Ten Ways to Find Bargains on Fresh Food

tomato pictureI’m always on the hunt for fresh food, grown locally and preferably grown organically and with sustainable practices. Not only are such items healthier, they’re also almost always much more flavorful, too. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried a salad made up of greens that were cut less than an hour before.

The only problem with this approach to eating is that it’s often perceived as very expensive. If you browse through the food options at your local mega grocery, you’ll usually find that healthy options, like organic fruits and vegetables, free range chickens and eggs, grass-fed beef, organic milk, and so on are usually substantially more expensive than the regular versions of the products. For a family on a budget, that’s a hard one to justify – is someone trying really hard to get by going to spend an extra two dollars a pound for organic carrots versus regular carrots? How about an extra two dollars a gallon for organic milk? It’s not something that fits well into the average budget.

The secret, though, is that fresh and healthy food is often just as cheap as the regular stuff – if you bother to do a little bit of looking around. Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of methods for getting fresher and more healthy food on our table without exploding our food budget. Here are ten tactics that work.

1. Know what’s actually available to you.
One of the first challenges to overcome is knowing what’s available to you in your area. It’s easy to find a supermarket, but supermarkets are rarely where you’ll find the good deals on fresh, local produce. Here are a couple of tools to use.

The 100 Mile Diet Map identifies original sources for fruit, vegetable, dairy, and meat in your area that originate from within 100 miles of your zip code. In other words, it’s a great way to find truly fresh locally grown stuff.

LocalHarvest.org finds all sorts of retail sources for locally grown foods all around you.

2. Be adventurous in your food choices.
While it’s easy to stick with the foods you know, doing that quite often results in paying more because you’re avoiding options that are both cheap and quite interesting. Instead of just getting the usual thing, take a look at some of the more unusual foods available to you, ones that are outside your normal diet. One great way to kickstart this is by finding out what items are actually in season at the moment and basing some of your fresh food shopping on that.

If you have an opportunity to try a new fruit or vegetable or other fresh food at a very inexpensive price, don’t skip it because you’re unfamiliar with it. Instead, pick some up, go home, flip open a cookbook, and try something new – you’ll almost always be glad you did, plus you will have saved some money. I used to avoid okra, for example, but once I tried it in a dish with red beans, rice, and andouille sausage, I was a convert.

3. Shop for produce regularly at farmers markets.
Jefferson County Farmers Market by acnatta on Flickr!Your first place to shop for fresh produce shouldn’t be the produce section at your local grocery store – instead, you should start at the farmers market. The items on sale here are fresh – often just pulled from the ground in the last twenty four hours and thus still quite nutrient rich. Even better, the prices are usually a bit lower than what you’ll find for the preserved and chilled stuff you’ll find in the produce section at your local grocery store.

The challenging part of a farmers market, though, is that you’ll never be quite sure what you’ll come home with. The selection is completely dependent on what’s in season, and thus you’ll not find preserved and shipped out of season items there. Thus, it’s much more difficult to make a shopping list for a farmer’s market. Instead, when you’re in need of produce, find out when your local farmers market is open and hit that before stopping at the grocery store. Then, use what you buy there as the backbone for your meal planning.

Here are some useful tactics for tackling a farmers market for the first time.

4. Use farmer’s markets for information, too.
While you can score a lot of tasty, fresh produce at reasonable prices from farmers markets, perhaps the best value at a farmers market is free – the information. Ask lots of questions, from how you might prepare a particular item to recipe suggestions to tips on where you might find a specific item locally.

Almost everyone I’ve interacted with at a farmers market is glad to help with all of these questions. Why? First of all, they love this stuff. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be at a farmers market. Second, they know that providing you with good information will likely make you a happy customer and keep you coming back.

So ask. Ask lots of questions. Learn more about the food you’re eating and where to get more of it.

5. Join a CSA.
A CSA (short for community supported agriculture) is a system in which people in a community become shareholders in a farm, and that share earns dividends in the form of produce. Where I live, I’ve been on a waiting list for the local CSA for almost a year, and I can’t wait to sign up.

