06/09/2008 12:29 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Case Against the Victory Garden

(Part 5 in the Core Competency Moms series)

You can't set foot in a grocery store these days without noticing a certain trend in prices. By some calculations, milk costs 25% more than it did at this time last year; egg prices have risen 40%. Many vegetable and fruit prices are up 5-10%, in part because of rising transportation costs.

These numbers are frustrating because we have to eat, and so the Wall Street Journal ran a feature last Thursday claiming that a growing number of Americans are fighting inflation the old-fashioned way: planting vegetable patches in their backyards. A Portland, Oregon gardening store reports that sales of vegetable plants are up 43%, even as sales of flower perennials are down; stores in Austin, Texas and Westfield, New Jersey report the same thing.

If true, it's fascinating because this micro-trend runs counter to the tidal wave of food outsourcing that's swept through grocery stores over the past 20 years. Sales of pre-cut fruits and veggies, and packaged salads, for instance, have risen 5-10% a year for much of the past decade.

But the re-emergence of what look like old fashioned victory gardens (home plots tended during World War II to reduce market demand for produce) deserves a closer look because it has a lot to tell us about the odd calculations many families make about household work and expenses.

I've been writing here on the Huffington Post these past few weeks about what I call "Core Competency Moms" - women who outsource or ignore things other people can do just as well in order to focus on what they do best: nurturing their families and their paid work. People shrug about the more important "ignore" part, but the outsourcing idea tends to get people a bit bothered. The first thing many readers tell me is "I can't afford that!" One joked that the headline should be "Rich women discover they can hire maids!" But when we take a closer look at home economics, the truth is a lot more complicated. As the re-emergence of victory gardens shows, we miscalculate the question of outsourcing or in-sourcing three ways:

We already outsource more than we think.
Even if there is a victory garden renaissance going on, only a handful of Americans grow all their own food. That means most of us outsource this chore to some extent. We also outsource a lot of food prep. According to the National Restaurant Association, even Americans who earn less than $15,000 a year eat an average of 3.2 commercially prepared meals per week. Few Americans of any income level make their own clothes; we outsource what used to be a regular part of the "mom" job description to factories around the world because they do it cheaper and, frankly, better than most of us could achieve with a needle and thread. Rather than hang sheets on the clothesline, most of us outsource this task to a dryer. We outsource dish scrubbing to a dishwasher. Unless you homeschool, you probably outsource a big chunk of your children's education. You most likely outsource lighting and air conditioning to the power company, rather than installing solar panels, lighting candles or waving a fan. If you wear suits to work, you probably outsource dry-cleaning. So I find it strange that people draw the line at a laundry or cleaning service.

We misjudge what things cost. If people are looking to save money, growing vegetables is an odd place to start. If obesity statistics are to be believed, fresh produce is a disturbingly small part of the average American budget.

But we misjudge the cost of many things. For instance, most people have no real idea what outsourcing regular household chores would cost. We associate "maids" and "cooks" and "concierges" with wealthy people, and don't consider the rise, over the past three decades, of small businesses that do similar activities. Since these small businesses work for many families, they can achieve economies of scale, and charge prices more in line with a normal family's budget. A cleaning service can cost about $30 per week if they come every 3 weeks. Sending out the laundry costs $20-30 (for a family) per week. Getting groceries delivered weekly from an online service is about $8 more than it would cost to go in person (this includes tipping the delivery guy; if you get bad gas mileage, this number is less).

In other words, it costs $250-300 per month to live like a rich woman with a maid, a launderer, and someone who stocks the pantry. Or maybe you don't mind laundry, but you do hate cooking. For the same amount, you could hire someone who likes cooking to whip up some freezable weeknight dinners for a few hours each weekend (which might be cheaper than eating out).

Certainly, $250 is not nothing, and many Americans would be hard pressed to immediately find an additional $250 in their monthly disposable income. But the best kind of budgeting aligns our spending with our priorities. Maybe if we prefer spending weekends playing in the park to doing laundry, over time we can transition to cheaper cars and allocate the savings to outsourcing chores. Or maybe we misjudge what our true monthly disposable income is anyway. Most pertinent for middle-class American families? Tax refunds, now coming out to around $2500 a year. People say they plan to save it or pay bills, but in reality, most of us treat it as a windfall and buy relatively random stuff. That's well over $200 a month in additional income if you adjust your withholding - enough to never scrub toilets again.

Time is not free. This is where the whole save-money-by-doing-it-yourself argument goes south. Because, culturally, we have long expected women to do domestic work to earn their keep, we still balk at paying for many things that women could do themselves. But if you are in the labor force at all, your time is worth something. Even if you are caring for children full-time, you could make money by babysitting the neighbors' children on occasion. Yet we largely fail to build the opportunity cost of our time into our budget calculations.

In the Wall Street Journal's vegetable patch article, South Carolina resident Sarah Rosenbaum marveled that "You get a pack of seeds for a dollar or two, and you have got a whole bed of organic vegetables for a fraction of what you'd pay at the store. And they taste better."

The latter is definitely true. If you're planting a garden for taste, or for fun - as an alternative to TV watching in your free time - that's great. But as far as home economics goes, that's a different matter.

Vermont resident Michelle von Turkovich told the Journal that she started gardening after noticing that her monthly grocery bill was topping $800 (she has three teenagers). She also said that tending her 10-by-12-foot plot takes a lot of time - at least an hour after work each day, and half the weekend. Let's say this is 10 hours a week.

In Barbara Kingsolver's best-selling memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she calculated that the value of the vegetables, chickens and turkeys her family harvested during a year of labor on their small farm was $4,410. That's a fair chunk of change. But it comes out to $85 a week - including meat. If a part-time farm contributes $85 a week in meat and produce, it's unlikely that a 10-by-12-foot vegetable patch is going to produce more than $25 of weekly savings. At 10 hours a week, that comes out to less than minimum wage - which explains why gardening remains a hobby for most people.

Sewing clothes is also a hobby. For a growing percentage of Americans, cooking is becoming a hobby, rather than a necessity, too. Victory gardens notwithstanding, over time, most of what's long been deemed women's work will take on this status as well.