Eating Local Foods: Doesn’t that Cost a Lot?

One of the most common questions I get when I talk about our family’s commitment to eating locally-grown foods is: doesn’t that cost a lot of money?

The answer is a complex one. So complex, actually, that I have hesitated to even attempt writing about it for several months. For all you TL;DR peeps, I’d say the answer is a pretty solid “yes and no.” I really need more words to get more specific than that.

I’ll start with the yes. We used to eat quite a bit of meat. Mitch and I have both spent our entire lives as meat-lovers. Most of ours meals, like many Americans, focused on meat, with vegetables and starches falling to the fringes of the plate. When we started eating local foods, meat became pretty expensive and it showed in our monthly grocery budget.

I’m not complaining. The cost of that meat was absolutely justified. Not only did it taste better, but it was heather for bodies, easier on our planet, and kinder to our animal friends. Feeding animals quality foods costs more. Refraining from stuffing them into too-small, overcrowded, inhumane spaces costs more. Sustainable production of meats costs more. Period.

And many local processed foods cost more too. Cheese Nips were always one of my favorite snacks, so when I discovered that cheese straws are a thing (I love the South) and found a local producer who makes a mean batch, they were a common cart add-on, despite the fact that they were about three times the cost (again, rightfully) as my supermarket-bought favorite. Don’t even get me started on the cookies, pies, and cakes.

After a while, those costs became a little too much for our family to handle on a monthly basis, but we didn’t go back to buying the cheaper alternatives (lest you think we’re perfect: my kids enjoy Goldfish and eat them occasionally). Instead, we started eating processed foods and meat as I believe Nature intended them to be eaten: in moderation. Instead of a weekly staple, cheese straws because a monthly treat. Pies made with fresh, local fruit are reserved for holidays in the summer months when fruit is more readily available (and thereby less expensive). And the majority of dinners we plan these days are meat-free dishes that highlight the abundant local vegetables of spring and summer (thanks, No Meat May!).

Now, let me move onto to the other half of my TL;DR answer: no. When you look at fresh produce, I consistently find that produce from local farmers does not cost more than comparable products on the shelf at your local grocery store. With that said, you have to shop a little. I like to think of researching the prices and availability at the Farmer’s Market (or in weekly newsletters and social feeds of farms I follow) as a supermarket’s version of couponing. Except, instead of downloading apps, clipping digital offers, or cutting out paper coupons, I’m walking around outside, meeting interesting vendors, and listening to great local musicians. Score.

But shopping around isn’t the most critical piece of the puzzle if you want to save money eating local foods. You have to change the way you think about meal planning. You’re going to pay a lot more to make your cauliflower pizza crust in the heat of summer than you will in the cooler spring months when farmers are harvesting it. When you spontaneously swap zucchini noodles in for pasta during the summer (and sauté the stuff as a side for every meal) when even your neighbor with the semi-green thumb can’t eat all the zucchini she’s grown, that’s when the savings start rolling in. If you want to make really affordable meals with the most delicious, high-quality ingredients, you have to be flexible and willing to adjust your meal plan to use what the farmers are harvesting right now.

We signed up for the PlumFresh subscription box this year, which is a weekly bag of produce from one of our favorite local farms: Plum Granny Farm. Each week, Cheryl and Ray send out an email with what they’ll be harvesting for the subscription, as well as additional vegetables that can be swapped or added in. Once they get everyone’s requests, they harvest and bring the bags to the Farmer’s Market for pick-up. When we get there, we skip the line and get our bag, which is fully loaded with high-quality, organic vegetables from people we’re on a first-name basis with. They even include storage tips and their favorite recipes to use with the produce.

This week’s box was $37.50 and included heirloom tomatoes, snacking cucumbers, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, bunching onions, kale, squash and basil. Take a look at all that beautiful produce. I promise that you can’t beat the taste of these freshly harvested vegetables. They don’t taste like what you’ll find at the supermarket. But it turns out, you can’t beat the price either.

On the way home, we stopped at the grocery store because I wanted to see what the same items would cost at the place where many people in our community do the majority of their grocery shopping (I won’t name the chain, but it’s a middle-of-the-road grocery retailer in my area, not as pricey as Whole Foods or as inexpensive as Walmart).

Plum Granny Farm is proudly certified organic (which isn’t easy for small, organic growers, by the way!), so I shopped in the organic section. Kohlrabi wasn’t available at this store (but did find it on the website of a competitor, so I used the competitor’s price) and the green onions they had are much smaller, less flavorful, and obviously not the same as the beautiful purple bunching onions in our box, but I used their price anyway ($0.99 per bunch), as it was the best I could find in the store or online. Here’s what I found when I compared items (based on prices per pound at the grocery store!):

You might be thinking that you can get that list of produce for way less at a discount retailer or in the conventional produce section, and you’d be right. But, I wanted to do my best to compare to the most similar product available, and in this case that meant shopping organic.

Obviously, getting a great deal on food isn’t the top reason to shop local and know your farmer. I won’t get into all the reasons why we love eating local foods (because I did that last year!), but I will say this: I have never felt healthier than I do eating this way and I am honestly happy to be able to spend our grocery budget each month supporting the local farmers whose values are in line with my own and whose stewardship of our environment is unparalleled.

I will also say that I think it is shameful that this kind of food isn’t as readily accessible to everyone in our country. I encourage you to find the organizations working to change that in your local community (like Middle of the Root here in Winston-Salem) and support them in their mission with your time and resources, if you can.

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