I stopped by to check out how their system works. Basically, you buy a “share” early in the year that costs around $300. This “share” earns you a giant box of produce every week throughout the late spring, summer, and early fall – twenty weeks in all (making the cost effectively $15 a box). The content of the box is basically an equal share of whatever happens to be in season at the moment – early on, it’s heavy on the lettuce, asparagus, and other greens; by mid-summer, there’s lots of tomatoes and corn; later on, you might see squashes and the like. For the volume of food you get, it’s a tremendous deal, especially considering it’s fresh and local.

You can use the tools in tip #1 to find your own local CSA. You might also find that some of the people at farmers markets also run CSAs, so they may be able to give you a lead, too.

6. Start your own garden.
A garden is a tremendous hobby to undertake. It requires a significant time investment and some initial cost as well (basic equipment and seeds). However, few things beat the ability to walk out in your yard and pull a handful of tomatoes straight from the vine to use with that night’s dinner. Not only is it impossible to eat anything fresher, the cost involved is quite low.

It’s even lower when you add in the concept of gardening as a hobby when compared to other hobbies. An hour spent in the garden, if you enjoy it, is an hour well spent, never mind the fact that it provides some financial and nutritional benefit over the long haul.

7. Share a garden with someone else.
If you don’t have adequate space for your own garden, consider an arrangement where someone else has space for a garden and you share resources and effort. For example, you might place a garden in a friend’s yard, then spend some time each Saturday or Sunday afternoon over there getting it in shape with your friend, then splitting the fresh produce.

Not only does this provide you fresh food, it also transforms gardening into a social activity that you can share with a friend. Even a medium sized garden can provide a good amount of fresh produce for two families, and with a partner you can spread out the costs of the materials and the effort, too. A win-win all around, and it gets tasty fresh produce on your table.

8. Establish a bartering relationship with someone who gardens extensively.
Another option, particularly if you have marketable skills, is to swap those skills with a friend that is an avid gardener or produces some other sort of fresh food. For example, if your friend needs help with some electrical work, offer to give him an afternoon’s worth of help in exchange for a few pounds of tomatoes in August.

Again, this turns fresh produce into a win-win. Not only is it free for you now, you’ve also got an afternoon at a friend’s house, helping him or her out. Good conversation, an afternoon well spent, and some fresh food later on? You can’t beat it.

9. Use your grocery flyer to identify healthy sales, then plan around them.
If you don’t have many options available to you for getting such fresh produce, you can still rely on your local grocery store for options. Know what items are actually in season at the moment and use that knowledge in tandem with the local grocery store flyers. When you see in-season items on sale, jump on board – such sales are usually based on highly local purchases, plus they’re cheap.

Since you have the advantage of knowing the fresh produce you’ll have, use it as the backbone for your meal and shopping planning. Find recipes that use these fresh items, then construct a shopping list out of what you need for these recipes.

10. Join your local Slow Food convivum.
A final tip: be social in your dedication to fresh, local food. Find others that share your interests, so you can share your ideas about where to find inexpensive, fresh, local foods. The most effective way to do this is to get involved with Slow Food.

Slow Food is an organization dedicated to “slow food” – the opposite of fast food. They organize into local chapters (called conviva), where people meet and share ideas about eating locally and often share information online, too. These groups are treasure troves of information on inexpensive, local, fresh produce and well worth looking into if you’re interested in the topic.

If you enjoyed reading this, sign up for free updates!

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Erin says:

    Excellent post! All great ideas. It can seem difficult at first to eat organic and local but if you plan your meals around what is in season it is a win win situation – you get good stuff and you support your local farmers.

  2. justin says:

    Im tired of seeing that tomato picture. lol

  3. Adrienne says:

    I’d be curious to hear from other readers, is your farmer’s market actually cheaper than the grocery store? I always read that it is, but that’s not a fact here. (Eastern Kansas.) For instance at the height of asparagus season I could get it at the regular grocery store for $1.78/lb, but for locally grown asparagus from the market, $3.50! It *does* taste fresh and delicious but it’s not cheaper.

