I’ve given a couple of talks lately about farmers markets and how to shop for local, organic produce on a budget – here’s the gist of it, or (more realistically) the bulk of it, since I tend to wander off on tangents and forget myself and my main points midway through every presentation.
From June to part-way through October, there’s a farmers market a short walk from my building, conveniently beside two playgrounds, and they have coffee. Last year, after the market’s pilot year but before its second, my neighbours and I in Mount Pleasant wrote letters to the Vancouver Farmers Market and the city asking to have it return, emphasizing its value. The market came back, and it will come back for a third year this spring.
Living in a (sometimes unfriendly) city means that we don’t always engage with our community or interact with our neighbours in positive, mutually gratifying ways: people are annoying and stinky and inconvenient because we’re all, often, annoying and stinky and inconvenient to each other. We’re not forced to see or hear each other, because cities are busy and people are anonymous and everyone’s just trying to get going or get home.
The benefit of city living, for me, is that my world is simultaneously very big and very small. I have everything I need, but I never have to leave my neighbourhood. The farmers market, then, is less about an errand and more community interaction.
I still buy some of my food, mostly produce, at the farmers market.
This may seem counterintuitive, or at the very least … off-brand? But I think it’s important for people to know that even if you’re on a budget, you can still go to your local farmers market.
Be ruthless, and do not waver
I take a different approach to my farmer’s market shopping than my regular grocery shopping: I have a firm budget (in cash), but no plan. I like to see what’s available, what’s new and in season, and what’s interesting and sort of create a strategy around that. So, for example, if I have $20 and I see some good-looking greens, some heirloom tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, or something interesting I haven’t thought about in a while like kohlrabi or parnsips, I’ll pick them up and then plan my meals for the week around what I buy at the market and supplement with pantry items or staples I always have on hand. But I don’t exceed my budget, no matter how pretty the other produce is.
Being firm on dollars can be tricky because it’s so hard to turn stuff down. Everything is so beautiful and fresh and alluring – you just want to take it all home with you! At least, this is my problem – I’m basically a bear two weeks before hibernation, but all the time.
Bringing a finite amount of cash also makes me really think about what I can or will use – there’s no sense buying anything you’re going to end up throwing out. Be honest with yourself: even if the turnips are beautiful, does your family like them? Are they just going to go soft in your crisper, and then get tossed? We must all acknowledge that sometimes our loved ones will disappoint us.
Look for bargains
Are you able to use what you buy right away? Some vendors will have bruised or otherwise priced-for-immediate-sale produce – if you’re ready to can, freeze or eat the produce right away, there’s great value to be found here.
A risky move that sometimes pays off? Head to the market in the 30 minutes or so before it wraps up for the day. Some vendors aren’t booked to sell at other markets that week, and they’ll want to get rid of what they have rather than drive it back home. Sometimes there will not be much left, but sometimes you’ll get a deal, especially on things like greens, herbs, and soft fruits that don’t keep well.
The best way to open yourself up to deals is to be willing to try anything. You may not find a good deal on the most popular items – the heirloom tomatoes, the berries, the stone fruit – but you may be able to get a pretty decent price on something less widely desired, especially root veggies, hardy greens, and some melons.
Treat produce the way you’d treat costlier protein.
It’s true, a single bunch of carrots priced at $3.99 seems like a lot; farmer’s market pricing can be a turn-off for a lot of people. Remember the cauliflower fiasco? Sometimes it does seem a bit ridiculous that these things should cost so much, but it’s also weird that we don’t regard produce more highly.
It’s true that I buy less when produce is expensive, but I also do more with it. You can roast carrots in a low oven for about an hour and they’ll turn meaty. You can make cauliflower a main dish with a bit of pasta, a simple lemon-butter sauce and a handful of nuts. Look at farmer’s market produce as the kind of thing you’d build a meal around, and treat it like steak – only buy what you will definitely use, and then cook it with care.
You wouldn’t leave a roast in the fridge to wither and die and then throw it out – think about produce the same way. You’ll eat more, and waste less.
