April 23, 2017

SCHULMAN | Onions, Cabbages and Cherries: More Fun Than You Would Think

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This Wednesday marks the end of my year-long journey writing an honors thesis. I feel weird telling people about my project. I just spent a year studying onions, cabbages and cherries in New York. I had a blast doing it, but even now it seems like an oddly specific topic.

It didn’t start that way though. Before starting my thesis, my knowledge of farming consisted of eating fried oreos at the Columbia County Fair. But I did know something about economics and always had a feeling economists can do more to feed people than scientists at a company like Monsanto (I actually wrote a column about it last spring). When it came time to choose a topic for my thesis, food seemed obvious. Or more specifically, how to help feed people using economics.

As it turned out, I’m not the only one who wants to use economics to feed people. For years, economists were measuring whether people were going hungry in the United States based on the answers to an 18 question questionnaire called the CPS nutritional supplement. They tried to explain the answers to the questionnaire using factors like race, income and education.

Eventually people realized this was silly. For example, one of the questions asks if respondents bought vegetables. Economists noticed that people in the inner city weren’t buying vegetables. But obviously, race doesn’t influence this choice. In fact, my reason for not buying vegetables is the same as for someone from the inner city.. A double cheese burger and medium fries at McDonald’s cost $3.33. On the other hand, a bus ticket to go to Wegmans to buy a head of cabbage is expensive and inconvenient.

Noticing you can’t find a Wegmans in Paterson, New Jersey was a 400 million dollar idea. The government started building groceries in the inner city to improve nutrition. People call the areas without grocery stores “food deserts” and tried mapping them. But you need a detailed directory of transit and stores. You can’t map food deserts in somewhere like Clinton county New York, where stores and residents are sparse.

That’s where my project came in. Instead of just tracking the stores, I decided to track the costs of bringing food to stores on the scale of New York state. I quickly realized I couldn’t track these costs for all types of food. That’s where the cherries, cabbages and onions come in. I decided to only track crops grown on small scale because it’s easy to see, using satellite data and public records, how they move from farms to intermediaries and consumers.

According to my reasoning, if a region has high transportation costs, it faces a bigger risk of being a food desert. I assumed stores would have to charge more to compensate for the high transportation costs. To be honest though, I’m unsure I tracked anything meaningful after a year of work. The price of cabbages, onions and cherries at Wegmans aren’t just based on transportation costs. Wegman’s is a national conglomerate with 21 aisles of grocery goodness. It might be expensive to send cabbage to a grocery store on Suffolk County, Long Island, but the grocery store might have reason to keep the price low anyway.

Still, this project has been a highlight of my year and the past four. Although I didn’t find much this time, I learned a lot. And the prospect of discovering new scientific knowledge to help people is tantalizing. So, if you’re on the fence about a thesis for next year, definitely do it. You might get overly excited about onions, cherries and cabbages, too. That’s this week’s schtick. I’m sticking to this one. Tune in the Monday after next for my last column!


Eric Schulman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Schulman’s Schtick runs every other Monday this semester.