Is Local Food a Frugal Choice?

bag of groceries

Written By

Paula Melton

Written on

December 01 , 2007

If you’re reading this magazine, you’ve probably seen one of those lists that explain all the great reasons to buy local food. I’ve seen them so many times I can recite the reasons by heart: local food tastes better, it keeps family farmers in business, it’s better for the environment. But here’s an item I’ve never seen on one of those lists: local food costs less. That’s because many people—myself included—assume that buying local food means spending more money per item. We believe there must be a higher cost to something that represents an investment in our health, the environment and the local economy.

Well, maybe not. Based on my family's food expenses during one week last September, the common-sense assumption that local food has a higher price tag may actually be wrong. Along with more than 200 other households, we participated in the Windham Localvore Harvest Challenge, a week-long effort to eat as much local food as possible. Just for fun, I kept careful track of my family's local food consumption during the Challenge. Then I recorded the prices of those same foods at a local supermarket. I punched all my data into a spreadsheet, and the results surprised me.

During a normal week, we shop almost exclusively at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, and we spend about $30 per person. That number seems high to me, but according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that’s just one dollar higher than the national per-person average for families with at least one child under six. Not bad, since we're consuming mostly organic and local foods, even when it's not local food week.

For the Harvest Challenge, we bought two “starter kits” through the Windham Localvores so we would have enough flour, beans and oil to see us through the week. We shopped at the farmers' market more than usual. And at the co-op—with the exception of coffee—we bought only local items. No bunny noodles allowed!

The first surprise: We spent almost exactly the same amount as usual – $29.71 per person. This surprised me because, while I expect local produce to cost more, I thought we might make up the difference by making most of our food from scratch. Normally we buy a certain amount of pricey packaged cereal and crackers—an investment in parental sanity. But with all the cane sugar-free cookies and quick breads I threw together to keep things interesting for the kids during local food week, we used a lot more maple syrup and butter than usual, which could explain why we didn't save any cash.

The second surprise: When I recorded the prices of the non-organic versions of our items at the supermarket, the result was $29.06 per person—almost identical to the overall Harvest Challenge price ($29.71 per person).

The third surprise: 63% of our local Harvest Challenge items were organic. When I visited the supermarket, only about 17% of the items were available in organic. But if we had shopped at the supermarket that week and bought all the organic items available, we would have spent quite a bit more—a whopping $38.30 per person.

If you're like me, you’re probably wondering how those “low, low” supermarket prices could possibly have added up the way they did. How could a week's worth of groceries at the supermarket cost essentially the same as a week's worth of groceries acquired from local farmers? Looking through my spreadsheet, here's how I make sense of it.

Common items, like salt, potatoes, butter and carrots, are dirt cheap at the grocery store. A couple examples: Maine Sea Salt vs. generic iodized sea salt—$1.02 per ounce vs. $.03 per ounce; organic, Vermont-grown purple potatoes vs. Yukon Golds from unknown parts—$1.99 a pound vs. $.70 a pound. Some of these very cheap items enjoy government farm subsidies, while others are loss leaders, designed to get people into the store so they will spend money on high-markup items.

However, many specialty items cost more at the supermarket than they do at the co-op or farmers' market: organic apple cider bottled and sold by the farmer vs. conventional Vermont cider at the grocery store—$2.50 vs. $4.49; organic sunflower oil pressed and bottled on the farm vs. the generic (also organic) grocery store brand—$6 vs. $7.14; maple syrup purchased in bulk at the co-op vs. maple syrup in a jug at the supermarket—$10.77 vs. $13.49. Organic apples, potatoes and tomatoes also seemed to be outrageously priced. So if you're committed to buying organic food, don't do it at the supermarket without checking the prices at your local co-op or farmers' market first.

But the thing that really saved us money during the Harvest Challenge was growing our own food. My husband keeps bees for honey and we have a garden that was yielding heirloom tomatoes, beans, corn, peppers, and other delectable goodies in mid-September. Thinking toward the future, we’ve planted fruit and nut trees that will probably start bearing in the next two years, and we’re considering keeping hens. Even if you live in an apartment, you can grow some of your own food—including small fruit trees—in containers indoors or on a deck. Some landlords will give permission for outdoor gardening, or you might consider a plot in a community garden. (I don't recommend bees or chickens in your apartment!) Regardless of what store you go to for your produce, seeds and compost cost almost nothing in comparison.

Not everyone has the time or interest to have a garden, though. If you're in that category, there are lots of other wallet-friendly ways to eat local food:

Pick your own. Many local farms and orchards allow you to pick your own veggies and fruit. The prices are phenomenal, and you can pick in quantity to freeze or can for the winter.

Join a CSA. Besides gardening, this is probably the most frugal way to eat local, seasonal food. Although you have to pay for all your summer and fall vegetables in the spring, you end up getting quite a lot for your dollar when you pick up your weekly bag of goodies from your farmer.

Buy seconds. Produce that bruises easily is expensive if you seek perfection. But if you’re willing to buy the bruised stuff, you can get it for a much lower price from farmers who sell seconds. Hunting and gathering at the seconds tables has resulted in many a gorgeous gazpacho on our dinner table.

Prioritize. Even if you can’t buy local all the time, do some research and figure out which things you are willing to compromise on. If you find that basic foods like potatoes, carrots, or onions are more expensive when you buy local (which is not necessarily the case, so do the research!), the extra cost may not be worth it to you. But delicacies like fresh apples, ripe tomatoes, juicy strawberries, and baby spinach leaves are usually better when purchased locally, and may be worth paying more for.

My family’s food choices may look nothing like yours. But keeping track of the cost of our local food for a week was an enlightening exercise for us, and I highly recommend it to anyone with a penny-pinching streak. You might just find, as we did, that eating local food doesn’t necessarily cost more.

About the Author

Paula Melton

Paula Melton

Paula Melton is a freelance writer who lives in Brattleboro with her husband and their three children. Floodplain regulations prevent them from having a backyard flock.

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