For Quality Food and Savings, You Don’t Need a Grocery Store

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A couple of years ago, I was feeling especially thrifty. My husband farms both organic and traditional wheat, barley, lentils and peas, so I thought I should make use of what he grows.

I ground some of his organic wheat in the dry container on my blender and made my own homemade bread. To my surprise, it turned out really good. I’ve had more than a few domestic fails over the years, so I was pretty excited about my bread success.

I decided to go all out and bake all of our bread with our very own wheat.

I watched bread-baking YouTube videos, I bought lots of bread pans and supplies, and I even found a used grain grinder.

I was really having fun and impressing my family, but there was one problem. We ate so much bread that we started gaining weight at an alarming rate. Because I’m trying to keep us at a healthy weight, I put away my bread-baking supplies. (My new focus is making green smoothies.)

But here’s my point: There are inexpensive alternatives to buying food at the grocery store, whether it’s getting it directly from the local farmers and ranchers who produce it, or from cooperatives and other groups. You can save money and have more control over the source and quality of the food your family eats.

Here are some options:

Join a CSA

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website describes community-supported agriculture or CSAs:

[A] CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.

Typically, members or “shareholders” of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer’s salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm’s bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production.

These groups are great for the farmer and the consumer, because the farmer gets a guaranteed market for some of his crops every week, and the consumers get to see where and how their food is grown.

Other pros:

  • Quality. The food is often organic and grown according to high standards.
  • Variety. These farms may provide everything from produce to eggs to meat. You’ll likely learn how to cook vegetables you haven’t tried before.
  • Kid-friendly. Children are likely to enjoy vegetables more if they come from a place the kids have seen.
  • Great price. Says Serious Eats, “A typical single share of produce in New York City costs around $300 to $400 and runs from June to the end of October, so it’s roughly $12 to $18 per week.”

Cons:

  • Selection. The food you get will be based on the growing season, which means your weekly supply of food probably won’t continue year-round.
  • Risk. If the crops fail because of bad weather, disease or other problems that afflict farmers, the consumer loses as well.
  • Volume. Assess how much you get before you sign up, so you don’t waste a lot each week.

How to find one near you:

Join a food co-op

Cooperatives operate more like a grocery store, and likely get food from multiple sources. For instance, they may purchase produce and meat from local organic farmers, then break it down into manageable portions and sell it to members.

StrongerTogether.coop says:

A cooperative exists to serve its members, but what makes co-ops unique is that the members are also the owners. So, in addition to getting the products and services you need, you also have a say in the business decisions your cooperative makes.

Rather than rewarding outside investors with its profits, a co-op returns surplus revenue to its members in proportion to how much they use the co-op. This democratic approach to business results in a powerful economic force that benefits the co-op, its members and the communities it serves.

Like CSAs, co-ops come in a variety of forms. In my neck of the woods, the Bountiful Baskets co-op delivers produce and other foods every other week by truck. You order and pay via its website. A box typically costs $15, or $25 for the organic option, and contains roughly half vegetables and half fruit. The amount of food is abundant compared with what I can buy for the same price at my local grocery store. They also offer other products, such as bags of tortillas and breads.

Bountiful Baskets relies solely on volunteers, so they ask that you pitch in and help unload the truck and sort the food every few times you pick up your food.

Pros:

  • Great price. Like CSAs, you’re likely to get great food at a savings. But that’s not guaranteed. Check out the prices before you sign up and, if it’s required, pay a membership fee.
  • Community. You’ll be volunteering with others.
  • Selection. Your local co-op may have relationships with local farmers, so the food is very fresh. You’ll likely be exposed to fruits and vegetables you’ve never used before.

Cons:

  • Selection. Depending on how your co-op operates, you may not have much choice about the food you get. Learn more before you sign up.
  • Commitment. You will be expected to volunteer on a regular basis.

How to find a food co-op near you:

Buy grains and legumes from a local farmer

If you are really interested in getting some savings, you might want to buy wheat or other grains from a local farmer.

According to the USDA national grain market summary, a bushel of wheat averages about $6.50 if purchased directly from a farmer. A bushel of wheat is 60 pounds. The same amount of white flour purchased from a grocery store is about $32.50.

Even if the farmer is charging you a little more to handle a single bushel and you have to consider a bit of extra work involved, that is some serious savings.

Other pros:

  • Nutrients. You have more control over the handling of the product. Processed grains don’t have the nutritional value of whole grains. When you are doing the cleaning and grinding, you can keep all of that goodness in your food.

Cons:

  • Work. You may have the extra work of cleaning your grain.
  • Time. It’s time-consuming to prepare your own grains or pulse (peas, beans, lentils) crops.

Purchase meat directly from a grower

My farmer husband tells me that, unfortunately, it can be difficult to save money when buying locally raised beef or chicken because the processing costs are so high. But it’s still possible when you buy in bulk.

