The Cost Factor

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.

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Red Currant Jam

The red currants in my garden are a day or two away from perfectly ripe:

Fresh currants are a perfect example of why an urban garden is worth it: they never show up at supermarkets, rarely and in small amounts at farmers’ markets and CSA’s. If you don’t have a garden, don’t tune out yet. Currents do great in containers and fruit well on only a few hours of sunlight (maybe your fire escape, or is there a community garden nearby that you could get a plot in?).

What is a fresh currant like? Ruby red and jewel-translucent. Sharply tart, providing a nice contrast to sweet fruits and desserts. Freezes beautifully with no special pre-treatment required (and a handful of frozen fresh currants tossed over a dessert in winter will make you the hit of the party, trust me.)

James Mackinnon, one of the authors of Plenty, came up with a quick gooseberry salsa that would be just as good with red currants. Both gooseberries and fresh currants are as good in savory dishes as sweet.

But here is a classic pairing because they’re both ripe at the same time, Strawberry & Red Currant Jam. The currants provide pectin and the tartness that most strawberry jam recipes rely on lemon juice for (lemons don’t grow around here):

Strawberry-Red Currant Jam

2 parts strawberries, coarsely chopped

1 part fresh currants or gooseberries

2 Tablespoons water

Simmer, stirring often, until as thick as you like your jam.


Local honey to taste.

That’s it, unless you want to extend its shelf life, in which case either refrigerate for up to two months or process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

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Upcoming Talks, Readings, & Foraging Walks

I promise to get back to the nitty gritty of The 250 with my next post, but right now I’m hoping you’ll be able to make it to one of several upcoming events on local food that I’m participating in:

I’ll be speaking about local foods along with Joan Gussow, one of my heroes, at the Play4Life benefit this Thursday.

My publisher tells me that my book, Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch, although not scheduled for publication until July 15th, may be in my hands by the end of this week. On Sunday June 29th, I’ll be talking about The 250-Mile Diet and also reading from the book for the Green Edge Supper Club.

0n July 19th, I’ll be leading a wild edible plants tour of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY for Green Edge. And last but certainly not least, I’ll be speaking and doing a reading and book signing at Bluestockings on July 21st.

If you’re interested, details on all these events are here.

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These Were A Few of My Favorite Things

Yesterday was the first distribution of shares at our CSA. As always, this early in the season the offerings included lots of greens. We got lettuce, bok choy, and kale. We also got radishes, turnips (with the greens, which are good eating when cooked), garlic scapes, basil, and strawberries. One young CSA member couldn’t wait till she got home to dig into the strawberries:

In the CSA newsletter there were two recipes that reminded me that even in a group of local food enthusiasts, The 250 makes my eating habits a little different. The first recipe was for Kale with Balsamic Vinegar and Capers. I can get a local balsamic vinegar, but capers are the immature flower bud of a Mediterranean vine.

Part of being a locavore is getting creative with what you do have, so if I really want to make that recipe, I could try some other tangy food instead of the capers. Maybe finely chopped cornichon pickles?

The second recipe was for Sesame Bok Choy with Scapes. Well, I don’t have dark sesame oil anymore (nobody seems to be growing sesame seeds locally, never mind making oil from them). There was fresh ginger in the recipe (which comes from Indonesia). I could substitute some wild ginger for that. But the ingredient that made me pause and realize how much has changed for me was cashews.

Cashews are, or used to be, one of my favorite foods. They were my go-to snack if I was hungry after a long work day–I’d buy some from a subway platform vendor and munch away while waiting for the train. Unfortunately, they come from South America and I live in New York. My culinary creativity comes up short trying to think of a substitute: nothing else tastes like a cashew.

But what is interesting is that until I read that recipe I hadn’t thought about cashews since starting The 250-Mile Diet ten months ago. I don’t even glance at them when I walk past the platform vendors. This got me to thinking about other favorite foods that I haven’t missed because I just don’t think about them anymore: bananas, avocados, peanut butter…I’m sure I’d still love them, but I think I have to declassify them as “favorite foods” because it was surprisingly easy to forget them.

I’ve been too busy celebrating each new favorite food as it shows up with the season, most recently asparagus, sugar snap peas, strawberries, Hudson Valley camembert cheese, and mulberries. It seems my taste buds are more excited about what they can have than what they can’t.