  4. Emily says:

    What an awesome list! Thanks for putting that together — I get into this pickle quite often, when I want the healthier, fresher option but have trouble forking out the extra dough. I didn’t know CSAs even existed. I just used that site you mentioned and found a few in my area, and I think I might get on a waiting list. What a great idea! You rock.

  5. Sheila says:

    Farmers markets are much cheaper out here in the upstate of South Carolina. The difference may be that the two larger markets in this county are small markets run by the local towns and attracting local farmers. But the prices at the bigger regional markets, which are run by the state, are still less than supermarket prices.

    Great post Trent!

  6. Nick says:

    I’m with justin, new vegetable picture Trent!

  7. typome says:

    Thanks for this post–I love these food/gardening posts!

    Yes, farmers market is cheaper for me. I could get a HUGE bunch of basil for $1 and at the grocery I’d only get a few branches for the same price.

    I’m frugal, but food is an area where the value of farmers market food is worth the extra dollars to me (taste, health, economics, environment, etc).

  8. LOL at Justin! I remember that tomato picture….it was one of the first things I saw when I found this site a long time ago. Trent, you should visit Flickr’s creative commons. =P

    I’ve started gardening a bit this year(although I mostly mooch off of my mom’s garden), and I hear there is a good farmer’s market near me. I’m a little worried that the price will be higher than loss leader fruits and veggies that I normally buy, though.

  9. Jon says:

    Just got into a CSA today. They had a spot open up unexpectedly. I get my first week of produce tomorrow. I can’t wait. Here is the link to their site:

    http://www.spoutwood.com/index.html

  10. Carrie says:

    For exotic condiments and specialty foods, you can’t beat ethnic grocery stores. I cook a lot of Thai food, so I need fish sauce. A tiny bottle of it at my supermarket is $4.50, but I can get a large bottle of better-quality stuff at the Asian market for $1.50.

  11. Laura says:

    Thanks for the resources. I looked around to see what was in my area. Just an FYI, their is a farmers market every Saturday at North Hills Mall in Raleigh, NC.

  12. TRBeck says:

    As a new CSA member for this growing season, I can personally attest to the quality of the food for the price. My half-bushel box is around $25/week, and while we do tend to splurge for filler items, my partner and I eat quite well, and the need to finish up the contents of the box before the next one comes means we eat out a lot less than we used to.

  13. cv says:

    I find that joining a CSA leads to more adventurous eating. In the 6 months or so that I’ve been a part of a CSA, I’ve tried tons of new vegetables and variants on classics – new types of greens, purple carrots, sorrel, romanesco, agretti, and much more. I eat more veggies than I used to and have learned to like greens in various forms much more than I did before.

    Depending on the size of the share and the size of your family, I’d recommend splitting a share with a friend or neighbor for a trial run at first. Eating from a CSA – with no choice of what you get – takes a bit of adjustment if you’re used to traditional grocery store shopping. We split with another two-person household, and that gives us some flexibility when someone is away for a few days or doesn’t like a particular item. That said, I love it and would recommend it to anyone interested in fresh, local eating.

    I also second what Carrie said about ethnic grocery stores. We got some fantastic queso fresco and just-made tortillas at the local Mexican grocery, and they were much cheaper than the normal grocery store.

  14. I agree with you about asking the farmer’s market people questions. I bought a cucumber and a yellow squash from the farmers market but then realized I didn’t really know how to cook them…I just bought them because they looked so good! I walked back up to the tent and the lady wrote down two recipes. One for cucumbers and vinegar and the other for garlic squash. I couldn’t boil water if you asked me to, but these recipes I could actually make! MMMmmm!

