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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

The Backyard Tomato That Gives Back

Thanks to guest bloggers Abbey Piner, Nutrition Coordinator, and Amanda Soltes, Wake Co. Gardens Coordinator, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, for this article.  

It’s been a while since I bought a tomato, but the warmer temperatures have me craving homemade guacamole. I anticipated having to spend a few more dollars than I wanted to on the avocados, but I was absolutely stunned when I paid $1.19 for a relatively puny tomato. Yikes! On the walk home, I couldn’t help but think about the cost of the tomato and how much money would I spend over time on this delicious fruit?

Let’s make an educated guess. If a pound of tomatoes costs $3.99 on average,  and I buy 2 pounds every 2 weeks over the course of a year, I would spend about $207 a year on tomatoes. So that got me considering the investment of one $1.50 tomato seedling planted in my back yard vs. its grocery store counter part.
To attain the true cost of the tomato in the store, I thought I’d factor in a few more things:

  • the cost of fuel to get the tomato from California to my corner grocery in Raleigh;
  • the cost of farm labor to grow and harvest the tomato and to package and ship it;
  • the cost to the earth and our health for the pesticides ingested in the field and in our body;
  • the loss of nutritional value and of flavor as the tomato is picked and ripened in transit from field to grocery; and
  • the price I’ll pay for the convenience of buying a tomato not necessarily in season.

I realize that this little fruit’s homegrown counter part won’t be available to me until July, and that’s only true if I take the steps to plant and care for it. So, what are the costs of having tomatoes right outside my window? It takes soil and an appropriate pot or plot in which to grow. It certainly takes time each day to water and stake and prune, look for pests and disease and figure out how best to care for my plant accordingly. It requires patience, as this tomato won’t offer me fruit for guacamole for a few more months.
As I thought through these two ends of a food system, what seemed a little different is that the backyard tomato seems to give back. In return for the $1.50 and the maintenance costs, the tomato gives lots of fruits–enough to make guacamole multiple times over and to share with friends and neighbors. No unknown pesticides or chemicals will be on the homegrown batch. It will probably offer more flavor and definitely more nutrients as it will be used moments after being harvested (rather than weeks). And, ultimately, it will probably connect me to my community in some way– a comment on the plant, a discussion with a neighbor about how to combat great horned worms, or the connection of giving the extra food away – to a neighbor or for hunger relief. And then, there’s the excitement of using and sharing something you grew in the food we share. “I grew the tomatoes” is always a good talking point at a gathering.         
Had I been able to harvest that tomato from my back porch, I would have been reaping the benefits of an investment rather than paying the cost of one lonely tomato. I couldn’t’ believe it, but my $1.19 tomato took me through our complex food system and reminded me about the big picture of how we choose and pay for food– not just the dollar amount we pay, but also the cost to our health and our planet and on the experience of cooking, making and sharing food that’s homegrown instead of purchased.
Here’s to looking forward to sharing my homegrown beauties with my neighbors!

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