The study, by the University of Otago Wellington, collected 3,120 prices for fruit and vegetables at markets and supermarkets in Wellington and Christchurch.
It found that commonly purchased produce, such as apples, oranges, broccoli, cabbage, carrots and tomatoes, were on average significantly cheaper at fruit and vegetable markets compared to supermarkets in the cities.
The researchers developed a hypothetical weekly shopping basket for a two adult, two child family containing ideal amounts of fruit and vegetables from a health perspective. They then compared the costs of the basket at various outlets.
Fruit and vegetable markets were the cheapest at NZ$76 (US$65) per weekly basket. Online supermarkets were the next cheapest at NZ$113 (US$96), although this could be offset by delivery charges, says one of the study’s authors, Dr Amber Pearson.
The difference between the cost of the basket at a fruit and vegetable market compared to a supermarket was NZ$49 less at the market.
Farmers’ markets that sell from local growers were the most expensive of the outlets studied, at NZ$138 (US$118) per basket. But a third of the items in the basket were still significantly cheaper than supermarkets, including cauliflower, silverbeet, spinach, cucumber and pumpkin.
The researchers noted that farmers’ markets also have the advantages of expanding consumer choice by providing more access to local produce and more “organic” products—with such organic produce having lower pesticide levels.
Tough for many families
Associate Professor Nick Wilson, one of the study’s authors, says there is strong scientific evidence that high fruit and vegetable consumption protects against heart disease, stroke and some cancers, but the reality is that it isn’t always easy for low-income families to buy enough of this produce.
One way to overcome this cost barrier is for New Zealand to explore following the approach of some US jurisdictions where fruit and vegetable vouchers are provided to low-income people, he says.
“If these are usable at markets, then this can help support local growers as well, so it can be good for regional employment,” Wilson said.
Another approach is for local government to increase support for fruit and vegetable markets in various ways—something that some councils in parts of the country have already done by providing free space for holding markets.
In summarising the research, Pearson said there was a need for society to better understand the benefits of fruit and vegetable markets for health, “but also in terms of wider benefits such as supporting local agriculture and building community cohesion”.