However, it still makes sense to purchase meat from local producers because the conditions the animals are raised in tend to be much healthier and humane. Imagine the difference between cows chomping grass in a pasture and cattle crammed in a feedlot.

Pros:

  • Your choice. You can look for producers who raise only grass-fed beef and those who do not use antibiotics or hormones.
  • Cowpool. You have the opportunity to get several people to buy a beef or side of beef with you.
  • Help out. If your producer also has a butchering facility, you may be able to cut your cost by helping cut and wrap your meat.

Cons:

  • Where’s the beef? You may have to buy a half or a quarter of beef, which is a lot of meat. Do you have sufficient freezer space, and will you eat it before it gets freezer burn?

Grow your own garden or raise some chickens

To really make this a hands-on experience and one that your children will love, you can raise your own food. You can contact your local County Extension Office to get information on growing a garden or raising animals. The Cooperative Extension System page of the USDA website provides a searchable map to find the office in your area.

If you really want to take it to the next level and learn how to preserve all of the food you grow, your Extension Office can give you helpful literature to show you how. Be sure to follow the directions of a credible resource, like the Extension Office information, when canning or preserving food to ensure that your food is safe to eat.

They can also steer you in the right direction so that you don’t break any city zoning laws while raising animals. See also: “Shrink Your Grocery Budget by Growing Your Own Food” and “Does It Pay to Raise Chickens in Your Backyard?

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  • Don Lowery

    Like the idea of being able to go direct to the source to get your wheat. Myself…being single and doing all my own cooking/baking…it’s personally rewarding and gets more-so the older I get.

    While I don’t have the time or space to mill my own flour…I do buy bread flour (to make my own bread/bake with) in bulk from the local warehouse store. The cost for a 25 lb bag of flour…less than $8. The yeast for a brick about a pound or so is less than $5. Usually freeze the yeast and what I use in my kitchen is kept in a small jar which was bought before I got the bulk yeast in the fridge.

    Then to save time and wear on my wrists (from 30+ years of working with computers)…I found a bread machine which retails for between $250-300 retail at the local thrift store for $8. It’s got a horizontal pan and tons of functions I’ve never used. While finding this was unusual…many thrift stores have other brands for the same $8. Seems like people buy them and can’t figure out how to get any use out of them. Myself…I use mine at least twice a week to make bread…but not in the bread machine. I went to the dollar store and got some of their loaf pans for $1 a piece. I use the machine to make the dough…then I knead it once more before putting into the pans…then a 350 degree oven for 35 minutes. This way…no holes in the bottom of the loaf…I get two loaves from 2 lb’s of dough. If the pans rust out or get bent…I go get some more for $1. The best part of it…the house smells great…my bread is fresh and I make the decision on type of bread and the ingredients I use.

  • Sherrie Ludwig

    We have a bread recipe that doesn’t use bread flour, just regular, and we do most of the kneading in a stand mixer or food processor. Result: bread at less than $0.20 per loaf (hmm, just noticed my computer keyboard doesn’t have a “cents” sign, but does have a dollar sign – inflation?) I tried a CSA last year – result, LOTS of stuff that we didn’t like/couldn’t use, and monotony (Kale once a month, OK, kale making up 3/4ths of the share almost every week – yuck) And that was supposedly the “staple” share, stuff everyone would like and use. I was expecting lettuce, tomatoes and zucchini. Got less than 10% of my vegetables in those categories. Purchasing meat from a grower – can do this at my local farmer’s market in the summer/fall, in smaller quantities. Not cheaper, but I know where the meat came from, will buy her ground beef, not the supermarket’s.

    • bigpinch

      I wouldn’t give up too quickly on CSA’s. Not every year is a great year and not all CSA’s are run the same. But, if you’ve got a good local farmers’ market you may be better off.

  • bigpinch

    Good, informative, well written article. I got to read it, putting my feet up, after hauling in today’s catch from a seemingly endless stream of fresh, organic, vegetables and melons. My wife has nearly packed our freezer full of the same as well as the peaches we couldn’t eat enough of earlier this year.
    I don’t want to sneer at supermarkets. They are an amazing phenomena; to have all of that variety, all the time. It’s so easy to just pop into one of them, push a cart across a clean linoleum floor (under air conditioning) and just pick out almost whatever it is that your can imagine. They are a miracle.
    The social cost of supermarkets is that people have become more disconnected from the people who grow their food, where their food is grown, and the understanding of food production itself. Thirty years ago, when I ran my own little CSA business from my little organic farm, I was passionate about getting people to think outside the supermarket and thus transform themselves and society. I was fortunate to have, during that 10-year run, customers that were as passionate about that idea as I was. Today, I’m just happy to have a full freezer and use the supermarket as infrequently as possible.