For most people, the number one reason to go to a farmers’ market isn’t an insistence on low prices. Freshness, the lure of local food, atmosphere, the straw hat, the pickup truck, the over the table conversation with a real farmer that holds the attraction, in my view.

It’s a good thing, because a recent study shows that farmers’ markets in central Illinois sold selected produce items at pricier levels than local supermarkets.

A study  published in the May issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior compared prices of fruits and vegetables in supermarkets and farmers’ markets in the central Illinois region and found supermarket pricing was generally lower, according to a news release from the University of Illinois about the study.

Authored by the school’s Karen Chapman-Novakofski and Ashley Wheeler, the study was titled “Farmers Markets: Costs Compared with Supermarkets, Use Among WIC Clients, and Relationship to Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Related Psychosocial Variables.”

USDA has used farmers’s market vouchers since 1992 to allow WIC mothers to purchase more fruits and vegetables than they could otherwise afford. Benefits to participants typically vary from $10 to $30 per year, depending on the state. The farmers market WIC vouchers - unlike the WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers that are also a part of the program - cannot be used to purchase produce at grocery stores.

Per pound pricing was recorded every two weeks at area grocery stores and farmers markets from mid-May to mid-August, according to Chapman-Novakofski. That is also about the same time that the WIC farmers market program  hands out vouchers to participants, she said.

Chapman-Novakofski said the study tracked nine fruits and sixteen vegetables at eleven vendors at farmers’ markets and seven supermarkets in central Illinois. The produce from supermarkets and the farmers’ markets did not necessarily share the same origins, she said; the study did not collect information on origin of produce sold at supermarkets or at farmers’ markets, she said.

The average supermarket price per pound for apples in the study period was $1.55 per pound, compared with $2.06 per pound for apples sold at farmers’ markets.

Tomatoes averaged $1.62 per pound at the grocery store and $2.64 per pound at the farmers’ markets.

Cucumbers sold for 58 cents per pound at the grocery store, compared with 84 cents per pound at the farmers’ markets. Peaches were $1.41 per pound at the grocery store, compared with $2.70 per pound at the farmers’ markets.

Watermelon was the only produce item that was cheaper at the farmers’ markets, she said, with watermelon selling for $5 (each) at the farmers’ market, compared with grocery store for $5.17 (each) at the grocery.

The lack of origin data is one drawback to the study. Comparing Illinois apples with Washington apples doesn’t convey the value of “local’ in the pricing equation, and the same applies to all the other commodities.

Chapman-Novakofski said that while shoppers could have gotten more pounds of produce at the grocery store for the same bucks, she cautioned the study isn’t necessarily reflective of the entire U.S. She said other studies have shown that farmers’ markets can be cheaper than supermarkets.

Comparing pricing within a farmers’ market may be worthy of study. How much competition is there within a farmers’ market? That dynamic also may vary depending on location.

But consumers who go to a farmers market aren’t necessarily looking for the lowest prices. Or, at least based on this recent study, they shouldn’t.

Looking ahead, it may make sense to allow flexibility for all WIC food package benefits to be used purchase fruits and vegetables at both supermarkets and farmers’ markets.

More reading on the topic:

Vermont organic food price study 

Pros and cons of farmers markets