If you're looking for some nontraditional options for purchasing inexpensive and nutritious foods, we have some ideas for you.
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.
- 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.”
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?“