Go Fetch Three Tomatoes, My Dear

Something is wrong with the market's 'invisible hand' if the marketers are competing against each other but the produce prices are the same in all the supermarkets.

On Passover eve I went to buy vegetables. The price for a kilogram of aging tomatoes in my neighborhood supermarket in Tel Aviv was NIS 12. The fruit and vegetable store on Arlozorov wanted NIS 13.8 a kilogram and the one on Ibn Gvirol NIS 23.3.

After checking with the Israel Farmers Association I found that tomato farmers were paid NIS 4.5 per kilogram that day by wholesalers, who sold the tomatoes to the market chains and stores for NIS 6.7 per kilogram.

In other words, the difference between the price the farmer received and the price paid by the consumer that day totaled 166 percent in the supermarket, 207 percent at the fruit and vegetable store on Arlosoroff and 418 percent on Ibn Gvirol. This is an insane gap that cannot be justified by January's frost damages, April's heat waves and the hail in Rosh Pina. Something is wrong with the market's "invisible hand" - which according to economic theory determines the price of a product - if the marketers are competing against each other but the produce prices are the same in all the supermarkets.

Tomatoes are not alone. In winter, supermarkets were selling lemons for NIS 10 a kilogram and oranges and grapefruit for NIS 6.7. The farmers were paid NIS 2 - a gap of 235 percent.

When I returned home without a tomato for the Passover salad, I remembered Aunt Ella and Uncle Benjamin, who lived in a little house on the sand in Kiryat Haim. I used to stay with them on summer vacations and spend time on the beach. In the morning, before the beach, Aunt Ella sent me on errands: "Go fetch three tomatoes, my dear, two cucumbers and two carrots." I knew, of course, that she wasn't talking about the grocery store on Vav street.

Aunt Ella had two rows of corn, tomato plants, cucumbers, carrots, potatoes and even sweet potatoes in her backyard. On the other side of the yard she planted watermelons and melons. Uncle planted lemon, tangerine and orange trees in the front yard. They had a strawberry patch as well, but we weren't allowed to talk about it so that the neighbors wouldn't hear and send their kids to steal our strawberries.

Maybe this is the way to do it. Return to the roots. Set up small vegetable plots in yards, on rooftops and in window boxes. Citrus and guava trees could be planted in every yard. Aunt Ella used to pride herself on never buying lemons and oranges in the grocery store.

Everything would be much cheaper. No wholesaler, no supermarket and no kashrut supervisor. No rent, city rates, storage or trucks and no paying tens of millions of shekels' wages to managers.

In Europe's large cities thousands of people grow vegetables and flowers and herbs every weekend in little plots the city allocates them near railway lines and along the roads. A municipal official in The Hague told me that at least 15 percent of the vegetables consumed in the city are home grown. But not only the amount matters, he said. A tomato you've grown yourself and know what you sprayed with, or didn't, is much tastier and safer than the tomato you buy in the supermarket.