Local on a Budget: Food

Giuseppe Arcimboldo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The Greengrocer,” by Giuseppe Arcimboldo
This fellow ate his vegetables!

Food might be the most rewarding thing to source locally:  Slicing a fresh tomato from your garden or from the local farm stand, you taste the land, air, and rain all bundled up in that gorgeous red package.  This tomato is as good as it is because of the land it was grown on and the care taken by the farmer (or by you).  You literally cannot get a tomato just like it anywhere else in the world.

Now, let’s get something over with:  Mass-produced pasta and tomato sauce is cheaper than local, fresh food.  Yup.  And I’m not going to claim that it’s not.  That being said, eating local isn’t just for rich folks going out to dinner at that fancy restaurant with duck liver and such.  Eating local can be practical, as well as delicious and nourishing.

It does help to keep an open mind about what abundance looks like.  For a while now, Americans have figured that abundance meant things like meat or eggs at every meal and brand name cookies for dessert.  I think abundance looks like mason jars full of grains and beans that I bought in bulk at the local co-op.  It looks like a box full of in-season vegetables when I pick up my CSA.  It looks like a big mug full of tea made from the lemon balm plant in my yard.

As a reminder, you don’t have to do everything at once.  Just change one thing this month.  (It’s a great time for picking your own apples at your local apple orchard, for example.)  And then one more thing next month.  Take one step at a time.

With food, as with other products, there are a couple different “levels” of local.  The questions to ask are:  Was this food grown/raised locally?  If a prepared food, was it prepared locally?  Is the retailer (e.g. a grocery store) a local business?  The more “yes” answers on your shopping list, the better.

And finally, for the tips:

    • Buy produce directly from the folks who grow it.  As much as I love co-ops, it tends to be a lot cheaper to buy produce at a farmer’s market (or even better, at the farm) than in a grocery store.
    • Don’t worry about certifications.  Instead, talk to the farmer.  Part of the reason organic produce is more expensive is that it’s expensive to get certified.  If you find a local farmer who uses organic or near-organic methods, don’t worry about whether or not they have that USDA stamp.
    • If in doubt, buy something that grows where you live, and buy it in season:  E.g. Can’t decide between apples or mango?  If you live in the northeast, buy apples.  They’ll be cheaper, and you’ll probably get a better specimen of fruit.  Likewise, enjoy the yearly glut of tomatoes in the late summer, a time when they’re plentiful and so less expensive.
    • If you have the space for a garden, start one.  Even if it’s a small space.  Even if it’s just a couple of pots of herbs that you can use to season your food or make tea.  In fact, my advice is to start small, see what works for you, and perhaps upsize in future years.
    • Buy from the bulk section.  Most health food stores have a bulk food section for dry goods.  These are often very reasonably priced, since you’re not paying for packaging or brand name advertising.  Also, you can get only the amount you need.  So, if you rarely use nutmeg, and just need a teaspoon for a particular recipe, all you need to buy is a teaspoon.  It’s much cheaper than buying a whole jar!
    • Reconsider how much meat you eat.  Many Americans eat hearty servings of meat at least twice a day.    Dr. Andrew Weil says,

      As little as two ounces of a protein-rich food a day may be enough to prevent protein deficiency in most adults; four ounces will certainly do it. That means a four-ounce serving of meat or fish or chicken or cheese or tofu. (Click for source.)

      That means that we can cut back on meat a lot – or entirely if you choose to do so – and still be healthy.  Since meat is expensive, this is a great way to save.  One option is to halve your meat consumption, but eating really good local meat when you do.  You can also try using less expensive cuts of meat.

