One of the questions that comes up when I tell people about my 250-mile diet is, “But isn’t it more expensive?” No, it’s not, but it could be. How I manage to keep it from being more expensive is a bit complicated. Bear with me, because the solutions I’ve come up with may contain a few useful tips for your own local eating adventures.
But first, I want to point out that the emperor has no clothes. The main reasons conventionally grown crops, standard supermarket items, and fast food restaurants are so cheap is because A) the main ingredient crops are heavily subsidized and B) underpaid labor.
Small farms growing a diversity of crops don’t get those government subsidies, and they tend to pay their labor fairly. So those higher prices you see at the farmers’ market are actually closer to the true cost of the food. And you are actually paying more for conventional food than you see on the price sticker, because at tax time, guess who pays for those subsidies?
The kicker is that I no longer eat any of those crops from subsidized agri-biz farms that underpay their workers. But I still have to pay for the subsidies at tax time. There should be a tax exemption for locavores!
Meanwhile, back at my urban homestead, here are some of the reasons I’m not paying any more for food than I used to before starting The 250. Some of them may not be options for you, but hopefully a few of them will help you keep your own local food costs reasonable:
1. Learn not just when things are in season, but when they are in peak season. For example, the season for tomatoes is summer and early fall, and indeed they are starting to show up at the markets now. But this early in the season, they are $3.50 lb. In peak season for tomatoes (August/September) not only does the price drop (to $1.50 lb. last year) but there are more and tastier varieties available. So I haven’t had a fresh tomato yet this summer. I’m holding out.
2. Grow your own. If you don’t have a garden or a windowbox or a fire escape or a roof (all excellent options for the urban home gardener), sign up for a plot in a community garden.
3. Join a CSA. The prices tend to be a bit lower than at the farmers’ markets. Also, most CSAs accept food stamps and offer low-income families discounted share prices.
4. Volunteer your time in exchange for food. I work as Site Coordinator for our CSA distributions almost every week during the growing season. In exchange, from June through November I get my vegetables and fruits for free.
5. Forage. Learning a few wild edible plants that grow in your area is fun and the food is free. Have I mentioned how good the mulberries and juneberries I’ve got stockpiled in my freezer are, or the fabulous haul of gourmet mushrooms I got last fall? If you’re interested but not sure where to start, Google wild edible plant classes and mycology clubs for your area.
6. Walk the whole farmers’ market before buying anything. For example, today the difference in prices for a dozen free range, organic eggs at the greenmarket ranged from $5.50 down to $2.75.
7. Join a food co-op. The one I belong to, the Park Slope Food Co-op, has signs letting you know which local farms certain items are from and the prices are up to 30% lower than elsewhere for the same locally grown products.
8. Eat animal products sparingly. I’m by no means a vegetarian and consider my main meat farmers, Nancy and Alan Brown at Lewis Waite Farm to be rock stars among local farmers. But there’s no question that meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy are among the priciest items to purchase on a local diet. I enjoy them all, but not daily anymore. The occasional vegetarian meal helps balance my budget.
9. Learn a few food preservation skills. Drying, freezing, pickling, canning…any of these methods allows you to stock up when something is at its peak and cheapest, and then enjoy it later in the year. It’s not nearly as complicated or scary as some people seem to think, and there are some excellent books out there to get you started. If you want to understand the science behind how to do it absolutely safely, Putting Food By is excellent. If you want to learn how to safely preserve food without having to learn canning skills, try Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning, or Wild Fermentation.
Last but not least, when you’re looking at the price of your locally grown and hopefully organic food consider what you’re not spending money on any more if you’re eating locally: Restaurants, delis, salad bars, coffee shops, take out, delivery…by the time you subtract most of those costs from your local foods grocery bill, you will find that it is much more reasonable than you’d think if you were just comparing cost per pound.