If money is an issue in your life, and these days that’s the case for pretty much anyone outside society’s top tier, proper budgeting is essential. Holding a budget for food expenditures can be difficult: increasing prices, a poor economy, other constraints (mortgage, rent, utilities), and the list goes on. In some cases, these expenses can be reduced — don’t have the A/C on as much, drive less to save on gas — but I’m going to focus on what you can do to save money on produce, especially by way of farmer’s markets.
The benefits to farmer’s markets are many: first and foremost, the produce is fresher. Grocery store fare is generally shipped over long distances, including international shipping. If I’m buying blueberries, I don’t want blueberries that were flown in from Chile. Sorry, it just isn’t going to happen. The produce you find at the markets is bound to be picked quite recently, maybe even that day. It’s also unlikely that the produce being brought to the market is rotting or inedible — otherwise, as the beauty of free market enterprise will show, that farmer won’t be selling much of anything. So, quality isn’t an issue.
Second, you have the knowledge of – or at least can learn – where and how the produce was grown. I’ll take knowing the soil health, pesticide policy (if any is used), and personal investment of the farms and farmers over the convenience of a cookie-cutter supermarket anyway.
Third, there’s the human interaction side of it. This relates to #2, but humans are inherently social creatures and having that social interaction can be a highlight of some peoples’ weeks. In the case of the farmer’s market on my university campus, I enjoy milling about and talking with the vendors from whom I buy my fruits and veggies. Not only do you learn the quality and production of the food you’re buying, you build friendships.
“But what does any of that have to do with the price of the food?” you ask. “Aren’t farmer’s markets more expensive than the supermarket?”
Well yeah, sometimes they are. However, what supermarkets have that farmers don’t are significant operating and labor costs. They don’t have to pay to store loads of food, they don’t have to pay for checkout lines and store upkeep and carts and huge refrigerated shelving and…
The key is to find the foods and vendors whose prices are below what you find at the grocery. It really isn’t that hard either, if you pay attention to the prices of things you buy at the store. If a farmer is selling cucumbers at 2 for $1, you’re immediately saving money if you know that the grocery store charges $0.75 per cuke. So, that’s a fifty-cent savings right there. Yes, it’s small, but that’ll add up as you continue through the day.
Many items can be had at a per-pound price significantly cheaper than the grocery, and the same can be said for hard-priced items (e.g., the cucumbers above being $0.50 each). If you can get tomatoes for $1.25/lb at the market versus $1.60/lb or higher in the stores, you’re on a roll. Squashes, tubers, greens, all of that can be had for cheap if you pay attention.
Don’t only pay attention to price, either. Pay attention to seasonality. When certain foods are in season, buy them! The volume that farmers bring is higher, and they have to unload the produce or risk losing money. It’s a buyer’s market in that scenario, and prices show this by how much lower they are. Buying and eating seasonally will be a boon for your budget: you won’t have to tighten the belt on your wallet — rather, you’ll loosen it a bit. (The opposite happens when you eat Primal — loads of produce: you’ll be tightening your belt!)
As a matter of fact, as you get to know your farmers and they get to know you, you may be able to score some free extras if they have some to give. Hey, getting food for essentially nothing (getting free stuff just drives the per-unit price down)? Sign me up! While traditionally it’s best to get to the market early (at least, that’s my preference: you get first dibs), showing up closer to the closing time may also be beneficial, as in the rush to sell produce, vendors may be more inclined to “make a deal.”
All told, the benefits of leveraging farmer’s markets are amazing. Now, if you don’t have farmer’s markets in your area, and can only make do with the grocery, you can still take the seasonality aspect into consideration. As October wends into November, the market prices for the winter squashes (acorn, butternut, spaghetti, etc.) will drop and you’ll be able to take full advantage of their deliciousness at a price that will be very budget-friendly.
So, to recap: Farmer’s markets are a great way to socialize, make friends, be knowledgeable about the food you’re buying, buy fresh and high-quality produce, buy that produce more cheaply than the supermarkets… and in the long run, save you money.
A University of Miami graduate with a B.S. in physics and current graduate student, Russell became interested in fitness and nutrition midway through his time as an undergraduate. He made the transition to a Primal/Paleo lifestyle shortly after graduation and has been applying the nutritional and fitness philosophies on a college student’s budget since then. He has since started PrimalUniversity.com as a resource for college students who are living Primal/Paleo on limited means.