Saturday, April 6, 2013

boutique milk, meet lessatarian

I found this at the farmer's market last weekend (It was full at the time!).

Sort of local (from PA), organic, grass fed milk in a reusable glass bottle.


Except for $3.49 a quart: ouch. Ouch! OUCH!!!

That's $14/gallon!

I am new to this particular market and I think it's turning out to be more of a farmer's boutique than your typical farmers' stand.  In it's posh locale, and with its 200-400% markup on things like milk, eggs and organic vegetables, I'm finding I'm out of my league.  In fact, I have to wonder if I have the proper boutique attire to wear for tomorrow morning.  Do I have the right shoes? The right bag?

Can I not go in my pajamas?

Clearly, I need a new place to shop, but that won't help the milk situation.  This is the first time I've seen milk at a farmer's market around here (not to mention organic and grass fed).  I'm sure this contributes to the expense. 

Regardless of whether I'll be buying it, however, this boutique milk has got me to thinking in my usual way about food, sustainability and scarcity.  In Northern VA, you can buy plain old milk from Walmart for $2.50-$3.00 a gallon.  At Trader Joe's, you can step it up and buy organic milk, shipped from Massachusetts and grown without antibiotics or hormones, for $6.00 a gallon.  And, surprise! if you're feeling high on the hog, you can buy "local," small farm, organic, grass fed milk, shipped in from the much closer PA, and delivered in a reusable glass bottle, for a whopping $14.00 a gallon.

Does this price escalation illustrate what our food should really cost? Each jump in price (more than doubling each time) shifts a little bit more of the environmental costs back to the consumer. As we move up the price ladder, we remove the cheapening (and polluting) influences of herbicides and pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, grain production, transportation, and finally, disposable (even if they are recyclable) plastic jugs.

I should note, by the way, that I'm sure we could knock a few dollars off the boutique milk price if we simply moved that market out of its boutique neighborhood.

Just sayin'.

Still, is this what it would feel like to bear the true costs of food?  Over the course of this week, I have treated this very expensive bottle of milk as if it were the elixir of life, held precariously in an ancient and irreplaceable Grecian urn. I set the bottle carefully on the counter so as not to break it. I poured it with precision so as not to waste one drop. And I slid it furtively, and selfishly, to the back of the fridge when Gareth arrived home from school with his refrigerator raiding friends.

Milk?  Sorry, we're out.  You'll have to have water.    

Oh the shame in the hoarding! But no way am I going to let those big boys slosh my $14 a gallon milk down their fronts in a fit of careless teen aged thirst.

Despite my concerns, however, I recognize that I come to this dilemma from a position of privilege.  The windfalls and scarcities that come with eating locally have taught me a great deal about the value of food, but those lessons have occurred within the confines of how well we can adhere to the principle of sustainable eating, not within the context of whether or not my children will suffer from malnutrition, or unthinkably, starvation.

I know that many many people can not afford to consider purchasing even one quart of this milk.  In light of that, I have to ask: are we supposed to take cheap food away from people who can't afford to eat without it?


That doesn't change, however, that the cheapness of our food is no more than an illusion. If we don't pay on the front end, the environmental costs will still pile up on the back end.  Eventually, everyone must bear those costs - rich and poor alike. 

By coincidence, as I mulled over my boutique milk yesterday, I heard an interview with New York Representative Louise Slaughter on NPR.  She argued that 80% of our antibiotic use goes to livestock and that such overuse leads to the creation of antibiotic resistant superbugs.  These bugs, she continued, threaten to destroy one of the greatest medical discoveries of our time (antibiotics).  To drive the point home, I saw the same argument in this article from Mother Jones after I returned home later in the day.

If we render antibiotics ineffective, then many of us will die, no matter what our socioeconomic status.  And that's  just one example of the trouble created by big agribusiness.

Sustainable milk, or food for that matter, must be affordable for everyone.


Community gardens, food assistance programs that tap into local food sources (like the Our Daily Veggies Program run by our local nonprofit) and an increase in local, small, and price-competitive family farms all come to mind. 

And what about lessatarianism?!  It's not hard to think of consuming less of a thing that comes at $14 a gallon, right?  If we reduce consumption, we can maintain our budgets while purchasing higher quality food (even in small quantities) and rejecting at least some of those cheaper unsustainable choices.   

It's at least a start.

In the meantime, I'll search for a new dairy vendor.  While I'd love to see my cows grazing in idyllic green fields and leaping over organic Swiss-cheese moons, no need to dress them up in Versaci pin stripes and Armani loafers for the occasion.  I know sustainable food is more expensive, and that darn glass bottle is so luxurious, but we really should leave the boutique prices on the truck! 

**Modification: at the market this a.m., I discovered the milk gets less expensive as you buy more.  You can get a half gallon for $5.25, which makes a gallon $10.50.  Still outgrageous, but less than I originally said.


  1. Ugh, the farmer's market closest to us is like that--sure, I can walk to it since its 3 blocks away, but a quart of peas is $5, and a dozen corn on the cob is $10. We drive to a real farmers market, about 30 minutes away, and make a day out of it (its at a really nice park that we wouldn't go to otherwise).

    Do you guys have anyone that does delivery? When I was a kid, we had a local farm co-op that delivered eggs and dairy, and more recently when we lived in IL, we used to get delivery from Oberweis (which also has delivery here in the Va Beach area, its not local, but shipping from IL to VA is better than shipping from CA or something I suppose). Plus, there's no hormones, they use glass bottles, all the dairy products you could want, they don't do UHT pasteurization, and they take the bottles back and reuse them...and its a wee bit more affordable (their half gallon is 3.89, though there is a delivery fee)!

    ...just like the old days.

    (I just looked, and I think up by you, South Mountain Creamery might be an option)

    1. hey thalassa,
      i tried to sign up for south mountain creamery years ago but they hadn't yet extended delivery to where i live. just looked and it seems maybe that's changed. i'm going to look into it more. thanks! :)

  2. I'd take boutique milk any day! My cousin just bought a farm in Paris, VA. He has a herd of cattle and there's a lot that goes into raising them right...better than in a factory! Given how difficult the regulations are for small farmers, I feel for them trying to compete with a cheaper yet crappier product. Love for you to come out to the farm one day! Gorgeous!

    1. i'd love to do that! My sister wants to buy a farm...we'll see!