tree that the oranges were grown on.
5. You were tricked into using a recipe that calls for food coloring (you don't need it and it's probably bad for you). You probably don't own the food coloring plant.
6. You wasted food. And finally:
7. You live in an apartment complex instead of a on a small plot of land. So no, we don't need a bunch of wannabe urban "locavores".
The ice cream was a bad example in many ways, high fat content, material investment required, excessive packaging, animal product. A better example would be a 50 cent package of vegetable seed to grow a couple hundred pounds of turnips, carrots, rutabaga, carrots, beets or kohlrabi. Share the seed packs with your 100 neighbors and plant in the community garden. Meet your neighbors, eat healthier, learn valuable skills, get some fresh air. You don't need seed pots, twine or even fertilizer. Just find someone with a horse and get it deliverd for free.
But alas, you are panning locavores, much as victory gardens were panned during WWII. When the only person who stands to gain is the consumer, the attacks come from all directions. Celebrate self-sufficiency instead of condeming it, as it only works when you think it through. Only the skilled succeed, many will fail. Perhaps this falls into the natural selection category.

It all comes down to controlling the means of production. Growing your own food is the ultimate freedom.


Charlie Bader

Here's the math: 1/8 oz. of rutabaga seed for $0.60 (shop around)
250-300 seeds/gram.
1/8 oz.=3.54 grams
885 seeds per 1/8 oz.
average rutabaga = 3-5 pounds
conservative yield = 2655 pounds for $0.60
You can feed the leaves to the friend's horse.
At 11 calories/gram, you'll lose some weight too.
Ice cream has about 61 calories/gm. So it's not as appetizing as ice cream, therefore you will eat less.


I think the $12 was total cost of the things he bought, not what portion of it was spent actually in the sherbet. if he didn't already have organic whole milk, half a gallon would run at least $3.00, etc.

Harry Klein

The challenge in all of this becomes one of analysis. How many production processes can a person study to ensure that "local" really means "local" or that "local" is a more sustainable alternative?


Of course you could save 28 cents a week by buying hothouse tomatoes from Costa Rica instead of growing your own, or buying them from the farmer down the street.

But who the hell wants a crappy, rock-hard tomato that tastes like cardboard?

Food is pleasure. Food is leisure, and discovery, and science, and fun. It's not always about saving 28 cents a week on tomatoes.

This reminds me of a quote from Kramer: "Well, why go to a fine restaurant, when you can just stick something in the microwave? Why go to the park and fly a kite, when you can just pop a pill?"


When you add in the taxes we pay for agricultural commodity checks, a cost you don't see at the check out, you get a better idea of true food costs.

Live on the wild side - diversify! Nobody has to grow only three vegetables. It's a little time consuming but anyone can learn to grow a larger variety. We can learn succession planting - pull out the cauliflower plant when you cut the head and plant something else. We can indeed grow a lot of the produce we need. Winter? No problem. Learn what to grow and how to use a cold frame and harvest year round. You can add fresh greens to your diet with minimal effort year round. No lawn or space to turn into a garden? Purchased pots will last for years, can be moved around and can be packed away in the winter. Container gardening is growing in popularity.

You said: Is it cheaper to grow your own food? It's not impossible but, as my little ice cream story above illustrates, there are huge inefficiencies at work here.

You didn't "grow" your own ice cream. You bought everything. It's not a valid comparison. You can't buy a tomato, slice it and declare it home grown because you've prepared the tomato. Growing something doesn't have to be expensive. You don't have to have expensive or numerous tools. You don't have to buy a lot of things. We're too hung on up things in this society. Keep it simple.

Growing your own and buying locally can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. Most of us are more likely to stick with something if we keep it simple.


Sean Dague

I think you miss a few key points, but that doesn't stop you from making the Chewbacca/Sherbert argument.

On the Delicious front, we joined a CSA 2 years ago. I can definitely say, the food from there tastes way better than the stuff you get from the stores. We aren't growing our own here, but going in together with 250 other families and contributing to a 7 acre farm in which we get vegetables once a week for months.

Your point 2 is soooo rediculously glossed over. :) "But again, since one person can grow only so much variety, there are bound to be big nutritional gaps in her diet that will need to be filled in." A series of studies have shown that mineral values in vegetables have gone down in the last 50 years. The cause is largely assumed to be mass production farming. Minerals, unlike vitamins, have a slow absorbsion path. Time on the vine is directly proportional to minerals in the vegetable. The mass production model, and shipping vegetables before they are ripe for durability, takes a huge whack out of the nutritional value of those vegetables.

