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Can you afford to be a locavore?

Farmers markets are great in theory. But how many people can afford to shop there?

By Donna_Freedman Jul 29, 2011 10:38AM
I visited a Seattle farmers market the other day and was shocked to find that Rainier cherries are $2 less per pound than they were a couple of years ago.

One possible reason: quality. Spring and summer have been cool and cloudy, and these cherries reflected the stress. They're not nearly as sweet as the ones I've tasted from hotter, sunnier years.

Not that this stopped me from buying some.

The market was noticeably smaller than in years past, possibly because of the weather. I saw relatively few varieties of fruits and vegetables, and the only tomatoes were from area greenhouses. The way summer has been going, I wonder whether field tomatoes will show up at all.

I bought a long English cucumber (also from a hothouse) for $2, wincing at the price but also cognizant of the cost of fresh produce these days. One grower had bunches of red, white and purple radishes for $3; another table held squash marked at $3.99 a pound. Green beans were $2.49 a pound and peaches were as much as $4 a pound.

My wallet stayed in my bag. However, I did stop in the nearby Grocery Outlet for a pint of grape tomatoes that cost 99 cents -- the best price I'd seen in a long time. Of course, these were grown in a different country and picked who knows how long ago.

The best use of dollars?

The cucumber was an indulgence, but it should last me several days. I marinated some of it, along with thinly sliced carrots, slivers of onion and grape tomatoes in a dish of vinegar with a little sugar, kosher salt and pepper.

This sharp-tasting "salad" was a nice appetizer, and a handful of the cherries made a fine dessert. But I filled up on much cheaper homemade curry and rice.

If I had unlimited funds, I would have run wild through the market buying purple potatoes, green beans, pattypan squash, fresh herbs and those hothouse tomatoes. But I don't. So I didn't.

In fact, I didn't even bother pricing some of the beauties I saw because I knew I couldn't justify the expenditure. Sure, they'd be delicious. But are they the best use of my food dollars?
Some would say yes, because organic produce is good for us. Granted. But with the costs of even basic foods going up, our grocery budgets may not stretch to fresh foods, let alone organic ones.

I eat a lot of plain frozen vegetables because I can stock up when they're on sale. They're not as tasty as fresh ones, but they're considerably cheaper.

Economic realities

The farmers market is great in theory: super-fresh food, locally produced, money going to the growers. But with prices like these, buyers tend to be affluent.

I can hear some of you howling right now. I'm not rich! I've just made organic food a priority. If so, keep in mind that you have the luxury of choice. If you were a single parent or even a working couple with a kid or two, your priority might be more along the lines of "How do I fill everyone up and still pay the bills?"

According to the Farmers Market Coalition, almost 54% of the more than 6,100 markets nationwide accept WIC coupons and 26% accept the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps). Theoretically that's swell, but the same economic reality applies: Those with limited resources, whether dollars or an EBT card, must stretch them as far as possible.

Put another way: The money I spent on cherries would have bought 8 pounds of rice at an Asian market near my home. When I was at my lowest point financially, I'd definitely have bought the rice. 

When the cherries are gone, I'll go back to cheaper fruit, which at this time of year means bananas and oranges. A few days ago I bought a 99-cent bag of "manager's special" apples, cut out a few bruises and made a quart of chunky applesauce -- very tasty and, more to the point, a little more than 12 cents per serving.

My neighbors are hungry

Would I rather eat $3.99-a-pound cherries every day? Sure. Will I? Probably not.

While I want to support local farmers, I don't even like paying $3.99 a pound for meat. Paying that much for fruit just isn't going to happen very often, especially given how easy it is to go through a pound of cherries.

Of course, I too have the luxury of choice. Technically I could buy all my produce there, but I want to be more careful with my food dollars. The money I don't spend on organic food is helping me go visit relatives (and to help some of them financially), build my emergency fund, fund a retirement plan and contribute to a local food bank.

That food bank sent out an email this morning asking for help. Its cupboards are nearly bare because the caseload has doubled in the past two years. The money I spent at the farmers market would buy 48 food-bank meals, according to Feeding America. While I can't save the world, I can eat more bananas and applesauce.

More on MSN Money
Jul 29, 2011 8:53PM
Sep 6, 2012 2:16AM
THIS IS NOT NOT NOT AN AD. I am a real, broke person living in Seattle, and ***I get $10 free produce a week at Neighborhood Farmers Markets*** by cashing in $10 of my EBT. 

Until 10/1/2012, if you redeem $10 of your EBT or SNAP, and you get $20 in market coupons to spend on produce.  See .

You can do it at *every* Neighborhood Farmers Market (Broadway, Columbia City, Lake City, Magnolia, Phinney, the U District, and West Seattle) and get $70 FREE produce a week.

See  for the list and times of markets. 

Note: I used to be an employee of NFMA, but I am not affiliated with it anymore. 
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