Locavore basics

Eight budget tips for going local

April 16, 2010

The stereotype of someone who can afford to eat local, organic ingredients is a foodie with lots of free time and disposable income. That’s not me.

I try to eat mostly foods raised sustainably within 250 miles of where I live, but I don’t have time or cash to spare. What I’ve learned is that a local, organic diet can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. For example, from June to November, I get all of my fruits and vegetables for free (more about how to do that below).

It’s worth remembering that those seemingly cheap prices for conventionally raised foods are an illusion, because you pay the price at tax time, via government subsidies that support chemical agriculture but not small farms practicing sustainable agriculture. I wish there were a tax deduction for locavores who don’t eat the conventional foods subsidized by those taxpayer dollars, but since there isn’t, here are a few of the ways I’ve discovered to eat local on a budget.

  1. Grow or forage your own grub. Gardening is the ultimate local-foods diet, matched only by foraging for wild edible plants. There are delicious wild fruits and vegetables as well as gourmet mushrooms growing right at your feet, even if you live in the city. Usually overlooked as “weeds,” these free foods are yours once you learn some simple but essential identification skills. Sign up for one of the wild-edibles classes offered nationwide, and you’ll soon be safely harvesting the free food growing all around you.
  2. No room, time, or interest in gardening? Get involved with a CSA. If you can volunteer a few hours a week for a few weeks each year, you may be able to get a community-supported agriculture (CSA) share totally free. CSAs depend on a core group of volunteers who are responsible for tasks that range from bookkeeping to website maintenance to communicating with the farmer. In exchange, most CSAs offer core members discounted or free vegetable shares, depending on how much time they put in. (I volunteer five hours a week as site coordinator for my CSA for eight weeks, in exchange for which I get my vegetable share for free. If I put in more weeks than that, I also get my fruit share for free.) Many CSAs also offer discounted shares to low-income families, and most CSAs accept EBT payments at a discounted membership rate. Ask if discounted shares are available at your local CSA, and be prepared to show some proof of your income status to qualify.
  3. Even with a CSA, you might need extras. Be a savvy shopper at the farmers’ market. Walk through the entire farmers’ market before you buy anything, checking to see what looks the best and which stalls have the lowest prices. Often there’s a huge difference in price for the same vegetable between one farm’s stall and the next.
  4. Pay attention to peak seasonality. Each crop has a season and a peak season. “Peak season” is when the produce is both tastiest and cheapest. For example, tomatoes appear at my farmers’ markets in June, but aren’t really at their tastiest or most affordable until August.
  5. homemade preserves
    Some of Leda Meredith’s homemade canned goods.
    Put up your harvest (or bulk purchases) for the cold months. By freezing, canning, pickling, or otherwise preserving summer's bounty, my locavore meals in wintertime are varied and delicious, and they balance the budget of what I spend during the warm months. The strawberries I froze when they were at their most luscious (and cheapest) become breakfast smoothies in January; the ratatouille I made with summer squash and eggplant becomes a quick pasta sauce long after squash and eggplant season is over. So pick up a few food-preservation skills, not only to add interest and nutrition to your winter diet but also to keep costs down.
  6. Waste not, want not. Instead of throwing apple cores and peels into the compost, I stockpile them in the freezer to make homemade apple vinegar and to use as pectin for jellies and jams. I also use my freezer to save vegetable trimmings and poultry, meat, and fish bones, which I turn into delicious stocks that later become soups and sauces. Carrot leaves, onion skins, parsley stems, and the tough green parts of leeks are among the usually thrown-out parts of vegetables that are great in stock.
  7. Eat fewer animal foods. Even sustainably, humanely raised animals and animal products require a heftier input of resources and labor than plants do. That’s why they’re the most expensive items at the farmers’ market. By eating vegetarian meals several times a week, even if you enjoy your dairy, eggs, or meat on the other days, you’ll significantly reduce your food costs.
  8. Eat at home. And no, takeout doesn’t count. If your lifestyle till now has included more than one restaurant, takeout, or delivery meal a week, then cooking at home will definitely save you money.

Leda Meredith is the author of the new book The Locavore’s Handbook.

There are 9 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by jane on Apr 16, 2010 at 3:01 PM PDT

Thanks this is timely as people talk more and more about the unaffordability of local produce. I especially like #4 and #6. Many people balk at the prices, and even as farmers market junkie, I forget that prices shift the more peak the season gets. My favorite is romas at $1.50/lb in September. That’s when I make sauce.

I would also add that adding costlier produce as an ingredient in a grains dish, for example, can give a little spark of flavor and contrast instead of buying enough to stand on its own.

2. by nekobasu on Apr 16, 2010 at 8:05 PM PDT

Great story, and warms my heart to see others with the same approach to eating well on a budget. :-)

3. by debra daniels-zeller on Apr 22, 2010 at 8:17 PM PDT

I love your book, it’s filled with so many helpful hints. I find I spend less if I grow things that are easy to grow and shell out some money for eastern Washington peppers, melons and eggplants. And always save enough of the summer bounty to last through winter and spring.

4. by Masha Hayward on Apr 27, 2010 at 6:07 PM PDT

Love this article and linked to it from my blog, thanks for the great tips!

5. by Sally on May 18, 2010 at 2:00 PM PDT

I try to eat locally, grow a garden, utilize the gardener’s market, and just bought my first CSA chicken yesterday. But do tell more about using apple cores to make vinegar!?

6. by Jill McKeever on May 20, 2010 at 8:31 AM PDT

Excellent tips! Thank you, Leda!
I didn’t know about #2 and how to work for food shares. What a great way to get our kids involved with farming and community service.

7. by anonymous on Oct 28, 2010 at 10:28 PM PDT

Great tips. I vote up to eat up at home.

8. by anonymous on Nov 4, 2010 at 10:37 AM PDT

the best thing to do is to google “produce auction” and your state, and/or surrounding states. there are auctions where you can buy large amounts of veges and fruit for less than wholesale, support the local farmers and take home local produce that has not been radiated, or in any way tampered w,like grocery store produce.

there is one here. we go every Thursday, and in winter, it is indoor and somewhat heated. there is another one about sixty miles away, on the same day, where you can buy resturant style steaks, etc, at less than wholesale, to stock up on other types of products.
I can the produce. my stockroom is beautiful.

9. by Fasenfest on Dec 17, 2010 at 7:06 AM PST

Produce Auctions? Here in Oregon? I have read of them in MO and TN but don’t immediately know of them here but I would love to.

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [http://www.example.com "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Culinate 8

Kale in the raw

Eight versions of kale salad

Eight ways to spin everyone’s favorite salad.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Most Popular Articles

Editor’s Choice