  15. I agree with Carrie, the ethnic markets are the best place to get cheaper condiments. I also found that produce is usually way cheaper in Indian stores ( not been to other ethnic stores) as compared to chain grocery stores.
    Here in California ( Bay area) Farmer’s market are way too expensive. Some items that I buy are undoubtedly better tasting then their supermarket counterparts but one always has to think about how much premium can we pay for it.

  16. Mar says:

    I love our Sunday morning farmer’s market in downtown Baltimore. Lots of farmers, lots of stands where food is being made fresh while you wait (coffee, crepes, mini donuts that are fried right in front of you, etc., omelettes, ethnic foods, etc., etc. – okay, now I’m hungry!). I go mainly for the very fresh fruits and vegetables and make sure I patronize certain farmers who are always nice, helpful, slip an extra potota or onion or whatever in what I’m buying.

    This market is very, very popular and there are a lot of vendors. The prices seem to be the same or a touch higher than the stores, but I’m supporting the local farmers directly, the produce is fresher, and it’s worth it to me. The prices are definitely higher than they’ve been in the past, but that’s true at the stores, too.

    The other nice thing about the market is that I can buy in bulk and put food by for the winter, either by canning, freezing, or drying it. I plan to do that a lot this year by buying tomatoes, pears, peaches, beans, etc. in large guantities; we’ll see how that plan comes together!

  17. k says:

    All great tips. I do second the recommendation about sharing a CSA if you are new to it. If you aren’t used to cooking, or not used to cooking with a lot of vegetables, it can become overwhelming—depending on your household size, of course. We bought what we thought was a small share one summer and even with two then-vegetarian cooks, it was often hard to keep up with the supply.

    In New York City, farmer’s markets tend to be reasonable and in many cases, a bargain. They also seem to be a lot more prevalent the last 5 or 6 years, all over.

  18. Sam says:

    Thanks for the tip!

    I love the idea of starting my own garden!

  19. D.B. says:

    If you are looking for fresh produce that is not organic, I recommend bulk produce stores that can be found in some cities and suburbs. These stores buy produce at a discount and repackage the produce into bags at a much more reasonable price than the supermarket. Here in Philadelphia and also in New Jersey there is the chain of stores called Produce Junction and there are many independent stores and trucks that do the same thing.

    If you are interested in both organic and non-organic food, I would recommend joining a food cooperative if there is one in your area. Fresh fruit and vegetable prices do tend to be less most of the time.

    If you do not care about organic food and are willing to accept generic packaged foods along with fresh foods, you can find a local SHARE program in your area. SHARE (Self-Help And Resource Exchange) is a food cooperative bank where people pay a reduced price in advance and work two hours in order to receive a parcel of food.

    Here is an explanation from the SHARE DC site:

    SHARE is a non-profit community development organization offering a nutritious food package (about a $40.00 – $45.00 value) to anyone for $18.00 (add transportation in some areas) plus two hours of volunteer service. SHARE is not a governmental program and is funded solely by the price of the food package.

    What is in the SHARE Value Package?

    Each package contains 14-15 items consisting of 6-8 lbs. of meat, fresh fruits, vegetables, and staple grocery items (e.g., rice, pasta, potatoes, etc.). The package is designed to supplement a family’s food budget with savings of up to 60% over local grocery store prices.

    http://www.sharedc.org/about.htm

    My friends and I participated in SHARE while in college and it kept us with good healthy food while on a student budget – much better than just PB&J and ramen noodles! However, this is not diet food and some items can be high in fat or sodium so please be aware of that and plan accordingly.

    D.

  20. Tim says:

    Seriously, for the love of god, get a new picture for the food related posts. I can’t take that painterly tomato anymore.

  21. Ryan McLean says:

    I was watching better homes and gardens on TV the other night and they showed us 5 exotic fruits we can grow at home. It was very inspiring. Your tips are great and many people will find them helpful.

  22. Stacey says:

    Great tips! It should probably be noted that the term “organic” is regulated by the government. Having your farm certfied organic is very expensive, and many smaller farms simply choose not to become certified. Their food is grown in an organic manner, but cannot be labeled as such. Our locals use the term “certified naturally grown.” Don’t be afraid to ask about their growing practices!

