Europe takes care of its millions of farmers, with complex payments, protections, rural development funds. The result is high food prices, an abundance of production, and farm and rural communities with a high level of prosperity and development.
Thatâs the policy. It seems to pay off on a continent that knew real hunger during and after World War II, including the Hunger Winter of 1944-45.
There are people around who remember the life-giving air drops of food from American and Canadian planes.
The abundance today has to be paid for, and consumers do the paying.
After a recent stay of nearly a month in Holland, Germany, France and Switzerland, it appears that food prices are 15% to 30% higher than in the U.S. In restaurants this goes even higher.
Some of this can be attributed to the 36% higher value for the euro over the dollar. Then thereâs the value-added taxes. In Switzerland, which still uses the Swiss franc, a McDonaldâs meal that costs $5 in the U.S. cost nearly $9.
There are other reasons for high prices in Europe. Thereâs less discounting, fewer bargains, fewer outlets featuring âlow prices every day.â
On the other hand, Europeans value quality and will pay for it, even if they make fewer purchases. Thatâs true with food, where âall you can eatâ and âpile it high and sell it cheapâ are not widely in use.
This moderate portion control may be one reason for less obesity, although weight is a problem on both sides of the Atlantic.
Freshness is highly prized, so fresh produce does quite well. Thereâs also a demographic factor. In Western Europe you donât see many children, which reflects the low birth rate. In many communities those over 65 may outnumber those under 18. Older people tend to eat more fresh produce.
Europeans are prone to grow their own. Around every city are hundreds of allotments, âpeopleâs gardens,â or volkgarten, where families can grow produce, fruit trees and flowers on tiny plots of land. This is a boon to apartment-dwellers.
The abundance of produce, the desire for freshness, the value given culinary skills, and the prosperity of farms and rural areas can clearly be seen along Germanyâs âSpargelstrasseâ â âthe asparagus road.â
This route runs from the southern German cities of Mannheim and Heidelberg south toward Switzerland, and includes part of the âGarden of Germany,â the upper Rhine plain, the little range of low mountains called Kaiserstuhl and farm land stretching over toward the Black Forest.
This is produce country: miles of fruit trees, apples, pears, peaches, cherries and strawberries.
Grapevines climb up the sides of hills and on terraces at crazy angles. This has been grape country since Roman times, and you drive by the second-largest wine storage facility in Europe.
This land, with its microclimate, is the warmest region of Germany, and gets more sunshine in a country not famous for sunny days.
Just as in the U.S., farm labor is a problem. Migrant workers come to harvest the crops â many come from Poland.
This is also asparagus country, where the highly valued white and green asparagus are grown under plastic, bundled and packed and sold to stores and restaurants as far away as Berlin, Vienna, Zurich and cities in eastern France.
In April thereâs a huge asparagus promotion under way, involving growers, packers, supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, celebrity chefs, the media, and more than two dozens towns and cities along the asparagus road.
The promotion lasts for months and includes festivals, programs, ceremonies, entertainments. Even the famous casino at Baden-Baden spa gets involved.
Almost every restaurant will feature asparagus dishes, such as fresh white and green asparagus, with ham or other meat, hollandaise, fresh new potatoes, and a good local wine. Finish that off with a fresh fruit tart, or maybe even the well-know Black Forest cake made with chocolate and local cherries and cherry liqueur.
Itâs hard to resist, and few do.
Supermarkets feature the fresh asparagus in their ads. That includes stores in several countries, such as the ever-present Aldi stores (which also operates in the U.S.); the Lidl chain, which has 4,000 stores in Germany and France; the giant Edeka, the German chain with thousands of stores; and Swiss giants Migros and Co-op, which also operate thousands of stores. (Migros is the largest employer in Switzerland).
In Austria, the Nah & Frisch (Near and Fresh) stores tie in with the asparagus promotions.
Many of these chains tailor their stores according to the size of the community. Edeka may have a small store in a village, and a hypermarket in a city. Whatever the size of the store, produce is almost always available.
The Europeans want to preserve farms and small agricultural towns. The continent is densely populated and almost over-developed, with power lines, rail lines and expressways crisscrossing in every direction, and towns every ten miles.
Open space, farm land, food production, rural respite and escape from cities are highly prized.
They are willing to pay the price to get off the high-speed Autobahn and onto the friendlier, gentler asparagus road.
What's your take on the European approach to food prices and fresh produce? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.