    • Think about joining a CSA. With CSAs (it stands for “Community Supported Agriculture”), you pay up front for a share in a farm’s produce at the beginning of a season.  Then, you pick up your share every week or so during the season, either at the farm or at another local pick-up location.  You usually get more produce than you could have bought at retail for the same amount of money.  Take the time to research different CSAs, talk to farmers about what their CSA is like, and if you can talk to folks who have taken part in CSAs.  Each one is different, but they can be a lot of fun and a great way to save some cash and make shopping for veggies really easy.
    • Buy basics, then cook it up yourself. Bread. Beans. Soups & stews.  These things are all so much cheaper when you buy the basic ingredients and then cook them up yourself.  Don’t have time to wait for bread to rise?  I am a huge fan of a basic Irish brown bread – and one of the best things about it is that it’s a quick bread.  Dry beans are super cheap – and super easy to cook, then freeze for later.  Soups and stews are amazing catch-all dishes to make with leftovers or whatever you picked up at the farmer’s market.  They’re also a great way to stretch meat.  How about a kale & sausage soup? Or a beef & potato stew?  You don’t have to use a lot of meat to make it taste rich and feel indulgent.  Lentil soup might be the cheapest yet most satisfying dish ever.  It’s also super easy to make your own vegetable broth, and it’s a good way to use up carrot greens and many other vegetable bits that you’re unlikely to eat.
      If you’ve never tried cooking with a slow cooker, try now.  Your crock pot may be your new best friend.
      This part takes some time, but it makes a big difference in your budget – and in the quality of food you end up with.
    • Check out your local options  for discounted food.  There’s a store that’s local to me that sells, among other things, blocks of cheese that aren’t perfectly rectangular, dinged cans of food and other items with damaged packaging, and yogurt that’s nearing its expiration date.  The store itself is local, and a fair amount of the food they sell is produced locally.  Their discounts help balance our food budget.  Some stores and markets sell bruised or about-to-be-overripe fruit or veggies at a discount.  There’s always the possibility of bargaining at farmer’s markets, too, when folks are packing up – especially if you’re buying in quantity.  Ask around and see what the options are in your area.

The single most important tip I can give you is to talk to people:  your friends, your local farmers, the folks who work at the co-op, etc.  Maybe your neighbor knows about a great farm stand, or your coworker belongs to a CSA that she loves, or your cousin knows about a co-op that has great deals on cases of yogurt.  Shopping local on a budget takes some research, but that research can be as easy as a conversation if you ask around.  You might be surprised about what great resources your friends and neighbors are.

On the other hand, you might live in an area where people aren’t as conscious of shopping local.  It’s still worth asking around (after all, our grandparents bought from local farmers and butchers long before “Shop Local” became a trend), and it’s also a good idea to pass on the info you learn to others.  You might have to do a little extra footwork to find those great local farms and businesses, but you can be even more influential in keeping them around by passing on your own tips to your friends.

Q:  What are your tips for buying local food on a budget?
Q:  What does abundance look/smell/taste/sound/feel like to you?


Local on a Budget: Introduction

Les compteurs d'argent Nancy 3018

Shop Local: Don’t let these folks hoard all the dough!

I was on FB the other day when I noticed a friend’s status update.  He had postulated that the US is lacking in jobs because big companies have outsourced them to countries with cheaper labor.  Big Boxmarts buy the cheaper products that were made by folks in far-off places, and small local vendors just can’t compete.  Consumers buy from box-marts because they don’t want to pay for quality goods made by their neighbors when they can get cheap stuff made by underpayed labor abroad.  And so, the money we spend goes partly to those folks in far-off places, but mostly up the corporate ladder.  Because we buy cheap instead of buying local.
Veronese, Paolo - Juno Showering Gifts on Venetia (detail) - 1554-56

Take a lesson from Juno:
Patronize your patrons.

This all sounds pretty depressing, but it isn’t, because the opposite could be true:  We could buy local instead of cheap.  We might not be able to buy as much, and we might have to transition little by little, but we’ll be part of an upward spiral instead of a downward one.  Our purchases will go toward our neighbor’s paychecks, and when those neighbors buy local too, local businesses will thrive.  Then they’ll hire.  Unemployment will go down and meaningful employment will go up.  You know what else?  Small businesses are innovative.  Some of those exciting new ideas will create products that go beyond the local market, beyond the national market.  Soon, we’re making stuff the rest of the world wants, and money starts flowing into our town/state/region/country instead of out.

When the economy crashed, the government handed out stimulus money and hoped we’d spend it.  My only expertise is as an observer, but it seems to me that the problem isn’t that people aren’t spending:  It’s that they’re spending in all the wrong places.  I think choosing to shop local and independent can go a long way towards saving the world.

This is when most people object that buying local is expensive.  It can be, but it doesn’t have to be, and I say that from experience.  Keep an eye out for “Local on a Budget” posts.  Everyone can afford to buy local, and I’m going to tell you how.

In the meantime, here are some great resources for finding local and independent businesses this holiday season:
your local Local First organization
Indie Store Finder
Shop Small (a campaign by AmEx, which is not a small local company, but still a good resource)
Etsy
Storenvy
PoppySwap
Local Harvest