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This Fruit Is Not Forbidden

Yesterday I checked on the white mulberry tree three blocks away from me that last year yielded loads of free fruit. Sure enough, there were lots of ripe berries waiting for me. I started collecting them, mildly nervous that the man watching me from the front steps of the nearest building might challenge what I was doing. Instead, he walked over and held down the branches for me so that I could get at the harder to reach fruit. This is David next to a branch of the white mulberry tree:

While I picked mulberries and David held down the branches for me, he told me how glad he was to see someone else picking the fruit.

“I mean, I eat it but the owners of the building just bitch about it [the fruit] dirtying the sidewalk. Where I come from, everyone has fruit trees in the front yard. Here, there are lots of fruit trees in the city but no-one eats the fruit. It’s crazy!”

I completely agree. Many of the front yard and park trees in cities were deliberately planted with the expectation that citizens would take advantage of the harvest (there’s a reason Mulberry Street in Manhattan is called Mulberry Street). Over time, people either forgot that the fruit was edible or trusted supermarkets more than their own ability to correctly identify the fruit their grandparents ate.

There is an interesting group devoted to collecting fruit in urban areas, Fallen Fruit.

There are trees near you offering free food, originally intended to provide exactly that food, being ignored. If there is a tree near you bearing fruit and you want to know whether or not it is edible (the first rule of foraging is “if in doubt, throw it out!”), email me a photo. There may be a free, local, delicious windfall in your future.

On a different note, here is an event I’m speaking at later this month:

June 29th – Green Edge Supper Club:

Urban Forager and Committed Locavore, Leda Meredith

$5 pay via our website, or $8 at the door

Leda Meredith, educator, activist and savvy local food expert, will be inspiring us with her experience of “The 250″ (she has been subsisting on a diet sourced from within a 250-mile radius of Park Slope, Brooklyn since August 2007), educating us on how we can do it too and sharing from her new book, Botany, Ballet and Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes.

Leda will also be leading Green Edgers on an urban foraging tour on July 19th!
For time, location details and to pre-pay at the discounted rate, please visit the Green Edge website.

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NY Post on Locavores & Foraging

Today’s New York Post ran an article by Carla Spartos on the foraging event I hosted for Slow Food and on locavores. It is encouraging to see what was recently viewed as a weird fringe lifestyle start to gain interest and acceptance.

I think food is unique in the what-can-I-do-to-help-save-the-planet department because along with reducing one’s carbon footprint and supporting small, local farms the food is just so darn good. I mean, using a refillable water bottle instead of buying daily plastic bottles is great (and I do so), but it doesn’t offer any immediate sensory reward. Whereas a pot of gumbo made with the sassafras leaves I picked for file powder just when they were at their fragrant peak…well, sometimes saving the planet does taste really, really good.

Here is a photo Zandy Mangold took of me with some of those sassafras leaves:

photo credit: Zandy Mangold

If you don’t live in NYC and can’t pick up a copy of the print version (or want to save a few trees), you can read the article online. There is also a sidebar on How to be a Locavore.

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Fruits of the Season

The calendar says it’s too soon for summer, but you’d never know it by the 95-degrees-in-the-shade weather we’re having. I don’t mind. Summer brings the glorious, colorful, succession of fruits and that makes me one happy locavore.

When people ask what has been the hardest part of The 250 so far, I always answer April, when it had been five months since I’d had any fresh fruit besides apples, and strawberries were still a month away. I already posted about the happy dance I did when the first strawberries turned up, so although I’m still enjoying strawberries I’ll go on to the next event in summer’s fruit parade: juneberries.

I picked the first ripe juneberries (Amelanchier sp.) this morning for breakfast. They look like blueberries but have a taste all their own. Juneberries grow in all of the city parks, but I didn’t have to walk farther than my garden for these.

On the way to the laundromat I spotted some mulberries (Morus sp.) about a week away from fully ripe. Those will be the next fruit of the season for me. I’ll eat some fresh but also freeze some to enjoy when I’m in the depths of apple season again.

But since it is technically still spring, and spring means flowers, I’ve been collecting those as well. Elderflowers (Sambucus canadensis) make a wonderful medicinal tea, but they also make a terrific sparkling wine and are pretty good as fritters, too.

