A. Russo & Son’s: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugli

Fruit at Russo's Market in Watertown

A small selection of the myriad fruits and vegetables available for unnervingly low prices at Russo's.

 

Located on an unassuming stretch of road in nearby (but sometimes inconvenient) Watertown, A. Russo & Sons Marketplace is the Boston area’s de facto hidden foodie market that no one knows about that everyone knows about. It’s hip, but also cramped enough to discourage the patronage of shoppers who aren’t interested in bumping elbows with a woman loading a few matnakash into her cart, or a husband-and-wife duo fumbling with armfuls of carrots and banana flowers. Russo’s is an enormous produce market sidled up against a diverse takeout restaurant bordered by a moat of potted flowers, and it’s all very, very cheap. It’s a great place for a family to go to stretch each dollar they spend on food. Not coincidentally, it’s also a great place to go to contemplate your creeping feeling of unease over the system which produces that food: why, exactly, are we able to purchase a pound of fruit from Jamaica for less than it costs us to ride the bus to get here? 

 

Here is what Russo’s does well: they make available a lot produce to a lot of people for bare-bones prices. If you’re looking for short-term wallet value, you really can’t beat this place. Costs are Haymarket-esque, but unlike the food at Haymarket, you don’t run much risk of waking up the next day to three pounds of moldy cucumbers. The place is very charming, and their employees are friendly. They do an admirable job of stocking products from local vendors; their fresh pasta, for example, is from Maria’s Gourmet Pasta in the North End, and they must sell bread produced by every single baker east of Worcester, including what’s baked in-store. They stock a whole lot of local dairy; their milk is from Western MA’s Our Family Farms cooperative. It’s really a wondrous place to poke around. Their lack of pretense — as compared to, say, Whole Foods — is refreshing, and gives the place a more old world, neighborhood-y feel. You can just come and pick up whatever you want, from almost anywhere in the world. 

Here’s what they do that isn’t so great: basically all of their produce is imported, much of it from as far away as China. It’s practically impossible to know what goes into growing this stuff. Given the incredible damage to both people and the environment that irresponsible farming can inflict, this is a serious problem. If you’re the sort of wide-eyed eater who wants to taste the world as often as possible, you can do a lot of damage at Russo’s. Literally.  

A Russo & Sons

If your produce needs to pass through customs, maybe you should think twice about loading up that cart with it.

 

It’s sort of an externalizer’s paradise. At Whole Foods, at least the prices disincentivize shoppers from buying two dozen apples shipped over from Argentina. Those sort of disincentives don’t exist at extremely low prices, which is a problem, because the products are identical — and identically harmful. An apple shipped across the ocean has the same environmental impact whether the buyer pays ten cents or ten thousand dollars for it. The cheaper the price, though, the more consumers are going to buy, the more shipments will be made, the more damage will be done. Russo’s prices? Very, very cheap. You don’t have to go to the source first-hand to know that when you can purchase broccoli for $0.89 per pound, the growers and the pickers and the land are all really getting screwed. This is not about us being thrifty. It’s about us being crooks. 

If you have ever tried your hand at growing something, you know how difficult it can be. Now imagine that, after you’ve harvested those fruits and vegetables, they’re fetching less than $1 per pound at the store, of which you actually pocket some small percentage, say 25 cents per pound. Wouldn’t you be enraged? It’s hard to imagine an American citizen who wouldn’t say “forget this gardening crap” and do something else to get their paycheck. The people who pick these crops, though, are massively poor (or they’re children), and essentially have no choice. If ever they get a choice, they usually leave. In some industries, it’s not entirely unlike indentured servitude. In others, the term slavery is occasionally used (it can go on for years undetected in the United States; imagine what happens abroad). 

You can’t get these prices on the backs of cheap human capital alone, of course: you also need to squeeze everything you can from the land, and then some. In foreign countries, regulations are far more lax than in the United States, or they’re ignored. The vegetables are generally grown in full sun conditions (usually by razing forested land) to promote quicker yields; these intensive farming procedures rapidly deplete the soil, so it’s often heavily supplemented with chemical fertilizers. You also need to burn a lot of fuel to get the food here quickly and effectively. The land and labor are purchased for next to nothing, and many growers are more than okay with burning through both in order to maintain profitability in a marketplace thriving with first-world consumers who demand all of this. 

(Perversely, this hurts American farmers as well, who lose business because they cannot compete with import prices, especially from Mexico, since the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Subsequently, many unscrupulous deeds occur in the name of slashing the costs of American produce.) 

It sounds like extremist preaching, but it’s reality. It happens very far away in most cases, but it nevertheless happens. Eventually, these practices will really come back around to us, and this sort of food will be a thing of the past. That, or we will. 

A. Russo & Sons Marketplace

Foreground: pastries. Background: bread baking. They do good work at Russo's, but don't exactly challenge the status quo. Maybe their shoppers should.

 

This is a shame, as places like Russo’s should certainly exist. New Englanders should be able to buy produce from all over the world. We have the technology, the intelligence, and the capacity to do it right. The only thing we lack is a solid understandings of the economies of nature, and any real idea of how much of the planet’s ability to replenish itself is already being lent to us. Today’s heavily-obfuscated food supply system doesn’t make this task any easier. What is a “fair price” for a tomato from Mexico, grown with chemical pesticides and picked by Mexican workers? What about that same tomato grown in California and picked by undocumented Mexican aliens? Or one picked in Connecticut in August by a family of farmers? It’s plain to see that these goods should cost different amounts, but actually coming up with the figures is a problem that society just isn’t tackling right now. 

We should demand that this become a priority. The food — it should cost more, stupid. This is so systemic a problem that even when we’re talking about foods (like vegetables) which should be good, we still run the risk of sounding like doomsayers. People need to care, though, because people are capable of enacting great change from the ground up. We should focus on food that’s grown seasonally and sustainably, and give up on the notion that buying eight watermelons in February in Boston is a good idea, unless you’re actually willing to pay to have them shipped thousands of miles. We should support our local economy more. We should take more pride in ourselves. The sort of produce sold at Russo’s, in dollars-and-cents terms, costs practically nothing. Choose your adage: there’s no such thing as a free lunch; if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Whichever you prefer, try reminding yourself of it the next time you’re in the grocery aisle.

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One Response to A. Russo & Son’s: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugli

  1. Lena says:

    I appreciate your point, but other grocery stores also sell a ton of internationally imported produce, for much more money, and there’s no reason to believe that the growers or pickers are getting paid more just because the buyer is paying more.

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