Eat Better on a Budget


A version of this article appeared in the Rutland Herald on June 24, 2014

Like many young farmers, I’m not living on a large budget. Luckily, those of us who grow food have immediate access to fresh, nutritious fuel for our bodies.

Still, more and more people are realizing that it is possible to support local farms on a limited budget. Furthermore, local food is often more nutritious than supermarket products, so you may be saving money on doctor’s visits when you buy those bags of leafy greens or grass-fed meat.

Here are some tips for stretching a limited budget to buy local food.

Two words: Buy Local

When you buy local products, there are less middlemen who you are essentially paying to get the food you eat — think processors, packagers, transportation and wholesale distributors. Instead, all or most of your money goes directly to your neighboring local farmer. As a vegetable farmer, I regularly go into the grocery stores during the growing season to check prices and often see that people are paying the same amount for local, organically grown lettuce from the farmers market and conventional (grown with chemicals) lettuce from the supermarket. Plus the supermarket veggies have a much shorter shelf-life and lower quality than the locally grown produce.

Buy in Season

Like in many goods and services, food often costs less when it is abundant. Instead of buying the first peas or zucchini, wait a couple weeks until there is a glut of the crop and the price is lower. It’s also fine to ask farmers if they think the price will be lower in future weeks. Generally, we are all willing to share that sort of information with interested customers.

Look for “Seconds”

Many farmers are willing to sell their less-than-perfect crops, often called “seconds,” at a reduced price. The easiest way to find out is simply to ask! Remember that some advance notice is best. If you want to make tomato sauce to freeze or can, ask around at the farmers’ market a week or two prior so that farmers can bring their seconds for you when you need them.

Stretch out the expensive foods

Yes, some local foods like meat and berries can feel expensive. Remember that most farmers are not profiting majorly from what they sell — some may even be losing money to keep the prices low. Begin to think of those items as treats to be enjoyed in small quantities or only as often as your budget allows. I always like to think of items of similar price: My seven dollars could be spent on a quart of organic strawberries or on two boxes of processed crackers. For me, the strawberries are worth it.

Join a CSA

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares, also called farm shares, allow you to save up to 20 percent compared to retail prices. Though most CSAs have already begun for the season, some farms offer fall shares or have a pre-pay system at the farmers market. Again, this is a benefit to shopping locally: simply ask around at the market and you will be directed to a farmer who can help.

Find a Work Share

Some farms offer food or reduced price CSA shares in exchange for help on the farm or at the market. This is one of the most fulfilling ways to eat better and save money. Beyond farms, some home gardeners might be happy to share their abundant harvests if you can help pull weeds for an hour, or have a recipe to share.

Find Homemade Alternatives

Like most people, I buy some processed foods. Usually they are minimally processed, but they are still more expensive than their whole food counterparts. If your kids like breakfast cereals, try making a batch of homemade granola. Need a crunchy, salty snack? Try a bowl of Yoder Farm popcorn. Salad dressings are another food “product” that eat away at a small budget. If you can invest in a good bottle of olive oil and some vinegar, you can make tasty salad dressings all season long and avoid strange chemical ingredients (check your salad dressing labels).

Here’s a simple salad dressing recipe. Give it a try and adjust quantities based on what you and your family like.

Maple Balsamic Salad Dressing

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons pure maple syrup
2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

Combine oil, vinegar, maple syrup and mustard in a small bowl or a jar with a tight-fitting lid; whisk or shake until well blended. Season with salt and pepper.