Eating Locally on a Budget
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.