Is it possible to shop locally on a budget?

October 2006

Dear Laura,

I am starting to get the concept of buying direct from local family farmers and keeping my money in my community but I am worried that I can't afford it. Is it possible to shop locally on a budget?

Darleen McCoggins
Henderson, TN

Hi Darleen,

Good question! In fact, for a lot of people this is the question. "I want to do the right thing and buy good, fresh food but can I afford food from family farms?" At Farm Aid, we hear this question all the time: "Is the Good Food Movement" an elitist notion?

Well, farmers aren't elitist and their mixed greens certainly don't care what's in your wallet but your question deserves some hard evidence. So, this sunny Monday just outside of Boston I set off to find out if the price of local food divides us into the foodie haves and have nots.

Armed only with a pen and a pad of paper, I left the office to get some sun and jot down the price of food within a 5 minute radius of the Farm Aid office. To keep things simple, I limited my stops to two.

First stop: The Central Square farmers market in Cambridge, MA
The Central Square farmers market features local farms; some are certified organic and others are using sustainable farming practices but have chosen not to be certified organic. Regardless, across the market the vendors are working within a streamlined price structure. Despite the late date, I was able to collect a fairly wide range of products and their local price tag.

Second stop: A chain grocery store in Somerville, MA
After a bit of wandering, I was able to match the inventory of the grocery store to that of the farmers market. I used the prices only of conventional products - as their general size, weight and selection were consistent with what I studied at the farmers market.

My results were fascinating!

Product Farmers Market Price Grocery Store Price
Cauliflower $1.50/lb $1/lb
Apples $1.50-2.50/lb $1.29-$2.49/lb
Pears $2/lb $1/lb
Tomatoes $3/lb all heirlooms $2.79-2.99/lb
Salad mix $4/bag $3.29-3.99/bag
Corn on the cob $1/4 ears $1.99/4 ears
Assorted Squash $.75-1/lb $.99/lb
Bell Peppers $1/3 peppers $3.99/lb(about two peppers)
Eggplant $1/lb $3.99/lb
Broccoli $2/lb $1.79/lb
Carrots $2/bunch $1.50/bunch
Potatoes $1.50/lb $1/lb
Seasonal flowers $8/bunch $6.99-14.99/bunch

As you can see, the prices are not vastly different between the two lists. There are bargains at both markets. Corn on the cob, for example, is half the price at the farmers market. Bell peppers and eggplant also win out at this particular veggie booth while pears, potatoes and carrots are all slightly less at the grocery store. Keeping in mind, produce prices are directly linked to seasonal availability and weather.

So, now we know: It is possible to buy local, often organic products, without taking a hit on your wallet. Also, it is worth noting that there is a national Farmers Market Nutrition Program specifically designed to help low income families shop at local markets. Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico currently participate in this program. Right now, the cap for each participant is $30/year but it is a solid start in the right direction. To learn more ask the market manager or one of the farmers at your local farmers market.

Now, for the super budget plan! Community Supported Agriculture Programs (CSA) are very popular here in the Northeast and are catching on all over the country. CSAs allow you to become a shareholder in the farm at the beginning of the growing season. In return you get a box of fresh-from-the-field fruits veggies and flowers every week through the growing season.

This year, determined to put my money where my mouth is to the best of my budgetary ability, I joined a new CSA that my co-worker Mark Smith helped found in Milton, MA. Granted, this plan assumes that you are able to get to the farm, which is about twenty minutes out of the city limits - a ride that was certainly doable on my bicycle until the share started coming in a huge box and three grocery bags. It might not work for everyone but it definitely wins five stars on the budget scale!

One share cost $400 and my boyfriend and I split the share with another couple; each of our households paid $200 for the season. I couldn't believe it when I did the math. We have had pick-ups on the farm for about 18 weeks, which works out to $11.11 per household, per week.

For that $11/week, I have been inundated with food: greens, herbs, flowers, broccoli, watermelon, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, beets, leeks, onions, potatoes, green beans, peas, scallions, fennel, cabbage, cauliflower - if it grows in New England, we ate it. Beyond what was packed, boxed and bagged for us each week, the farmer also left large piles of extra tomatoes, squashes and herbs every week for anyone who wanted more. The result of joining a CSA was a summer free of grocery shopping (for veggies at least) and a freezer full of local, organic food that should last well into the winter. I am a very happy customer.

Not everyone has a farmers market five minutes from their office or a CSA farm that is a hop, skip, and a jump from the city center. But now that you know how budget friendly local food can be, make some noise. Talk to some friends, find a farmer or a gardener, host a community meeting. Send an Ask Laura - "How do I start my own CSA?" "Who do I talk to about getting a farmers market in my town?" By next year you could discover a whole new meaning for the phrase "zucchini season."

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