Food & Finance – Produce

by in View All Posts, February 12th, 2009

Farmers Market

Welcome back readers!

I hope that you are still revved up about getting the most for your food dollars (and leaving more dollars in your bank account). A very special welcome to you if today marks your first encounter with “Food and Finance” – follow the rules and your bank account will thank you. I encourage you to refer back to my “inaugural” column for my basic shopping and budget guidelines.

Last week we talked about where to shop. This week — produce. We’ve all been told about the health benefits of a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. But fresh produce is often very expensive. Many people drastically reduce their produce purchases when trying to save money on groceries. The tips below are intended to help you continue to supply those healthy fruits and vegetables you and your families need without busting your budget in these tough economic times.

1. Buy in Season. Most of us probably do not know what produce is in season at any given time. This is largely because our sophisticated and vast transportation system and importation infrastructure enables us to obtain virtually any vegetable or fruit from anywhere at any time of year. Convenience comes at a price, however. The recent jolting rise in oil prices led to increased transportation costs that are, of course, passed on to you in the stunning prices for produce. Want a solution? Buy in season. When you buy in season you reduce the transportation costs associated with your goods and therefore pay less for your purchase. Try some of these seasonal menus to get you started:

Fall Menus
Winter Menus
Spring Menus
Summer Menus

An added benefit – you may wind up trying fruits and vegetables that you’ve never had before, particularly during winter months, when your usual choices are —- out-of-season.

2. Buy Local. This is buying in season taken to a new level! Buying in season is a broad concept of which buying local is a subset. If you use the United States as the relevant territory, buying in season general means that if the produce is in growing season within the United States (for example, in California), then its on the approved for purchase list regardless of where you live (New York). Generally better than imports with respect to cost, but there still could be a significant transportation “tax”. Buying local generally means that you buy foods grown in your immediate geographical area – perhaps within the state or within a certain number of miles (usually not more than a couple hundred) of your location. In addition to drastically reducing the transportation “tax” on your food, buying local allows you to support local agriculture and recycle dollars within your community. Reduced transportation time can also mean fresher food with fewer pesticides and preservatives needed to stretch the shelf life. As with buying in season, you are generally going to need to be willing to try new things if you live in a geographical area that produces little in the winter months. You can also can fruit and tomatoes and make jams and marmalades – great ways to preserve summer’s goodness for consumption year round. (Try Barefoot Contessa’s Easy Strawberry Jam or Alton Brown’s Pickled Okra, for example!) While some supermarkets do make an effort to highlight local goods, often the best way to shop local is to visit a farmer’s market. They’ve grown incredibly popular in recent years – find the markets near you (though not all are open year-round).

3. Grow Your Own. This is the ultimate in seasonality. Start a backyard garden. You’ll be amazed at what you can grow on even a small plot of land (or a windowsill, or a rooftop……). I strongly encourage growing your own herbs; they are extraordinarily expensive in the supermarket and usually not very difficult to grow. Many can be grown in small pots on a windowsill and yield a never-ending supply of fragrance and flavor. If brought in side during colder months, many will produce year-round. My favorites are thyme, rosemary, sage and mint. Now, if you just can’t envision going it alone with hoe and shovel, you might consider taking a share in a community supported agriculture project. You contribute (in the form of cash or sweat equity (or both)) and then get a share of the produce of the community garden. Or join a food co-op – many of them provide fresh produce at drastically reduced prices in exchange for members working on a rotating basis at the co-op store. Consider all of the options to see what works for you. As for me, spring is around the corner and in the name of financial prudence I’m planning to commandeer my kids’ backyard soccer field — I’ll never have to buy another tomato, eggplant or squash again. Just kidding – I’ll leave them enough room for one goal.

Send your success stories (and your challenges)! I love hearing from you. Come back for my next column in two weeks – more tips and triumphs!

Yours in food frugality,


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Comments (12)

  1. Robin Koury says:

    Produce is near and dear to my heart as my family owns a farm in upstate NY. Farmer’s markets are a great way to save money. However, as an added bonus many times smaller local farmers attend with hybrids of produce that are often not found in traditional grocery stores making for tasty finds. Not only does the produce taste a million times better but its often far cheaper and better handled than from the grocery store. A great cost savings tip is to become friendly with the local farmers you interact with at the farmer’s market and ask for a discount if you buy in bulk. This concept works well if a few friends get together to split the produce and the farmer loves knowing in advance that a portion of his crop is pre-sold. Roni, your posts are fabulous please keep sharing!

  2. Lana says:

    Hi Roni, as always, excellent advice here. Since I live in Idaho, many of our store’s fresh produce has to be shipped in from elsewhere – I’m always amazed when I visit family in California, how cheap some of the produce is!

    I have mentally set various “cost per pound” limits on my produce purchases, and I think that simple rule keeps me “in season.”

    Idahoans (and Utahns, too) are known as avid gardeners; it has to do with a certain church’s influence in this area. We do alot of canning at the end of the growing season, and that helps to cut grocery costs all winter.

    The great part about home canning is that we can add whatever flavors we want to several batches of the same vegetable or fruit. Canned tomatoes with Mexican, Italian flavors, even Indian spices, saves not only money, but dinner’s prep time as well.

  3. J. E. Jones says:

    Roni, greetings! Love your advice on food and finance. Yes, in this time of economic challenges, we strive to maintain our nutritional eating habits, and you certainly identify steps we can take to effect cost savings. Do you recommend buying organic produce? Lately, the organic produce seems to spoil quickly. We are now buying “fresh” produce and washing it thoroughly. JJ&MJ

  4. Melissa says:

    I know you can’t really advertise on here but I tried those “Green Bags” (that you see on tv alot). I thought I would try them out and they have saved us a ton of money. The problem I had come upon was that the produce I would buy would go bad before I could use it all. Even just salad mix or a head of lettuce would be wilting and brown before even a week had gone by. We wasted so much money because most of the produce would end up in the trash. Even herbs. I used those bags and they paid for themselves within the first week. I bought a bag of Romaine that lasted me a month because of those silly bags. The commercials are a little much but they actually work. A great money saver.

  5. Brianna says:

    I looked at the Spring Menus link and was surprised by the vegetables included. Are asparagus, zucchini, and peas really in season now? My supermarket hasn’t reduced prices on any of them. Is it just a few weeks early, or do I need to go to farmer’s markets to find the cheap in-season produce?

  6. Donna Hardesty says:

    Being disabled for the last 5 years, I cannot managed a regular garden, but I have gradually increased the number of of patio pots and kinds of veggies and herbs I grow in them each year. You’d be ammazed at the variety and amount of produce a patio garden yields! I grow 3 types of tomatoes ,4 varieties of peppers hot and sweet, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, lettuce (romaine and a spring mix), all different types of herbs, and I’ve even had limited success with zucchini. So what started with me wanting a few fresh grape tomatoes, and loving gardening yet unable to physically manage a regular one has grown to a huge patio garden (actually backyard pot). I never let an empty container of any kind go to the trash from my home or any family member or friends house without thinking, “Can I grow something in that?” I don’t buy any salad fixings from mid July to the end of Sept. or later if the weather holds.

  7. Emmanuelle says:

    I've recently discovered a brilliant supermarket. It is called HMart and sells mainly Korean/Asian food. Their vegetable/fruit selections are amazing, fresh and so cheap. Their meat/fish are cheap and so fresh. I've saved about 30-40% (sometimes even more) compare to going to Walmart. They are not all over the country. Just check the website:

  8. gakral says:

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