STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's an advisory for bargain shoppers. If you're anywhere near a coastline, pick up some cheap produce. It's sold especially cheap in Chinese neighborhoods in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. In Manhattan's Chinatown you can buy three bunches of asparagus for a dollar. Less than a mile away at a grocery store it'll cost you 12 times as much.
Lisa Chow, of member station WNYC, tried to find out why.
LISA CHOW: Outdoor stalls crowd the street in Chinatown. They sell everything from luxury watches to leafy vegetables. People are everywhere, speaking several different Chinese dialects. Especially at lunch and after work, you'll find a lot of cash changing hands, and it's often over boxes of produce.
Mr. JEFFREY RUHALTER(ph) (Butcher): I shop there all the time. Anytime I pass, tomatoes, three pounds for a dollar.
CHOW: Jeffrey Ruhalter works as a butcher a few blocks away. He also runs a wholesale produce business.
Mr. RUHALTER: I've been paying almost 75 cents a pound when I buy it wholesale. They have it three pounds for a dollar. Do I understand it? Not in your life.
CHOW: Chinatown is an anomaly. Average incomes are relatively low, and the price of produce is remarkably low. And this defies the stereotype that good produce is difficult to find cheaply in poorer neighborhoods.
Ms. WEI TRAN LAN IP(ph) (Produce Customer, Chinatown): (Foreign language spoken)
Wei Tran Lan Ip is eyeing the fruit at one of her favorite stores in Chinatown. For $6.50 she gets three pounds of bananas, eight oranges, a bunch of celery and two papayas. That same list of items costs $15.00 at a nearby supermarket chain.
Ip's friend and colleague Lana Chung translates.
Ms. LANA CHUNG: (Translating) I buy my food every day because it's much fresh.
CHOW: Outdoor stalls and small grocers sell most of the produce in this part of town, and they do a surprising amount of business, drawing out the same customers every day.
Ms. CHUNG: Chinese people, they always believe that if a fresh vegetable and food, if (unintelligible) put into the refrigerator, it will be taste much, much better at the street.
CHOW: It turns out this shopping pattern is what drives cheaper prices in Chinatown. Because when Chung says fresh, she also means ripe. And for wholesale distributors, ripe means stuff that's about to go bad.
Frank Chambri(ph) sells to grocery stores in New York and to Chinatown vendors.
Mr. FRANK CHAMBRI (Produce Distributor): A riper product is definitely worth less money, and people that buy today to eat today can buy a riper product.
CHOW: Supermarkets that sell to people who shop once a week will pay more money for fruits and vegetables that have additional shelf life. They also have to deal with higher labor costs, rent and transportation. All of this adds to the cost of the tomatoes on their shelves.
Steven Katzman is the president of wholesale distributor S. Katzman. He says Chinatown vendors can sell cheaply precisely because they sell a lot.
Mr. STEVEN KATZMAN (President, S. Katzman Produce): They're volume customers. They're still an ethnic group that does do a lot of cooking. They sit down and have a dinner, where, you know, instead of fast food. If you go back to cultures that still have a family dinner, they're the people that are buying it, and if they're buying in volume, they're buying it for less. They'll fight for the money.
CHOW: Back in Chinatown, Wei Tran Lan Ip has invited a few friends over to her home for lunch. She chops the celery that she bought that day and stir-fries it with chicken. The small 66-year-old woman points to the Asian fruit on her table.
Ms. IP (Foreign language spoken)
Ms. CHUNG: (Translating) I bought the persimmons, 16 pieces. It only cost $5.00.
Ms. IP: You try it. Try it. Try it.
CHOW: I try, and the persimmons are really sweet. They're just on the verge of being overripe, but they're good. And there's little chance I'd find a box of them this cheap anywhere else.
For NPR News, I'm Lisa Chow.
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