Food & Finance - Produce

By: Roni
Farmers Market
Welcome back readers!

I hope that you are still revved up about getting the most for your food dollars (and leaving more dollars in your bank account). A very special welcome to you if today marks your first encounter with “Food and Finance” – follow the rules and your bank account will thank you. I encourage you to refer back to my “inaugural” column for my basic shopping and budget guidelines.

Last week we talked about where to shop. This week --- produce. We’ve all been told about the health benefits of a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. But fresh produce is often very expensive. Many people drastically reduce their produce purchases when trying to save money on groceries. The tips below are intended to help you continue to supply those healthy fruits and vegetables you and your families need without busting your budget in these tough economic times.

1. Buy in Season. Most of us probably do not know what produce is in season at any given time. This is largely because our sophisticated and vast transportation system and importation infrastructure enables us to obtain virtually any vegetable or fruit from anywhere at any time of year. Convenience comes at a price, however. The recent jolting rise in oil prices led to increased transportation costs that are, of course, passed on to you in the stunning prices for produce. Want a solution? Buy in season. When you buy in season you reduce the transportation costs associated with your goods and therefore pay less for your purchase. Try some of these seasonal menus to get you started:

An added benefit – you may wind up trying fruits and vegetables that you’ve never had before, particularly during winter months, when your usual choices are ---- out-of-season.

2. Buy Local. This is buying in season taken to a new level! Buying in season is a broad concept of which buying local is a subset. If you use the United States as the relevant territory, buying in season general means that if the produce is in growing season within the United States (for example, in California), then its on the approved for purchase list regardless of where you live (New York). Generally better than imports with respect to cost, but there still could be a significant transportation “tax”. Buying local generally means that you buy foods grown in your immediate geographical area – perhaps within the state or within a certain number of miles (usually not more than a couple hundred) of your location. In addition to drastically reducing the transportation “tax” on your food, buying local allows you to support local agriculture and recycle dollars within your community. Reduced transportation time can also mean fresher food with fewer pesticides and preservatives needed to stretch the shelf life. As with buying in season, you are generally going to need to be willing to try new things if you live in a geographical area that produces little in the winter months. You can also can fruit and tomatoes and make jams and marmalades – great ways to preserve summer’s goodness for consumption year round. (Try Barefoot Contessa’s Easy Strawberry Jam or Alton Brown’s Pickled Okra, for example!) While some supermarkets do make an effort to highlight local goods, often the best way to shop local is to visit a farmer’s market. They’ve grown incredibly popular in recent years – find the markets near you (though not all are open year-round).

3. Grow Your Own. This is the ultimate in seasonality. Start a backyard garden. You’ll be amazed at what you can grow on even a small plot of land (or a windowsill, or a rooftop……). I strongly encourage growing your own herbs; they are extraordinarily expensive in the supermarket and usually not very difficult to grow. Many can be grown in small pots on a windowsill and yield a never-ending supply of fragrance and flavor. If brought in side during colder months, many will produce year-round. My favorites are thyme, rosemary, sage and mint. Now, if you just can’t envision going it alone with hoe and shovel, you might consider taking a share in a community supported agriculture project. You contribute (in the form of cash or sweat equity (or both)) and then get a share of the produce of the community garden. Or join a food co-op – many of them provide fresh produce at drastically reduced prices in exchange for members working on a rotating basis at the co-op store. Consider all of the options to see what works for you. As for me, spring is around the corner and in the name of financial prudence I’m planning to commandeer my kids’ backyard soccer field -- I’ll never have to buy another tomato, eggplant or squash again. Just kidding – I’ll leave them enough room for one goal.

Send your success stories (and your challenges)! I love hearing from you. Come back for my next column in two weeks – more tips and triumphs!

Yours in food frugality,

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