Friday, July 10, 2009

The Best Bang for Your Produce Buck

One of the best things we can do to make ourselves and our families healthy is to eat real, fresh foods. Many of us may think that what we get in the supermarket in the produce aisle is fresh, but the reality is that much of that food comes from halfway, or all the way, around the world, and is far from fresh. For most foods, that means they have to be picked before they ripen, robbing them of their natural development. Once picked, most fruits and veggies immediately begin to lose nutritional value, as they start the decay process.

The longer something sits in a crate, the greater the distance between farm and plate, the less real food you are getting. If you're buying conventional (non-organic) produce, and it's from far away, you're barely eating a natural substance. In fact, you may be eating more chemicals than nutrients (many foreign countries use harsher and more chemical pesticides and herbicides than we do in the US). Sure, it may look nice, and we've somehow evolved to value the look of produce over its taste and nutritional value, a cultural phenomenon I'll never understand. But you are getting very little for your produce dollar in buying these products. Granted, if you live in certain parts of the world (like the Northeast US), winter makes sourcing local produce quite a challenge. The rest of the year is quite a different story.

Here are some options that could work for you to help get real food on your table, and avoid spending your life savings to feed yourself:

As I've mentioned in many a previous post, we subscribe to a CSA (Community Support of Agriculture) program. This program is run by a local organic farm (the one we use is Honeybrook Organic Farm). It helps them to have this subscription program, because it guarantees them an income for the year, regardless of weather conditions. It helps me, as a consumer, because I get fresh, local, organic produce every week from a farmer I trust.

This is how is works: You apply for a share with the farm, and if you can get a spot (our CSA fills up FAST!), you then pay for the upcoming year's share. Many farms offer only one kind of share - a full share. At Honeybrook, we have the option of a family share, an individual share, or a delivered boxed share. Family and individual shares must be picked up at the farm. Boxed shares are delivered to a wide variety of locations on specific days, and individuals must come to pick up their boxes within certain times. We took a boxed share, which we split with a friend. The cost this year for our share was $624, of which we paid $312. The harvest season typically runs from late May to early November, depending on conditions, so that means we're paying an average of $12.50 per week for our share. What a terrific bargain!

Our CSA grows all sorts of vegetables (lately our box has includes lettuce, beets, summer squash, fennel, kale, cabbage, basil, radicchio), plus aromatics, like onions, garlic and herbs, so there's little need to buy other vegetables. Some CSAs grow quite a bit of fruit, too, but ours is limited to berries and some watermelon, so we do still spend additional money on fruit.

Another benefit to many CSAs is that they have some pick-your-own crops. For no additional charge, members can come to the farm to pick specified quantities of certain veggies or fruits. During strawberry season, we picked 8 quarts of strawberries in the course of two weeks!! Not only was there no charge for this, but my daughter and I had a great time in the fields, and she got herself completely covered in strawberry juice and mud (what fun!). The strawberries were also about the best I've ever tasted. Just incredibly sweet and flavorful!

We've also picked sugar snap peas, snow peas, green beans and herbs so far this season. Oddly enough, the act of picking these things gets my daughter interested in them. If you can believe it, she was eating raw green beans and chives right from the fields! It's a great way to familiarize kids with the growing and harvesting process, and helps them learn about their food, opening their minds to new tastes and textures. Now, my daughter happily eats chives, even though she'd always complained that they were too sharp before.

Although there is sometimes an overabundance of certain veggies or fruits during the season, this is really a benefit that can carry you through the colder months. Too much basil can easily become pesto sauce, which freezes quite well. Too many tomatoes can become tomato sauce or tomato soup, which also freeze very well. Zucchini is great for quick breads, another good freezer. Strawberries can become strawberry jam, which can be canned and stored in the pantry, or you can just freeze them whole (stems removed) and use them in smoothies whenever. Potatoes, carrots, beets, and other root vegetables can be stored in a cool root cellar for months. Winter squash can keep for a couple months right on your counter, or you can cut them up or puree and freeze them. Just because you receive a box full of goodies every week doesn't mean you need to use them up before the week is over. Making them last means you'll have more variety in your diet throughout the year.

Farmers' Markets
Farmers' Markets are everywhere now, as there has been such a return to local agricultural support. They offer many of the same benefits as a CSA, but with more flexibility and variety. Typically, the prices are higher than you would pay per pound through a CSA, but still lower than organic produce in the stores.

