The Cost of Eating

In most places, a walk down a supermarket aisle does not lend itself to experiences of awe and incredulity. But Martha’s Vineyard isn’t like most places.

Consider Sunset heirloom tomatoes, which have been selling at Cronig’s Market for seven dollars and ninety-nine cents. The price of one large Sunset tomato is roughly equivalent to the cost of a passenger trip between the Island and Woods Hole, or to one hour of work at the Massachusetts minimum wage.

These tomatoes, however, have been moving steadily out the door. Cronig’s owner Steve Bernier has found a group of customers who consider the tomatoes’ taste and color worth the asking price.

By contrast, Mr. Bernier sees far less demand at the store for lower-priced, mass market offerings such as Ragu spaghetti sauce.

Still, Mr. Bernier, who has been working in the retail business for four decades on and off-Island, sees trouble ahead for food prices in general.

“Look at the weather the past couple of years,” he said, “There’s forest fires, droughts, fruit’s coming out deformed because of global warming . . . We’re not prepared as a country, but we have no way out . . . . [There] won’t be any more cheap food.”

That’s the real issue — not the pricey, high-end tomatoes bought by caterers and second-home owners, but the rising cost of staples such as bread, peanut butter and milk at every Island food market.

For many Vineyarders, the Island long has been a refuge from the hurried pace and anonymous loneliness of mainland life. The tradeoff is higher prices on pretty much everything: real estate, rents, gasoline, fuel oil, restaurant meals and groceries.

Island residents traditionally have accepted those higher prices as worth paying. But the high cost of living already is starting to force residents off the Island. Given the sharp rise in energy prices and the weakening economy, the day may be coming when many residents will want to pay the cost of Island life, but cannot.

The Vineyard now has a window of opportunity to set in motion initiatives to hold down basic costs of living, such as an Islandwide energy cooperative tapping wind and solar power, or incentives to encourage the local production of food through inshore and offshore aquaculture, mobile slaughterhouses and community supported agriculture. Individuals also can start growing their own food, or participate in the creation of more community gardens.

By its inherent nature, Island life always will tend to cost more than the mainland. But the Vineyard community can work together to make a basic life affordable for those who wish to live here.