By Helen Cordes
Art by Fatima Ronquillo
Do you love local foods but fear that prices for fresh produce and other farmers market offerings will bust your food budget? Think again. You don’t have to give up fresh, local favorites that are unquestionably better for you, your family, local farmers and the planet. Simply take a few minutes to examine your total food costs and spending habits to see where your food dollars actually end up.
While it’s indeed true that prices for local foods are sometimes higher than those for supermarket foods, it’s also true that comparing local, sustainably grown foods—dollar for dollar—to conventional grub made cheaper through agribusiness volume discounts, government subsidies, use of chemicals and often-underpaid labor isn’t fair. Instead of going the apples-to-oranges route, consider adopting some savvy alternative tactics that could help lower your total food bill, sass up your social life and family together time and sharpen your culinary skills.
Here are some basics.
Revise routines. Often, the painless change of a few habits can free up cash to keep lovely local veggies and other farmers market fare in your kitchen.
Consider skipping the daily morning latte and spending five minutes brewing your own local fair-trade coffee. That could add up to a monthly savings of $30 or more—more than enough to fund the price differential between local and nonlocal. Or, if eating lunch out is a regular affair, bypass the typical $10 tab and instead invest 10 minutes packing a meal of a chewy, local baguette, goat cheese and seasonal fruit before heading out the door to work. For just one night a month that you treat yourself to dining out, try eating dinner at home instead, and reserve that likely tab of $50 or more for a load of local ingredients that could provide three or four meals. Brainstorm other areas to dislodge cash to fund local foods—sacrificing just one wee consumer lust item might save enough to allow you to shop the farmers market, worry-free, for quite some time!
Reinterpret dinner. Stretch your farmers market food dollars by easing in economical and filling ingredients to complement and enhance the superlative flavor of local meats and cheeses (typically the more expensive items on the shopping list), and bump up your kitchen know-how and creativity in the process. Instead of reserving ample plate real estate for a hefty grilled local steak, for example, toss thin, marinated steak slices in a colorful salad of mixed local greens alongside satisfying side dishes like pilaf or pureed sweet potatoes. If you’re craving hand-cured local bacon, infuse creamy fettuccini Alfredo with a handful of crumbles. And make savory local cheeses the crown jewel of a dish or snack: sautéed goat cheese medallions nestled aside salad, creamy chèvre dollops atop soup or shaved Manchego covering crunchy crackers.
Shop smartly for the best prices. “When a vegetable’s in season and I have a lot of it, it’s priced to move,” says Sunset Valley Farmers Market vendor Don Miller of CAEDA Farms in Elgin. One crisp September morning, the prices on piles of voluptuous red, orange and purple peppers, sleek eggplants, crunchy cucumbers, bountiful basil bouquets and juicy tomatoes fresh off the vine ran neck and neck with, or below, supermarket costs at both the Sunset Valley and Austin farmers markets.
Buy extra prime-priced produce to create easy meals down the road. Most any veggie cottons to roasting or sautéing with garlic and olive oil, or blanch briefly before tucking away into freezer containers. Throw any veggie combo into the soup pot with some beans or the bones of a roast chicken for a hearty, freezable soup. For seasonal fruits, gorge on the bargains and freeze the excess. Picture seasonal blackberries re-emerging as slurry atop ice cream; peaches in a crumble; persimmons simmered into gorgeous jam.
Save with commitment and conviviality. Becoming a member of a local farm’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program will bring just-picked produce to or near your door at prices often below the supermarkets’. And many CSA farms offer additional ways to economize even further. “We know times are hard,” says Brenton Johnson of Johnson’s Backyard Garden, whose CSA bounty is available for nearby pickup to 700 Austin households. He ticks off several additional innovations incorporated into his business practice that help get fresh goods into consumers’ hands, like work-share mornings when nonsubscribers can work in exchange for a box of produce, and special deals on excess produce and cheap veggie plant starts for customers.
Lisa Quintero, a registered dietician, finds that the information exchanged between fellow volunteers during work-share mornings at Johnson’s is a wonderful way to learn tasty new ways to cook veggies. And since losing her job, Sara Ewing, a biochemist, has discovered that getting veggies through work-share and splitting the haul, along with eggs from her backyard chickens, with friends is a great way to build community. The money-saving share concept extends beyond produce. Chipping in with friends to divide a half, quarter or eighth of a side of beef from Wild Type Ranch in Cameron, for instance, puts prices for pastured beef well below retail.
Delivery services such as Greenling Organic Delivery and Farmhouse Delivery can bring local foods galore to your doorstep—cheeses, meats, breads, cooking staples, produce and more—simplifying and saving shopping time. And of course, growing your own food in a home garden, or even a pot of basil propped on a sunny windowsill, is money in the bank.
Don’t forget that the money spent at farmers markets is for food—not the packaging, processing and marketing of food—and it goes directly to the farmer. So if you find yourself trudging toward the discount superstore for supper, stop to consider that a few small tweaks can keep your food budget, and you, shipshape. Investing in sustainable eating ensures that more healthful choices and opportunities will remain available and strong for all of us now and in the future.
About the art: See painting by Fatima Ronquillo during Wally Workman Gallery’s Feasting exhibition, December 5–24. It will also be featured at Eat Local Week Fine Food Art Night, on Thursday, December 10 at the gallery, 6–8 pm. A portion of sales will benefit Urban Roots.