There’s a belief out there that purchasing from a farmers’ market, a co-op or CSA is cost prohibitive to the average consumer. It’s for those hipsters that are only cooking for their quaint little dinner parties, with their unique off the wall dishes and unpronounceable sauces. Not for the Average Joe who needs to feed their crazy little naked yard apes and their hangry spouse on a budget. I have to admit, I thought the same up until recently.
My husband and I love going to the farmers’ market and it always feels very indulgent. You’re in an amazing atmosphere of vibrant foods, smells, and tastes. If neither him or I came with a game plan (aka, grocery list), we would go a little over the edge. Soon we would end up with not only bags full of amazing produce but wines, sauces, cheeses, desserts, and a blown budget. This always equated that farmers’ markets were only for special occasions.
Recently we had an in-class discussion of “why to buy to local” and my assignment on this topic was the cost analysis of purchasing local verses purchasing from the grocery store. I immediately hopped on Professor Google to find what research had been done. I expected there to be a ton. To my surprise I only found 3*. (But then again… where is the money in these researches? Certainly the farmers can’t afford to sponsor the research and Nestle or Coke-Cola certainly are not sponsoring it. Which is probably why of the 3 found, 2 were done by students.) These researches did have a consistent theme. When purchasing organic produce, the farmers’ market and CSAs are less expensive than purchasing the same items at a main stream grocery store. When purchasing conventionally grown items, you could save on 60% of items at the grocery store. The conventionally grown items being less expensive at the grocery store was not surprising, though I thought with the expanding organic departments in the mainstream grocery stores organic produce would start being less expensive with the quantities they purchase.
A lot has changed in the last 5 years since the last study was done and I thought I would do a little experimenting of my own to see if this still holds true. So I packed my grocery bags and excitedly set off to the Boulder’s Farmers’ Market, wisely with my grocery list in hand. I first strolled the market a few times to ensure I was getting the best prices and quality available. After 45 minutes, I left the farmers’ market feeling revived by the beautiful weather, amazing atmosphere and 3 very heavy bags of groceries. In my bags were the following: 4lb napa cabbage, 5lb bag of onions, red scallions (comparing to regular scallions), tatsoi (comparing to bok choy), 2 pints cherry tomatoes, rainbow carrots, beets, winter radishes, leek, and 4 green bell peppers. I also purchased local happy, healthy raised meats but for t
his experiment I left them out.**
Now for the comparison: I compared what I purchased with similarly found items at Whole Foods and King Soopers (our area’s Kroger). This is what I found:
- When purchasing organic, the farmers’ market is significantly cheaper. A savings of 33% compared to Whole Foods’ organic. 26% savings compared to King Soopers’ organic. The farmers’ market also had items I wanted where the grocery stores did not such as tatsoi and red scallions. I imagine this easily can happen when you are not mass producing for hundreds of grocery stores.
- When comparing conventionally grown produce, I’m having to compare the farmers’ market organic to the conventionally grown of the grocery store. This late in the season I only saw organic farms at the farmers’ market. I’m not saying they are not typically there; they were just not there on this day. Of the items I shopped for that I could find at the grocery store, the conventional items were less expensive. A total savings of 20% by shopping conventional.
- It’s hard to compare what I purchased to a co-op or CSA. Typically, you don’t have the opportunity to choose the produce you receive weekly or monthly so there are times you will need to supplement your weekly produce by going to the grocery store. (Coincidentally: A newsletter I received from a local CSA showed that their delivery this week was pretty close to the items I purchased from the farmers’ market.) The quantity a CSA provides is considerably more than I purchased and could easily be split between two families. If I chose to use all their produce and not supplement it, the savings would be 20%.
To recap my mini adventure, the farmers’ market saved me nearly $10 dollars on my organic produce. If I had decided to purchase conventionally grown items at the grocery store, that savings would have been $7.60. A CSA would have saved me approximately $12.
Where I gladly pay the extra $7.60 for organic items, that’s not always possible for people of limited incomes. So here are a few ways to save money purchasing locally:
- Purchase in the peak of season. Prices will be competitive since there is an abundance. To find that in your area go to: http://www.sustainabletable.org/seasonalfoodguide/
- As I did, walk the whole market to ensure you are getting the best prices.
- Bring a grocery list. Just like at a grocery store, you want to avoid distractions and have a game plan. No wine and cheese for you, unless it’s plan.
- Join a CSA and split the basket between two families. I often did this in their peak season when we had a CSA membership a year ago. A local CSA’s basket for a family of 4 is $35 a week. So split in two is quite a savings and still plenty of vegetables.
- Purchase in bulk. Many vendors offer bulk rate. Farmers’ market items tend to last much longer than grocery store items. Or you can split the cost with another family.
- Go later in the day closer to closing time. Where the selection of items might be less, vendors are not wanting to repack these items. There might be savings to be found.
- Also, ask if they offer discounts for less than perfect produce they are willing to sell at a discount. Often they put away produce that might be less than perfect and will gladly give you a discount vs. putting the items into the compost.
When comparing cost, it is important to compare quality as well. Comparing what was purchased at the farmers’ market and what was available at the grocery store, whether organic or not, was like comparing a bright beautiful apple to, well, a sock. Items at the farmers’ market were vibrant, beautiful and tasted amazing. You could see the pride in the farmers’ eyes as they displayed their products. The produce at the grocery stores were not quite ripe, dull in color, and the flavor and texture were dry, tart, and unappealing. There was also no visible relationship between the produce and the farmer. Farmers’ market produce is picked a day or two of the market. Grocery store produce is picked unripe from around the world, transported from warehouse to warehouse, often times artificially ripened when time to go to the store.
Surprising information! According to the USDA report in 2012, US residents on average spent about 6.4% of their annual income on food. This is less than 83 other countries that the USDA tracks. You may think it’s because food is cheaper here in the US. But that’s not so. USDA found that the average cost of food is higher in the US than all countries tracked. The country that spends the highest percentage of their annual income on food is Pakistan, where they spend approximately half their income in food and their food costs are a quarter of that of the US. India spend 25% of their annual income on food. Italy spends 14.4%, Germany spends 11.4%, and Canada spends 9.1% of their annual income on food. With the US percentage being so low and our healthy issues so high, it really makes me wonder where our priorities are. We are will to spend exorbitant amount of money on large home and material items but do not spend money for the home we live in, our body.
Additional notes about how your purchases impact farmers. For every dollar spent in the grocery store, only 16¢ goes back to the farmer. The rest goes to middlemen, warehousing, shipping, processing, stores and their margins, and so on. Cost of a farmer to sell at a farmers’ market is their time, transportation to the location, location costs, and miscellaneous cost of supplies. Large portion of their proceeds can go back into growing of their farm verses sustaining. Not only do I save money buying local but my dollars make an impact on our local economy.
Maybe those hipsters have something going on. They are saving money, giving back to the local economy, and eating foods at their nutritional peak. So maybe at my next party I’ll create an off the wall dish and smother it with an unpronounceable sauce… it’s what the cool kids do.
*http://nofavt.org/sites/default/files/NOFA%20Price%20Study.pdf, http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20070604&slug=farmers04, http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/ll/LeopoldLetter2010Winter.pdf
**The meat ended up being approximately the same price or cheaper at the farmers’ market vs. the Wholefoods, but I’ll be honest, I will not compare well raised animal meat to what is found at mainstream grocery store which are typically from CAFOs. There really is no comparison.