I wake up every Saturday with a grandiose plan to head out to one of the three local farmer's markets in my neighborhood and stock up on fresh, seasonal produce- enough to feed myself for a week. Purchasing all my week's groceries and meal planning around the local market is a cute and completely unrealistic fantasy I have. Why unrealistic? Because the cost of a weekend jaunt to the farmer's market in DC would leave my bank account whimpering.
Farmer's markets in many urban environments are far from affordable and even the smallest purchases can set you back in a serious way. The high cost is no accident. The reality is the cost of fruits, vegetables, eggs, and milk from your local farmer is the actual cost of food production. The cheap food we get at the grocery store is cheap for a reason. In fact, "The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals, and humans…our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous... A food system — from seed to 7‑Eleven — that generates cheap, filling food at the literal expense of healthier produce is also a principal cause of America’s obesity epidemic."
Unfortunately, shopping for groceries exclusively at the market (or organic aisle, Whole Foods, etc.) is not a reality for me- it's a choice that I factor into my budget and meal planning because I have the privilege to do so. There is a trend in food blogging right now that preaches local, organic, sustainable eating at any cost. Assumptions are made that eating this way is something that anyone can do, that it is easy, and shopping/cooking in any other fashion is unethical. In reality, there is a large number of people (myself included) that cannot make an entire recipe from exclusively organic/local ingredients. I think it is irresponsible to propagate the myth that this is an accessible lifestyle. So many bloggers feature recipes bearing the stamp of "local eggs, butcher's bacon, grass fed beef, etc." and preach this as the norm. These bloggers are leaving out a very important, critical piece of the puzzle: shopping/eating sustainably, locally, organically is a HUGE privilege. Eating sustainably/locally/organically is a choice that I make, when I can, because I have the privilege to do so. That is why, on this site, you will never see a recipe calling for "organic" or "local" anything. Eating healthy should not depend on your budget.
The market guarantees local, fresh, seasonal produce (a sustainable eater's wet dream) but when it comes time to pull the trigger on buying four carrots at $2 a pop, I hesitate. Not to imply that I don't partake in the weekly ritual- rather I do so knowing that I have a tight budget to keep and making sure I stick to it.
As with all my meal planning and shopping, I have tried turning to various articles and blogs for tips on navigating the local market in a pragmatic way. Over and over again, I've discovered two basic "tips" for what I should be doing:
1. getting to know/befriending my local farmer
2. offering a barter for goods prepared myself- jam for cucumbers, granola for squash, etc.
I find these tips silly. I barely have time to barter with my boyfriend for who will make the bed on most days, let alone a complete stranger in their place of business. These "tips" are also very condescending to the vendors. Expecting a farmer to take your homemade pickles instead of cash is a projected, gentrified fantasy of what a farmer is and does. Vendors aren't waking up at sunrise, loading backbreaking quantities of produce, and travelling long distances to the market to pal around with you or be featured on your Instagram feed. They aren't a prop to an imagined urban, sustainable life that can be put up on Pinterest. They are at the market to do business. A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that "The market gardeners with fewer than 3 acres worked an average of 2,000 hours per acre at an average net cash hourly wage (net cash income/hours worked) of about $5." As a close friend recently pointed out, the idea of bartering at a farmer's market for your homemade goods is similar to someone coming up to you at work and saying, "Oh, you don't make $__ an hour anymore but here's a bundt cake". The expectation that a farmer wants to participate in this aspect of trendy, urban homesteading culture is insulting to the amount of work that it takes to grow and harvest their product.
Eating locally and organically on a budget is not easy, but to some extent not impossible. I want to start a conversation on eating healthy on a budget and share some of my tips for shopping at the market.
1. Know what you're shopping for. Going to the market without a plan is exactly like going to the grocery store on an empty stomach. I like to use my market shopping to pick up produce required for dishes that won't be as fresh, seasonal, or flavorful as the same ingredient at the grocery. For example, heirloom tomatoes from the market are worth every penny because the flavor/size can't compete with the store version. Sweet corn on the other hand is not- why spend $2 on one stalk when you can usually pick up 10/$10 at the grocery?
2. Know your season + Buy in bulk. Seasonal foods yield higher volumes which means lower prices. You can buy an entire crate of berries/tomatoes/peaches from the market and then preserve the remains for seasons to come. My tomato sauce in the winter is made from tomatoes I picked up at the summer market. Berries that I put into my pies in the fall are frozen farmer's berries from the July market.
3. Go early for the freshest produce and best picks. Go late and buy up the remains from the day- many times the vendors will discount toward the end of the market just to move product. (End of day is a great time to buy up full crates of produce to use for jams, sauces, etc.)
4. Don't be afraid of the ugly. You are not Snow White and every apple doesn't need to be perfect from every angle. Buy the bruised and battered produce because many times it's discounted and I promise will taste exactly the same in your pie, salad, homemade artisanal pickles, etc. (Even over a decade ago studies referred to in the NYT cited that "High cosmetic quality standards, including those in U.S.D.A. grades, are a significant barrier to the reduction of pesticide use in growing fresh fruits and vegetables." ) Furthermore, market produce is harvested during peak season and is often bruised or battered because it has been transported when it is at it's most ripe.
Eating locally and sustainably is a very important part of my everyday life and I try to factor it into my budget as much and whenever possible. I am sure that many you feel the same way and run into the similar problem of eating locally vs. budget friendly eating. What are some of your tips/solutions for this problem?