What’s the number one thing people say stops them from eating more local food? Cost, says Leda Meredith, author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. But even those on tight budgets can reap the benefits (great-tasting food, smaller carbon footprint, a boost for local economy)—you just have to know a few tricks:
Seek out the late shift
You’re probably aware that Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a great way to find local, generally well-priced food. But if you really want a bargain, call your CSA’s organizer and request what Meredith calls the late shift. “Every week, there are people who can’t pick up their shares,” she explains. “Whoever is working that last shift usually gets first dibs on the leftovers.” Meredith says this works for farmers’ markets too; you won’t get the goods for free, but at the end of the market day, you could score some tasty bargains. You may have to ask for the discount, but think of it like a garage sale: You want it, they want to sell it, and the later the day gets, the more bargaining power you have.
Get to the meat of it
Some CSAs now offer meat, egg, and milk shares. If yours doesn’t, search eatwild.com for a farmer near you who sells animal food products directly to the public. If you have big meat eaters at home, consider “cowpooling,” going in with other families to buy a cow. The farmer will usually butcher and pack if for you (though you should confirm that so there aren’s any surprises), and then everyone paying can divide it up. Be sure to keep a list of the cuts everyone receives so that no one runs off with all the filet or rib eyes. The up-front cost may seem high (you have to pay the lump sum at the beginning), but if your family eats a lot of meat, this option ends up being much cheap (and more convenient) than buying cut-by-cut at a grocery store.
Be open to non certified
You don’t always have to see the certified organic label to get food that’s still organically grown but often lower-priced than certified items, says Amanda Louden, a Sacramento, California–based nutrition educator and mom of two. “A lot of small local farms don’t have organic certification because it’s too costly, but they still farm using organic methods,” she says. Because you’re buying from the people who grew it, you can just ask about their growing methods, says Louden. A good starting question: How do they handle pest-and weed-control? If they say they spray, you’re probably out of luck. But if they tell you they use natural methods, delve deeper: Do they pair crops that naturall repel each other’s pests? Do they encourage helpful insects like ladybugs and ground beetles? If they’re skilled at these natural methods, chances are they’ll be happy to tell you all about it.
Know peak vs in-season
This seemingly minor distinction can make all the difference in the price of produce. In-season means the crop is being harvested in your area; peak season means it’s so abundant locally that growers are going to cut prices to sell it faster. “There’s a glut in peak season,” Meredith says. “Prices drop and the quality is better, so it’s a win-win for consumers.” To find out when prices will drop for peak season, ask the farmers you shop from, says Meredith; they might just tell you whether those tomatoes that are $4 a pound now are going to be half that in a few weeks. Or you can check what’s local in your area at any given time at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s website, nrdc.org/health/foodmiles Meredith also recommends that if you’re into canning or preserving, talk to farmers and see if anyone will cut you a peak-season bulk deal. It never hurts to ask, and you may just walk away with the season’s best crop at a very sweet price.