I knew it was time to get out and harvest Basswood blossoms when I was walking home from the subway and was hit by a honey-scented breeze. Basswood, a.k.a. Linden (Tilia americana) makes a delicious calming tea. This basswood harvest, however, is going to be turned into wine thanks to a deal I’ve got with Ellen (I collect the flowers, she makes the wine, we share the result).

Strawberries, juneberries, mulberries…and soon the first raspberries and all the stone fruits and blueberries and pears! And then, of course, five months of apples. But let’s not think about that just yet.

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The Neighbors

Today I picked grape vine leaves that I’ll use to make dolmades (Greek stuffed grape leaves). While I was picking them, one of the caretakers at the daycare center next door to me peered through the fence to ask if I was going to stuff them and how I was going to cook them.

As I was clipping those grape leaves off the fence (not my vine, by the way: I’ve traced it as far as three yards over and can’t track it farther, but I’m grateful for it), she said,

“Are you picking those grape leaves to stuff them? I do that.”

“Yes, my grandmother is Greek so the stuffed grape leaf recipe is something I grew up with.”

“My family is Mexican, and I grew up with that recipe, too. Do you use rice, meat, and spices?”

“Yes! Exactly!

When I first moved here, I thought I’d plant the hops vine I’d transplanted from my previous garden to grow along the other fence opposite the day care center. Hops entwines on its own like crazy so I was baffled to see it failing until the day I met Machete Woman. She had a foot and a half long, shiny machete in one hand. She was carefully cutting my hops vine off our mutual fence, all the while muttering “don’t like nothin’ on the fence, don’t like nothin’ on the fence.”

Her own garden is interesting. She uses whatever she’s got for stakes for her tomatoes, mostly mop handles. Something she does is working: every year she has extra fruits and vegetables that she shares with me. I wish I could share a photo, but she’s camera shy. Actually, she wouldn’t talk to me at all until we established that I wasn’t just some white woman growing flowers. Once she knew I was growing vegetables and herbs, her whole manner toward me changed. A few days ago she asked, “Are you planting food this year?” And I said yes, I am.

Her name is Cameron. I count her as a friend and neighbor now.

I share my garden with the tenants of the next door apartment. One of their friends, a 20-something guy with blonde dreadlocks, was in the garden today when I came home.

“Last time I saw you, you gave us that elder flower sparkling wine. Man, that was over the top.”

This is in the middle of New York City, folks. Enough said.


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A Forager’s Tasting

Today I led a foraging event for Slow Food NYC. We started out identifying wild edible plants in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It was a lovely day for it, and aside from the part where I came out the wrong exit from the Ravine and thereby doubled the length of the walk back (oops), it was a lot of fun.

Among the edibles we ID’d: burdock a.k.a. gobo (Arctium lappa), wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica syn. Polygonum cuspidatum), white and red clovers (Trifolium spp.), cronewort a.k.a. mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), violet (Viola spp.), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata ), goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria), poke (Phytolacca americana), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), and wild rose (Rosa spp.).

The only plant I actually collected for myself today was sassafras leaves. The filee powder used to thicken and flavor Creole gumbo is nothing more than dried, ground sassafras leaves (and yes, Dad, I picked enough to send you some!)

After the foraging walk we went to Beer Table, a delightful Park Slope food and drink room that generously donated their space to Slow Food for the event. I had stopped by earlier in the afternoon to drop off the food I cooked yesterday for a tasting: chilled knotweed-sorrel soup with homemade yogurt

and buttermilk bread with acorn flour and red clover blossoms, served with some of Ronnybrook‘s fab butter.

Several people went for seconds on the soup, and the three loaves of bread pretty much disappeared, which made this cook happy.

I used up every single jar of home-canned stock I had in the house to make the soup. I thought about cheating and buying some boxed organic (but not local) from the store–after all the soup wasn’t technically for me. But it just felt wrong. Now I guess I’m either buying a chicken for the sole purpose of making stock, or I’m doing without until I can stockpile enough bones in the freezer for another batch. It was worth it.


Not sure what this is about? Read Getting Ready for the 250-Mile Diet and The Rules