(If your produce does manage to wither, don’t throw it out! Make stock. Even if you freeze your limp veggies for later.)
Keep your fridge and cupboards stocked with cheap staples
According to the UN, 2016 is the year of the pulse – as such, it’s definitely a good time to stock up on things like lentils, chickpeas and other legumes, many of which we grow in Canada and North America. These will stretch your produce a lot further when you combine them in salads, curries and stews, and even pastas.
I also like to make sure I have a good variety grains (noodles, rice, etc.) and proteins on hand – local tofu, canned fish, seeds and nuts, and cured meats that add a lot of flavour but that you can use sparingly and at a low cost. I’m also a big believer in flavourful condiments; steamed broccoli is steamed broccoli, but steamed broccoli tossed with a chili oil and some fermented black beans or hoisin sauce? Now your broccoli is the star of your plate. Add a few chickpeas and a generous scoop of rice? Yes.
What issues matter to you? Do you care if fruit is organic or GMO-free or picked by people who are paid a living wage? Ask about that stuff. I like to know where the farm is, when they picked the produce, who picked the produce. If I find someone I like, I ask whether they offer bulk buying programs like CSAs. On the rare occasion I’m looking for something in particular, I ask them if they’ll have it and when I can expect it.
What else should you ask about? Find out what the vendor would be buying and turning into dinner this weekend and this week. If you see something interesting and you’re not sure what to do with it – ask!
The people who grow ingredients often have some pretty good recipes as well. This is my favourite way to maximize my dollar and keep from getting stuck buying the same old things. The best thing about the farmers market is getting to talk to the actual producer. There are no stupid questions at the farmers market!
Don’t just go for produce
The farmers market is a great place to check out meat producers and local fisheries. If you’re limiting your meat consumption, this is the easiest way to find ethically sourced animal protein; just keep in mind you may blow your whole $20 on a couple of small items.
However. The farmers market is often a gateway to a whole new world of cheaper good quality animal proteins; check out the bulk buying programs the meat vendors offer, or the community supported fishery shares your local fishmonger might have available. By committing to a relationship with a vendor for a larger purchase or a season (or more), you may find that costs will be lower once you get away from day-of-market pricing.
This approach assumes you’ll have the money up-front. If you don’t, and this is something you want to do, head to the market and get a sense of pricing, then grab contact info for later on. You may be able to purchase larger quantities later in the year, once you’re better able to afford or store it.
An aside: We really have to do better in the way that we talk about food and farmers markets.
For some people, the farmers market will seem or will really be impossible, for any number of reasons. Some places don’t have farmers markets, especially not in all seasons. Some people work on weekends and can’t get to them. For some people it’s not simply a matter of budgeting – for some people, the budget is inflexible and must stretch a lot farther in places where fresh produce is expensive, and sometimes planning a meal around some fancy carrots is a tall order.
Often, the way that we talk about food and farmers markets and how anybody should spend their money ignores the realities of a lot more people than we realize, and in turn alienates them. It’s hard to care if that head of cabbage is organic when you’re not sure if you’ve got bus fare for the week ahead; better to buy the cheaper cabbage than to not buy produce at all.
Food prices, quality and accessibility are political issues and, like all issues in our modern political landscape, they’re also very polarizing and people have a lot of opinions. On the one hand, you should be thoughtful about most of the food you’re putting into your body. On the other hand it’s just food, and food should never be exclusive.
Go to the farmers market because you want to, because it’s a thing that’s happening in the community you are a part of. If you buy one small bell pepper or bunch of Swiss chard – or nothing at all – it feels good to know what’s growing, and to talk to the people who grow the food we eat.
Look for farmers market associations in your area, and find out what they suggest in terms of shopping on a budget – different organizations may have different priorities, but I’ll bet most of them encourage their vendors to offer some items at a discount for people who have smaller budgets.
And if nothing else? Go for the coffee. It’s always good, no matter which one you go to.