Monday, November 23, 2009

What's wrong with our oranges, San Diego?

I love the new KPBS!

For those of you who do not live in San Diego, KPBS is our local public broadcasting station. Recently, they started a new approach to reporting local news that puts their reporters and their work on TV, radio and the web. No more radio only or TV only reporting. The piece they did recently on local food is proof that this approach is working. I heard them talking about it on the radio so I decided to watch the 30 minute documentary they did on the source of food in San Diego and later went online to get more details. The one piece of information that shocked me: San Diego county exports 95,000 tons of oranges while importing oranges from Florida, Australia, Peru, and other places! Why? The reasons given are that we do not like the color of our local oranges, they are hard to peel, and they have too many seeds.

The whole thing boggles my mind!

So I decided, like many KPBS viewers, to do my own experiment.

Mrs. Martian and I shop regularly at a Farmer's Market, either the one in Poway or Hillcrest. Everything sold there is from California. I understand that this is actually a requirement for being a vendor at a Farmer's Market around here. We like to ask specifically where the produce comes from as we prefer to buy produce that did not travel much. Last weekend, I bought local oranges. And the next day, I went to Ralph's to get some oranges. I asked the produce guy for the origin of the oranges. At first, he told me they were from California then changed it to US. In other words, he did not know. The stickers said "Produce of the US". We think they are from Florida.

Here's my orange collection.

The beautiful oranges are, of course, not from San Diego. Our oranges are the greenish ones with some blemish on them. I understand this is due to the local climate.

After I cut them, this is what they look like inside.

The ones with the thick skin are not local, whereas the ones with the seeds are the local ones. These are the first 2 oranges I cut. I did not select them for effect.

As for taste, the local oranges were very juicy and sweet. I think that this is because they were allowed to ripen on the tree rather than being harvested early for shipment. To be fair, the other oranges were not bad at all. A little bland tasting. I should have done a blind test. Maybe next time.

So, why won't San Diegans consume local oranges?

I don't believe that San Diegans only use color, skin and seeds as deciding factor. Shoppers assume that beautiful looking oranges are better just like they think that polished (waxed) apples are better. This is the result of years of marketing that appeals to shoppers' visual perception. But education and changes in the environment can change that. Take the Prius as an example. Americans, for many decades, have been led to believe that a bigger vehicle is better and safer. When the Prius was first introduced in 1997 in Japan, sales were slow. When it came to the US in 2001, it sold mostly to early adopters. Years of education (marketing by Toyota) and a better understanding of the negative impact of gas engines on the environment changed that. Today, you see more Priuses on San Diego roads than Hummers.

I believe that one key element to the success of the Prius is that consumers could switch to the Prius without any significant change to their everyday habits. The Prius uses regular gas. They can go to the same gas station on their way to work. If the Prius had required hydrogen or ethanol only available in few locations, it would have taken a lot longer to get adopted in spite of its benefits to the environment.

The same applies to getting San Diegans to consume local oranges. Education and marketing can show them that skin color does not make for a better fruit. However, they want it in their regular supermarket be it Von's or Ralph's or Albertson's. Getting it from the Farmer's Market is for early adopters. We can't consume 95,000 tons of oranges through the Farmer's Market.

This is not an easy problem to solve. It has to be economically viable for the orange grower and the supermarket. Life is hard for growers in San Diego. Costs are rising due to the scarcity of water. They have to take the best price they can to survive and that comes from countries like India and Japan. Supermarkets are a very low margin business. To survive, they have to streamline their product distribution. Most of the produce in San Diego comes from distribution centers in San Bernardino. It is cheaper to ship high volume, low labor cost oranges from Peru to San Bernardino than lower volume, more expensive oranges from San Diego. And shipping the oranges from San Diego to San Bernardino and back defeats the whole purpose. This is a REALLY tough problem.

To solve this would require huge changes which won't happen in this economy. But changing the system would be good for more than just San Diego oranges. We do the same thing with all produce. I don't know enough to provide solutions. Do you have any ideas?

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