The great thing about Farmers' Markets is that you really can get to know the farmers themselves, since they often tend their own tables. You can find out how they grow their veggies and how they raise their animals, and see if their philosophy jives with yours. Just like in a CSA, you're still eating a seasonal, local diet, and very often their products are grown organically (even if not certified as such). You get to pick what you want to buy, and leave the rest (with a CSA, you get what you get), and you control the quantities of what you buy (so you won't have to figure out how to use 5 heads of lettuce in a week!). Although some CSAs also offer things like eggs, dairy and meat, these are much more commonly found at a Farmers' Market. You might even find local artisan cheeses, local raw honey (a very tasty way to keep seasonal allergies at bay), grass-fed beef, pastured chicken and eggs, raw and un-homogenized milk (in those states where this is legal), in addition to all the local produce.

There are a couple of different types of co-ops that can provide reasonably local produce options. There are organic food co-ops, most often found in urban areas. Typically, members of the co-op must work a minimum number of hours at the co-op store in order to participate. Members are part owners in the business, and therefore might receive a small dividend annually. Food co-ops often stock similar products that would be found in a local health food store, but the prices are often lower.

There are also food delivery co-ops, like Purple Dragon, which deliver fresh produce, often sourced locally, throughout the year. These are generally higher in price than even store-bought organic produce, but since they emphasize seasonality, subscribing to such a program could be a boon to your health, which might not be available to you otherwise.

Farm Stands
Certainly, most farm stands that you might pass on the road are not selling organic or ethical produce and other products, but they are nonetheless fresh from the farm, very inexpensive, and seasonal, all of which can be great supplements to your diet, and a relief to your purse. You might not be able to fill out your fridge by stopping at random farm stands, but you may very well discover some great finds! Many also have pick-your-own produce, which is especially inexpensive. If you see one, stop by ... you never know what you'll find!

Nearly Free Food
This is one area where I have just about zero experience, but I'd love to apprentice with people who could show me the ropes. I'm talking about growing, finding, or hunting your own foods. All of these are nearly free ways to get food.

Growing vegetables or fruit is quite beyond me and my brown thumb, and being that I have no land at the moment, I'm off the hook. But when I get the opportunity, I will certainly call on my most knowledgeable friends and family to help me make sense of dirt and compost and seeds and such. It's a complete mystery to me.

Another very foreign option to me, but one that is gaining in popularity, is raising animals. There are people with tiny little yards in Brooklyn who are raising chickens. Why not? Come to think of it, I always did want a goat as a kid (excuse the pun). They would be awfully good at mowing a lawn. Hmmm ... something to think about.

Finding foods is a true skill, and I think employing someone to help you navigate, whether you're talking about finding wild greens or mushrooms, is essential. There are very few things I've ever scavenged. I suppose I was lucky enough as a child to grow up in The Bronx where wild mulberry trees and wild chives abound. I've also had my share of honeysuckle nectar from those very sweet smelling blossoms, but I'm not sure if I count that to be a true food substance. You'd need an awful lot of honeysuckle to sweeten your tea.

Hunting is one option that, I admit, is a bit unsettling to me, but I recognize that my distaste for it is cultural and familial, and not at all rational. Hunting is perhaps the best way to get healthy, natural meat. Some part of me is interested in learning about it, but I just don't know if my brain and my queasy stomach agree.

Worse Comes to Worst
If you have none of these options available to you, you can always buy from health food stores, or, at worst, the mega store. The smaller and more independent the store, the more likely their produce is sourced from local farms. Large stores tend to negotiate with large, corporate farms. So, even when Jersey tomatoes are in season, WalMart might still be stocking their shelves with Californian and Mexican transports. Do your best to find out what is seasonal locally, so you can go to the store with that knowledge in the back of your mind. If you buy foods that should be seasonally available in your area, you might luck out and get the local stuff, even at the mega mart.

A final note
So, where can you find information about your local options? Here are a couple of great sources: - This is your best resource for local CSAs, Farmers' Markets and Food Co-Ops. - Natural Resources Defense Council - This is a great source of information about seasonal produce. It is organized on a state-by-state basis, so you can always see your own state, and the neighboring ones, as well.

For most people, some combination of the above is what works best. See what's available in your area, and find your best fit.

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