Eating Locally on a Budget

By Philip Brewer on 22 July 2007 (Updated 7 July 2010) 7 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

Eating locally is trendy right now, and for good reasons. Local food is fresher, healthier, better tasting, better for your community, and better for the planet. Unfortunately, locally produced food is often priced like a yuppie specialty item rather than a basic staple. I've been looking for ways to add more locally grown food to our diet without breaking our budget.

My wife and I started down the path of a more local diet after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. It's a great book that analyzes industrial agriculture and organic agriculture, then compares those to locally grown food. It makes a good case that choosing local food is more important than choosing organic food, whether you make the choice for health reasons or for ethical reasons.

What originally brought the topic to my attention, though, was The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating recently published in the US as Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. I haven't even read it yet, but that book triggered a whole movement of people who chose to eat more locally--there's a lot of stuff on the web on the 100-Mile Diet. They weren't the first, of course. The Slow Food Movement has been an advocate for eating locally for a long time.

The most local you can get, of course, is to have a garden. My wife and I live in an apartment, though, and don't have a garden. Even if you don't garden yourself, you can often get some garden produce from friends and neighbors--people almost always have a bumper crop of something that exceeds their ability to consume it. For us, though, eating locally generally means eating stuff from the farmers market.

I was going to write a piece on how to shop frugally at the farmers market, but really there's not much to say about how to. You do it the same way you eat frugally from the grocery store:

  • Pay attention to prices. Maybe even keep records of prices of items at different stores--and the farmers market--so that you know when you've got a good deal.
  • Buy what's cheap. Don't decide in advance what you're going to fix. See what's cheap first, then decide how to make a meal of it.
  • Think more produce, less meat. Our farmers market has free range chickens, pork, beef, lamb, and exotic meats like elk and bison. It's all good stuff, and I'm much happier knowing the people who raise the animals, but the cost difference versus the grocery store is a lot bigger than the cost difference for the peppers, sweet corn, and salad greens.

The fact of the matter is that locally grown food is going to cost more than food that's either subsidized by the government (direct payments to farmers, indirect subsidies like government sponsored irrigation projects) or grown overseas with low-cost labor and then transported with fuel that (even at current prices) is incredibly cheap. (At least, it's going to seem incredibly cheap in another few years.)

We're trying to be as frugal as reasonably, but we try to remember that frugality isn't the only important thing in life. Supporting your community is worth doing (even aside from the dividends that it will pay going forward, which are also important). Staying healthy is even more important. Really good food is one of the great pleasures in life. We think of going to the farmers market as entertainment, as is eating a great meal.

Food is too important to outsource it all to the lowest bidder.

For lots more information on eating local food--and doing so on a budget--there's a great site on exactly that topic: the Eat Local Challenge.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

Nice post. I've touched on this a tad in another piece I'm working on, but certainly not as in depth as you just have.

We are trying our hand at a small raised bed behind the cottage. It is tough growing anything in an apartment, I hear you. The only thing I was ever able to manage in that situation was herbs and maybe some hot peppers.

Good job.

Philip Brewer's picture

Our community has some garden space available for apartment dwellers. It's even close enough to walk from our apartment. But there's no place to store tools there, and it's really farther than we want to walk carrying an armload of hoes and rakes and spades and such. When we had to drive to get there, we ended up finding it neither so gentle on the planet nor a whole lot of fun. We only did it one year.

Good luck with your garden! 

Julie Rains's picture

Roadside stands or people with gardens and a house near the street seem to be making a comeback or perhaps I am noticing them more in an effort to eat local but not drive 1/2 hour to the farmer's market. Officially, I live in the city but the areas surrounding it have a strong rural influence and many people have gardens. You have to be careful about their prices also; some people are resellers but many people are just trying to sell from their abundance and will offer good deals.

Philip Brewer's picture

My family always bought from roadside stands. I don't so much these days because I tend to bicycle a lot and don't pass as many, but they're often incredibly cheap at the peak of the season.

 

Guest's picture
Jennywenny

I love my CSA package that I get every other week from a local farm, bewise ranch in San Diego. I think its probably cheaper than the supermarket and the heirloom toms started this week. mmmmm

Philip Brewer's picture

I'm sure it varies a lot from community to community, and its suitability varies from family to family, but where there's a match it's a great choice.

Guest's picture
Kristen

One farmer grows without any chemicals and sells everything he grows for a dollar a pound. These farmers are within a 30 mile radius and the food is usually picked that morning or the evening before; however, the limited hours completely conflict with my schedule. I sometimes skip one of my Saturdays morning workout classes to stock up, but usually I shop at a slightly pricier local market at the end of my street. It's family owned and buys in smaller quantities still from within the state. They also sell raw milk , legal in this state, and keep their coolers really cold so my milk keeps until I finish the whole gallon.
Last year we lived in Morgantown, WV and the farmers market was about 40% higher than the SC farmers market. I still shopped there because or the high quality and freshness. The prices only slightly higher than WV groceries but again the quality and freshness far surpassed the grocery.