    And you’re right about #6 – you just can’t beat growing your own food. We’re enjoying blueberries, blackberies and strawberries right now, harvesting more than enough to eat and we’re filling the freezer, too. Most berry plants are a one-time cost, so you get to enjoy your investment for years to come! Tomato plants are a different story, but worth the yearly price.

  23. prodgod says:

    I live in the heart of the California Central Valley, where much of the country’s produce is grown. We have more than five local farmers markets, but unfortunately, they are FAR from inexpensive. You’d think they’d be cheap here, but but they’re trendy and thus overpriced. Much like the cost of organic produce in the supermarket, it’s a luxury that I can no longer financially justify. The solution for my family has been to grow my own organic garden. Safe, fresh, cheap and abundant.

  24. LoveandSalt says:

    I love my CSA. I remain amused by my faltering, first-time garden (lots of mistakes the first time around!) but I still seem to be getting some food out of it–just not what I expected.
    Other thoughts: try PYO options for berries and other crops that come in all of a sudden. I pick blueberries, raspberries, sour cherries, strawberries, at local farms and freeze what I can’t eat right away. For berries, you just wash and dry them and pop them in a freezer bag–couldn’t be easier. I have blueberries on my oatmeal all winter.
    Also, look into foraging. Dandelion greens, milkweed, edible weeds and flowers, burdock root, knotweed, and lots of other delicious and nutritious plants grow in disturbed (read: close to people) landscapes everywhere. Steve Brill has an excellent book on foraging in city and suburban landscapes. (Just don’t eat what grows right next to the highway unless you like heavy metals in your salad.)

  25. Great ideas – I’m going to check out some of those links for local food.

    As for whether farmers markets are cheaper or not, I find that to really depend on the season. We have a fantastic public market and in season local items (now cherries, blueberries, green beans) are MUCH cheaper, but the imported things sold at the market are the same as the grocery store.

    One cool thing about the PM here… they offer “tokens” that are basically food stamps for use only at the market. You get a massive incentive to buy local farm fresh items rather than going to Wal-Mart with the food stamps. I think it’s a great idea.

  26. Paul says:

    Amen to the Farmers Market. My wife goes there once a week for our fruits and vegetables. I can’t say it is much cheaper than the supermarket, but the quality is MUCH better.

  27. Carlos says:

    I’m eagerly awaiting the follow-up article called, “Ten Ways to Find Bargains on French Food” :-)

    Nice article, Trent

  28. Another advantage of the farmer’s market is the willingness of some of the growers to sell in bulk at a discount. If you want 2 bushels of apples to make apple sauce with, they’ll definitely cut you a deal. You may have to order an item a week ahead of time, but this is a great way to get bulk quantities for preservation.

    Also, at the end of the day growers are usually willing to sell products at a discount. They don’t want to take a perishable product home where it may spoil. Make them a reasonable offer and you could end up with a great deal.

  29. Charlotte K says:

    Some things are cheaper at the Farmers Market some are not. But they are better quality and local.

    I think that 100 Mile Diet map referenced above is a bit of a gimmick though. Half of my 100 mile circumference is out in the ocean, and much as I’d like to be eating seafood every day, I can’t afford it and we’re not supposed to be eating so much of it anyway due to diminished resources…it would be nice if one could shift the circle the other way!

  30. Kate says:

    Something I’ve noticed about food from farmer’s markets and gardens is that it seems to stay good a lot longer than chemically sprayed, old produce from grocery stores.

  31. Lisa says:

    Joining a CSA has been wonderful. We figure we are getting Great Local Organic food for about $1 per pound. Actually, just by being part of a CSA hits 8 of Trents 10 points. It is certainly adventurous. I agree with the sharing. I can’t wait to see what we get tonight. Last week was chard, kale, romaine, Japanese turnips, 4lbs of sweet cherries.

