Post-grad life is full of surprises. One surprise for me was that I’d have to factor the cost of food into my monthly expenses. Throughout college, I had just relied on the university dining staff or roommates who helped me cook meals. With that crutch cruelly knocked away, I started to wonder, in my innutritious state, if it was possible to buy this local, seemingly healthier food on a budget.
The short answer is yes. The longer answer considers that life throws in a lot of uncertain factors when it comes to our access to food. Eating locally bought foods can still be difficult if you live in a dense urban community, if you’re extremely strapped for time, or you’re simply not used to having access to and cooking healthier foods.
That being said, it still is possible—it just may be more difficult for some than for others. The saving tips I’m going to give you are some of the simple things I’ve learned since I’ve embraced the crazy food trend (that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon) of buying locally.
What does it mean to “buy local”? (Hint: it’s not necessarily the same as organic)
Buying food locally isn’t like shopping at Whole Foods. At Whole Foods most of the food is certified organic, meaning the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has given it a stamp of approval. Locally grown foods will likely be organic, but not certified due to the price and lengthy process.
Whole Foods can be an expensive alternative to grocery stores due to shipping costs. Local farmers eliminate the hefty fees associated with shipping, but this also means they are limited to selling only what’s in season in their area.
Buying local can mean shopping at co-ops (which tend to be wildly expensive so I plan on staying away from them in this post), going to a farmer’s market, shopping at small local grocery stores, or even growing small (or large) portions of your own food.
Why is there such a heavy emphasis on buying from farms close to you?
Well, buying local doesn’t just help your health, it helps your community’s economy as well. It helps you get away from large food chains that underpay their employees and serve you food that doesn’t deserve the name. The aim of the “buy local” movement is to give local farmers and you the chance to buy food from people that actually care about it. Who doesn’t love someone who gets excited about food!
Here’s some simple changes to kick-start your journey to buying locally and spending less
Keep it in season
Most produce can be bought year around at traditional grocery stores, but shopping at farmer’s markets forces you to buy foods only when they’re in season.
When food is in season it’s being grown more frequently and in larger quantities, meaning it costs less for you to buy it.
Go to a farmers market
Farmers markets are the prime source of locally grown food. They consist of a bunch of farms who get together to sell some of their products all in one place. Farmers markets mostly stick to selling fruits, vegetables, and grow-your-own plants, so you’ll likely still need to go to the grocery store to get any other foods you typically eat.
If you go to a farmer’s market, one of the best money saving tips is to carry cash. While vendors now allow you to pay with a card (thanks to Apple’s register system), most still prefer you pay with cash. Carrying cash also helps make sure you can only spend what you have on hand.
Spend a little more on a little less
How often do you end up emptying your fridge of unopened, expired products? I know I do this too often and every time I tell myself that that next time I go shopping I won’t buy as much.
Since I have a habit of grocery shopping only when I’m hungry (exactly what you aren’t supposed to do), I’ve had a hard time keeping this promise. Recently, however, I’ve been doing a lot better in avoiding food waste, in part due to shopping at farmers markets. Some products are more expensive (although many of them are not), but by spending a little bit more (with that cash I bring instead of a credit or debit card) on less, I have no choice but to eat what I buy.
Grow your own food
There really isn’t a better way to eat local foods than taking them from your own backyard(or rooftop garden, or the pot on your windowsill). Yes, this requires planning ahead, but it can be surprisingly easy and cost-effective to grow foods like tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, and more on your own.
Depending on the size of your garden, the initial cost of growing your own food can seem like a lot, what with the fertilizer you have to by, equipment you need if you have a large garden, and the price of the seeds or seedlings themselves. However, if you’re like me and on a budget, sticking to a just a few plants or a very small garden can help you start to embrace eating locally without completely overdoing it.
For example, a tomato plant (either bought locally or at Lowes or Home Depot) ranges in price from $3-$10 for table-top size plant, and usually ends up giving you far more tomatoes than you can eat. Lettuce and cucumber plants are also around the same price.
Find local farms near you
If you can’t make the farmers markets, many local farms (if there are some near you) are open at more accessible times. There’s even a website that can tell you all the farms in your area.
Many farms also offer “Community Supported Agriculture” (CSA) programs. CSAs are a way for groups of people (or sometimes just you) to buy products from local farms, usually in the form of bundles of veggies or fruits that you pay a flat monthly or yearly fee for. Some farms even offer to deliver these products to you at a reasonable cost!
Prices vary based on the where you live and what size bundle you decide to get. Compared to the average food bill per year (around $2,100 for a single person on a budget), the couple hundred dollars you pay to get vegetables (farms around me cost between $200-$400 a year) every week is only a small percentage. There are even programs that connect individuals and families with low incomes to CSAs.
Reduce your travel costs
Buying locally can help you reduce the amount you travel to buy groceries, and in turn the amount you spend on gas. You can typically walk to farmers markets as they’re usually in the center of cities or towns, or you can try out smaller markets that are also often in more densely populated areas.
If you walk, you might have to start shopping more frequently because you can only buy what you can carry, but this helps you avoid spending money on foods you don’t really need.
There are other ways to save on food if you can’t buy locally
If you live in a place that doesn’t actually grow or sell local foods, there are still ways to find the best food at the best cost. Here are some helpful hints:
- Buy generic, store brand products. I promise you, they are almost always the same.
- Shop on the perimeter of the grocery store—not only are there fewer processed foods, but that’s often where they put a lot of on-sale items.
- Embrace cooking—Shopping more frequently and cooking more frequently reduce food waste and help you buy only what you need.
While buying locally requires a little extra time, you really can get more bang for your buck if you have access to farmers markets, CSAs, or the ability to grow your own food. Maybe it’s time to categorize the “buy local” movement not as a crazy trend, but as what it is: a way for you and your community to stay healthy physically and financially.