Also, on point 3, I'm not sure why a composite food (which you didn't grow any of your own ingrediants for), some how manages to proove a point about tomato production, and how we should all use large scale farms in chile for these same foods.

And, you are right, if all you are measuring is transportation of cows, the transportation cost of cow vs. it's production cost is negligible. But do the math on apples some time instead. NY State is a massive producer of apples, and yet most of our apples in stores come from china. Something as cheap as an apple needs to be picked in china, put on a boat, shipped to california, put on a truck, driven across the country, and finally land in your store. The economics of an apple are definitely on the other side of this one.



i suppose the big thing to realize is that sometimes it is just cheaper to let the big producers grow it. potatoes and corn? take too much room in my garden and cost some bucks to grow. however, some things are cheaper (i read a yahoo news article about it). bell peppers. i paid $3 a plant for my peppers. That buys 2 peppers in my grocery store. i will definitely get more than 2 peppers per plant, and i intend on dehydrating them, so that i don't use a lot of energy or space to store them, once they're harvested. i'm growing my own lettuce. the seed packet cost me $1.50. I've already had 4 salads of microgreens, because i thinned them. do you know how much microgreens cost? as for equipment? i've had this stuff for years, and some of it was handed down to me from my dad when he passed away. i think i've gotten my money's worth. also, i compost, so there were no fertilizer costs.

the next house i buy is going to havea bigger yard, and i may branch out into selling veggies to local restaurants. Then I'm making money, and people are eating better because of it!



Another argument for locavorism (a word?) is that we waste a lot of resources (including land that is often very fertile and well watered) on our (sub)urban. If instead of paying a garden service to mow the lawn and apply pesticide and fertilizer to the roses, we payed them to grow food for us,i think significant savings could be achieved. Proffesionals are sill better, we just need to encourage professionals to produce where we live, and in a resource-frugal way. The market is going to force this behavior now through high oil prices


In terms of looking at the labor/love angle, there are many examples of people PAYING to do things that others are paid quite meagerly to do for a living. My favorite example: apple-picking. How many people pay a ridiculous per-pound rate to go apple picking for a few hours in the fall, but would never consider being a professional apple-picker. There are a bevy of other examples, but this is always my favorite, since most of the people who go apple picking would probably think themselves so far removed from those who do it for a living...

Ruth Parsons

As co-director of the Healthy Gourmet Food and Lifestyle School in north central Washington, I admit my bias in favor of locally produced foods. We actually teach people how to make a decent living growing and processing local foods for customers within a 50 mile radius of their base of operation. Many people are weary buying food with no "identity" - that is, no connection to place or person. The alternative is "food with a face", grown by people who have some ethics about how the food is grown, and are good at what they do. It's true that not everyone is going to be good at growing and processing food, but many people have a talent for it, and the growing interest in small, dedicated local food producers is creating a wonderful business opportunity for those who want it.

Jeffrey Ellis

Follow-up -- just checked orange sherbet recipe in most recent edition of "Joy of Cooking":

Makes One Quart
1 Envelope of Gelatin -- $0.50
1/4 C. Cold Water -- 0.00
3/4 C. Sugar (C&H) -- 0.25
1-3/4 C. Fresh Orange juice -- 0.75
Orange Zest (from Above Fresh Oranges) -- 0.00
1 C. Whole Milk (Organic) -- 0.50

Total Cost -- $3.00

If you use an ice cream maker that require ice and rock salt, add another dollar. A PINT of good quality sherbet/sorbet (Haagen-Daaz) runs $3.00. Home made sherbet contains no weird ingredients like carageenan (SP), and you can refine the recipe to reflect personal tastes. If you have an orange tree -- like I do -- even cheaper.

I don't know how Stephen managed to spend $12.00, but as an economist, he makes a lousy shopper.


Sherbert... there's your problem! This will make great french vanilla ice cream for about $5/quart: 1 pt heavy cream, one pt milk, 1/2c sugar, vanilla, 2 egg yolks. Is is really good -- you will be able to scrape a bit of butter off of the stirring things, it is that rich.

Give it a try!