Factoring in Local and Organic Foods on a Budget
The Press Herald recently reported that Maine residents spend a third more on food than the national average. This was not news for those of us tallying up grocery bills. We live daily with the disjuncture between low wages (Maine ranks 32nd among states in median income) and costly food (Maine places sixth).
Whether due to transportation costs, limited buying options or other factors, the inflated cost of groceries here makes it hard to justify extra spending on local and organic items. How can one buy fresher, healthier foods – often at a premium price – without shattering already strained budgets? There are no easy answers, but the following strategies may help.
Oft-repeated by frugal shoppers, this advice is especially helpful when it comes to organic and local foods – where there is great price variability with no guiding logic. A brand of Maine-made granola, for example, sells for $7 a pound at a supermarket (where economies of scale should theoretically yield cheaper prices). Yet at a small-scale retailer, a 2-pound bag of the identical product sells for just a dollar more (so $4 a pound).
Create a list of the most common and expensive items you typically buy – and then compare unit prices at the supermarket, food co-op, local food stores and the farmers market. Shopping at several locations can take time, but not much if you stop when you’re passing by anyway rather than making special trips.
Inquire about case discounts, stock up on sale items (some stores post their sale fliers online) and ask retailers or market vendors if they offer less attractive produce at a reduced price.
BUY IN BULK
Reduced packaging typically minimizes both personal expense and planetary impact. Overpriced single-serving containers (like small yogurts or squeezable applesauce tubes) generate excessive plastic waste (which might not be recycled due to food residues).
Relying more on economical “bin” foods – like flours, nuts, beans, cereals and grains – can help trim costs because many of these have a lower per-pound price than dairy or meat.
The Meatless Monday movement and countless vegan and vegetarian cookbooks offer ideas for relying more on grains and the food group known as pulses (lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas). A pressure cooker can cut the preparation time (and energy used cooking) for grains and beans.
Keeping a well-stocked pantry saves on the wasted time, gas and pollution of last-minute store runs, and makes it easy to assemble impromptu meals when menu planning falls by the wayside.
FREEZE YOUR OWN
Invest in a chest freezer (or share one with a neighbor or friend). The nominal sum spent annually in electricity for a midsized chest freezer ($20-$30) will be reclaimed in substantial savings on bulk, in-season purchases of local meats and garden or market fruits and vegetables.
Bought in 10-pound boxes, organic blueberries were $3.75 per pound this last season, comparing favorably with store-bought frozen organic berries (Whole Foods brand at $6.36 per pound and Cascadian Farms brand at $7.18 per pound), and comparably priced to conventional frozen blueberries.
Making and freezing pesto when basil is in season (and substituting walnuts for pine nuts) is an affordable way to enjoy those summer flavors throughout the year.
FIND THE SURPRISING VALUES
Some organic produce is priced quite competitively with conventional varieties, and some hand-crafted foods don’t cost much more than factory-made. For example, an artisanal organic bread from Portland’s Standard Baking (with Maine grown and Maine milled ingredients) costs only 50 cents more than mass-produced organic loaves sold by the pallet in the supermarket.
Large bags of root vegetables at the farmers market can sell for as little as $1 a pound (as can Maine-grown organic potatoes at the supermarket).
Base your menu around what’s abundant, practicing reverse menu planning – buying what’s plentiful and cheap and then doing recipe searches for those ingredients.
PURCHASE FROM THE PRODUCER
Whether at the farmers market or from the grower, buying direct from the producer can lower costs. If you are a CSA member and are eligible for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, ask about discounted prices. Many farmers markets now accept SNAP EBT cards (see the list at mainefarmersmarket.org), and a growing number of markets and retailers offer bonus fruits and vegetables to SNAP shoppers through Maine Harvest Bucks (maineharvestbucks.org).
INVESTING IN COMMUNITY
Making a commitment to purchase organic and local foods can drive up household food expenditures, but with effort, the increase can be modest. That self-imposed surcharge provides benefits that extend far beyond gains in nutrition and taste.
If each Maine household allocated 10 percent of its annual grocery budget to local foods, that economic infusion could revitalize our farming and fishing economy. Growth in local agriculture would spread economic benefits across many sectors, and might – in time – even lower our annual food costs.
Maine’s Local Twenty
THE MAINE 20 is a resource list from MOFGA.net intended to help people realize the abundance of local ingredients throughout the year.
Beef, turkey, lamb, chicken, pork
Fresh or frozen corn, beans, broccoli, peppers, peas
Leafy Greens (spinach, kale, lettuce)
Maple Syrup, Honey
Root vegetables: beets, parsnips, leeks
Seafood: shrimp, scallops, lobster, mussels, clams, fish
Tomatoes (fresh and processed)
Winter squash and pumpkin
© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.