Local on a Budget
I been asked several times in the past week whether I am paying a premium for the local foods I’m eating. The assumption is that local products, especially if they are organic as well as local, are more expensive than what you can get at the supermarket.
The truth is more complicated than that. Some local food, especially animal products and value added things like milled wheat are pricier, no question. We’ve all gotten so used to prices deeply discounted by government agricultural subsidies that it’s hard to look at a four dollar carton of eggs and think that’s a fair price.
The idea of paying my local farmer directly rather than through a middleman who grabs most of the cash is appealing, as is the reduction in environmental damage, but at the end of the day I have to be able to pay my bills like anybody else. So how expensive has The 250-Mile Diet been so far?
August through November I was spending about 20% more than usual on food, but most of the additional cost was because I was stocking up for the winter. I wasn’t just buying what I could eat each week, but also heaps of extra seasonal produce to can, freeze, pickle and dry. Since then I have been spending 20-25% less than I usually do at this time of year according to the monthly budgets on my computer. So it looks like I will come out about even by the end of The 250.
But that is only because I am not buying much food at all right now. I am mainly living out of my pantry, supplemented with fresh greens, apples, and root vegetables from the farmers markets and my monthly winter CSA share. Animal products and wine are almost the only things I am doling out any cash for. Some of the things in my pantry, including dried wild mushrooms, and wild greens and fruit in the freezer are things I foraged or grew in the garden, which brings my cost for the year down even more.
Could you do a 250-mile local eating challenge, or 100-mile as many are doing, without any food preservation, gardening, or foraging skills? Maybe if you live in California or Florida. Here in New York, I can’t imagine what this winter would have been like if I couldn’t dig into my home-dried and canned tomatoes, jars of blueberries and peaches, ratatouille, jams, chutneys, etc. I’ve got plenty of variety in my diet–my neighbor commented today that he’s been smelling all the good cooking coming out of my apartment and thinking that local must taste pretty good!. But most of that variety is due to my amply stocked pantry. I’ve also got fresh herbs to supplement all the ones I dried because I’ve been growing them in my window all winter.
If you’ve got no inclination to learn food preservation or foraging, and no place to garden, but still want to eat a primarily local foods diet, take heart. It is still possible to get the majority of your food from local sources without stocking up. But without some pantry skills it probably does mean that you’ll spend more money.
I don’t think you can be a locavore and not cook, unless you live with a good cook and just do the shopping for them. But you can still choose the local apple over the one from the other side of the planet, and you can learn what is in season when for your area. Just by sticking to a seasonal menu you’ll end up with more delicious and less environmentally costly food.
So yes, it is possible to be a locavore on a budget, if you’re willing to plan ahead and spend more time and money during the harvest because you know you’ll be spending less of both during the winter.