Seven weeks into my research here on Lopez Island I’ve received close to 200 surveys, and I’ve started to notice a trend. The most common reaction I see when people first pick up the survey is a groan, followed by “oh, I have no idea!” Whether they’re taking the survey outside the grocery store, at the farmer’s market, or online, the initial puzzled look is an almost guaranteed reaction. There are two areas of the questionnaire in which I ask people to report numbers – numbers that the average person may not know off-hand. It takes some thinking. The first question that respondents get hung up on is one that asks the survey taker to estimate how much money they spend on groceries at a variety of sources – the local supermarket, farmstands & off-island stores – on a weekly basis. The survey just asks for an estimate – $50 here, $25 there – but for people who don’t keep track of their food bills (albeit most people), this question can pose a real challenge. After a minute to think, most people come up with a number and move on to the next question. Those that can’t often say “I have to go home and check my bank statement,” which can lead to rather precise “estimates.” Response #99, for example, estimated they spend (generally) $223.06 on food each week.
The second question that many people get hung up on asks them to estimate, on average, how many pounds of food they harvest from their garden each week during the growing season. Some people put an estimate, others simply put a question mark or write “I have no idea!” Others seem justify their inability to answer by writing something like “I grow all my own vegetables” or “I have two tomato plants in pots on my front porch.” The answers I do get in pounds are rough estimates at best. So you may ask: “is there any validity behind your methods?”
The average American, according to the USDA, consumes just under 2,000 pounds of food each year. We each eat a ton of food per year (and some of us eat much more)! This fascinating statistic provides a helpful way to measure local food, and with at least a little accuracy. By comparing the amount of food we harvest from our gardens against that one-ton statistic, we can determine (roughly) how much of our diets are home-grown. That is, if gardeners can guess with any accuracy.
As a gardener myself, I decided to test this question. When our household took the Food Survey back in June we were faced with the same uncertainty that many people experience: generally, how many pounds of food do we harvest from the garden each week? I tried at the time to visualize the harvest from our 1/8-acre garden in the heat of summer: a basket of zucchini, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, and beans, but how much does it all weigh? At the time we estimated that, spread across the growing season, we average 15 pounds of food per week. For all we knew it could have been a world away from reality.
Since that day I have weighed everything that we’ve picked from the garden in an attempt to test the accuracy of my guess. Two ounces of lettuce, 8oz of cherry tomatoes, 3lbs of beets… and the result? Over the past 7 weeks our garden has averaged 23 pounds of food per week. That’s a good bit higher than we predicted. But the past seven weeks of June through August were ripe with bounty, much more so than in the early days of May. Last week, for example, I harvested 15lbs of tomatoes alone. In a perfect world I would have started the experiment in March, but since I’m not weighing weekly throughout the entire season I won’t truly know how accurate my guess was. What I can tell is that I wasn’t far off. My gut feeling is that for most gardeners on Lopez, their guess is as good as mine, even if at first glance they “have no idea.”
Beyond data, posing somewhat challenging questions gets people thinking about their food. A consumer who can’t recall how much they’ve spend on groceries may not be thinking about the impact of their food dollars. A gardener who doesn’t know how much they harvest each week may overestimate the fraction of their food they grow at home. The accuracy of these responses will play into the success of my research, but simply asking Lopezians these questions has already started the conversation about local food.
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