  32. Great article. I’m always looking for ways to save on fresh food. It is so much better for you, and it tastes better when it is cheaper. :)

  33. I’ll put in a big vote for Red Hill Farm in southeastern Pennsylvania as the organic CSA that we love.

    I might have to pay attention at our local farmer’s market to see what prices are like too.

    Thanks Trent

  34. David G. says:

    Thank you all for supporting your local farmers and ranchers through shopping at the Farmer’s Markets and CSA’s. Through this continued support, the prices that small operations charge can become closer to supermarket prices but with the added health benefits that small scale,locally produced food has.

    We sell grass fed beef and even though we follow the guidelines published by EatWild and Grassfed Beef Assoc., it would add a good bit to the cost we need to sell our product to become “officially certified”. Hopefully we will develop a loyal following here in central NC and will be able to get that certification without having to pass the cost on.

    We sell for about $2 to $3 a pound more than the grocery store. And I know that is a lot in most households. But since the meat is leaner, it only takes about 2/3 the heat and time to cook. And the beneficial health aspects may allow you to drop a prescription or two in time. So, is the meat really more expensive after all?

    Again, thanks to all of that support small farmers and ranchers like me by buying local food.

  35. SP says:

    My local farmer’s markets aren’t cheaper, and I have tried several. They are a bit “yuppified” here in SoCal. Buying on sale at the supermarket is the cheapest, even for organic.

  36. Hilary says:

    Wow, are farm shares really that cheap in Iowa? They are twice that where I live (central New York State). Building off what others have said, I guess the relative cheapness of Farmers Markets and CSA’s depend on where you are.

  37. Lynne says:

    I live in Sonoma County, CA where we are known for our fresh foods, wines and cheeses. Farmers Markets in our are are expensive. I shop at a couple of grocery stores that are known for good, fresh produce, and I buy what is on sale and in season. Even when not on sale, I save more than 50% over the farmers market.

  38. deepali says:

    Another thing I love is actually working at my CSA. I put in 4 hours of work and get a week’s share. Plus I get to be outside, meet some fun people, and learn about organic agriculture!

  39. gr8whyte says:

    If water-boarding’s legal, I guess tomato-boarding must be too.

  40. Carrie says:

    I share a garden with my neighbors. It works out great for us. I get to learn about gardening from people with years of experience, and they get to enjoy produce that they wouldn’t plant just for themselves. In our situation, they own most of the gardening equipment. I purchase the seed for the year, and we feel that it’s a reasonable split. We then both tend to the garden, and help each other out when it comes time to reap the bounty and prepare, can or freeze the goods.
    Yum!

  41. Ann says:

    One way to save between 25% and 50% on produce (and other food products) is to re-evaluate whether the “organically certified” label is worth what you pay for it.

    As the “organic” produce section has grown at my local store, I decided to look behind the hype. The conclusion: there is no appreciable health benefit for the added cost, and for nutrition I should concentrate on freshness (which also benefits flavor), quantity and variety rather than whether something was labelled “organic.”

    If you want to save yourself big bucks, re-examine whether the “organic” label isn’t the adult equivalent of teenagers’ obsession with certain cool apparel labels: all about the warm fuzzy feeling and not about the objective qualities of the product at all.

    An article that looks into it well:
    http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/1567/full

    My budget for food is limited, so buying “organic” actually would be HARMFUL to my health, because I would end up buying and consuming less fruits and vegetables overall. Only rich people can afford irrational choices, and I’m not rich enough for that.

  42. tadeusz says:

    If you live near sea or ocean, consider fishermen. In my area they sell fresh out of the water fish for less than 20% of retail price, with obvious freshness and quality. Today my grandmother bought 6 pounds of fish for $2.50. That’s more than 4 pounds of delicious fish meat – crazy cheap!

    Fishermen arrive in their ships at the harbor quite early in the morning. Feel free to ask and haggle. Some people might be bound to certain wholesale contractors, but many will accept your offer, as they can ask more than typical wholesale price (whereas you get less than your retail price).

    Oh, and you both avoid taxes on this trade.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>