Family Farmed Expo: Eating Local on a Dime

March 17 2010 - 9:59 PM

One of the biggest complaints I hear about buying local and organic products is their cost compared to conventional products. "Whole Foods? You mean, Whole Paycheck?" goes the refrain. Indeed, one of the criticisms of the sustainable food movement is that it is elitist, inaccessible and out of financial reach for many Americans. (And yet, when economically struggling people do make the effort to buy local and sustainable products, they are often still the subject of disapproval.) Last weekend's Family Farmed Expo offered a workshop on "Eating Local on a Dime," so I sat in to hear about ways to whittle down your food bill. The panel included Laura Bruzas, founder of Healthy Dining Chicago, Billy Burdett, president of Dill Pickle Food Coop, author Lisa Kivirist, and Irv Cernauskas, co-founder of Irv and Shelly's Fresh Picks. Without further ado, here are some tips on how to eat well without going broke:

    What to Buy

  1. Learn the basics of cooking, from a cooking show or a friend. You don't need to be a master chef if you have quality ingredients. Keep it simple and fast, and choose recipes that use ingredients you have on hand. Don't have paprika? Try googling "paprika substitute" before you run out to buy it.
  2. Don't waste the food that you buy, and don't let it turn into a science experiment at the back of the refrigerator. "After the holidays," said Kivirist, "we stop buying food and we eat what we have. By this time in March, it becomes a competitive sport to see what we can make." For items used infrequently, buy only what you need. Come with measuring cups and buy the exact amount that you want from bulk bins. Make use of everything. The leftover carcass from the chicken can be used for soup stock.
  3. Convenience costs money. Look for minimally processed ingredients. Those baby carrots are actually whittled out of larger, irregularly shaped full-sized carrots. You are paying extra for the cutting, peeling and packaging, so buy regular carrots instead. Plan ahead so that you buy products from the best seller, and aren't stuck buying items at the corner store in a pinch.
  4. Eat seasonally. When products are in great supply, they fall in price. Besides, it will taste better. Plan your menu around what's available.
  5. Filter and drink water from your tap. "If you can pay $1.75 for a bottle of water," said Cernauskas, "you can afford organic food."
  6. Buy dried beans instead of canned ones and soak them a day ahead of time. A $1.50 can of beans yields 1.5 cups, while a $1 one lb bag of dried beans yields 6 cups cooked.
  7. Shrink your meat portions. It's better than spending money on Lipitor.
  8. Where to Buy It

  9. Shop at the Dill Pickle Food Coop, currently Chicago's only cooperative grocery store. The coop is a community-owned business in Logan Square that provides sustainable, local goods. Since the coop has low overhead and no profit motive, they are able to provide everyday low prices to customers.
  10. Shop from Irv and Shelly's Fresh Picks. They are a grocery delivery service, and offer a mixed seasonal produce box, similar to a CSA without the hassle of a subscription.
  11. Grow your own food. If you don't have a backyard, you can have a box of herbs on your window sill. Nothing is fresher and more local than something you grew yourself.
  12. How to Buy It

  13. You can't keep track of every price, but try to track the prices of the six items you purchase most often. Bruzas found that the price of her dog's food varied up to $1.50 per can, a potential difference of thousands of dollars annually.
  14. Arm yourself with knowledge. Print out wallet guides to sustainable seafood and the "dirty dozen," or fruits and vegetables that retain the highest levels of pesticides, and focus on purchasing organic versions of those items.
  15. Consider buying direct. Bruzas, who spent five years working at Whole Foods, noted that many manufacturers are willing to sell directly to you. These include Frontier Coop, Bob's Red Mill and Eden Foods (for which you can use discount code OCA to save 15%). Buying by the case will net you even greater discounts.
  16. Try to repair small appliances before replacing them. Culinary Parts and resale shops are good sources for parts.
  17. Save and check your receipts. Sometimes items are rung up incorrectly, and that sale item wasn't such a good deal after all.

Know of any other tips for saving money on your food bill? Leave them in the comments!