Growing all of your own food is a lofty goal. Yet it’s rarely achieved even by the most dedicated homesteaders. When you need to leave home to buy food, what are the most responsible, efficient, and economical options? Here are two ways to find money in the budget for real food.
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While we grow hundreds of pounds of our own produce–which saves us hundreds of dollars per year–it’s still necessary for us to go off the reservation to buy some of our food. Real food can be expensive and time-consuming to acquire.
Mr. TAF and I have always prioritized real food over everything else in the expendable budget. Our social life tends to revolve around free events (wanna go for a walk at the park?), sharing a bottle of $2-buck chuck on the front porch, fires in the suburban-friendly fire pit, and free movies through our Amazon Prime account. Anything else is “very special” and carefully planned for in the budget.
We even started a community garden that is free! Free socializing with neighbors while gardening and harvesting free food? Check.
Fun for us is eating clean food, feeling great about the way the food was raised, connecting to the growers in our community, and feeling energized by the nutrient density of our food.
Yeah, we’re pretty boring. Aside from *that* screaming fact, we are obsessed with getting the highest nutrient density per dollar in our food budget.
What food has the highest nutrient density? In general, here’s the rule of thumb:
- It’s fresh: grown in your backyard or in your local area
- It’s organic: doesn’t have to be certified, but should be chemical-free and non-GMO
- Pasture-raised/grass-grazed cows
- Raw or Minimum heat pasteurized
- Organic, if pasture-raised isn’t available
Meat & Eggs
- Pasture-raised animals
- Organic or non-GMO feed
It has become a serious challenge to continue to lower our food budget while getting more of the good stuff.
Here are 2 ways that we changed our food budget for the better!
#1: Conduct a Food Audit
When I wrote about affording good food, I invited readers to make a menu plan for a couple of weeks, tally up their top 10 most-purchased foods, price each item at grocery stores around town (regular and natural foods stores), farmers’ markets (the ones that you actually might attend), buying clubs, etc., and figure out how to get those items at the highest nutrient density for the best price.
This prompted me to conduct a giant audit of *everything* we use in the household – not just the top 10. It took quite a few months, and I’m still tinkering with it. However, I was shocked to discover that over 50 of our most purchased items, from produce to meat to personal care products were available elsewhere at a cheaper cost (for the same high quality).
I have a few extra stops on errand days to get these better deals, but it hasn’t been difficult or inconvenient to incorporate them into the route.
One notable change was becoming a Costco member. Fifteen of our regularly-purchased household items are undeniably cheaper there, and for most of them I can get the same brand that I was getting elsewhere (meaning the same high quality and nutrient density).
The $55 membership fee has already paid for itself.
#2: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
A CSA is a way to purchase a membership with a local grower in exchange for a weekly share of the harvest. Most CSAs are produce CSAs, but there are also specialty CSAs for meat, dairy, eggs and cheese, cut flowers, a combination of any of these…pretty much anything an entrepreneurial farmer can come up with.
Joining a CSA is my top kitchen tip for homesteaders. The cost of your “share” for the season is usually paid up front, with share pick-ups usually occurring weekly throughout the growing season.
There are two types of CSAs: work shares (work around the farm and learn stuff, usually for a cheaper share price) and non-work shares (where you just pay and pick up).
Pick-up can be on the farm, delivered to your home, or at a central drop-off point such as a farmers’ market, depending on the program.
Why I choose CSAs over Farmers’ Markets
I have some great farmer friends who sell high quality products at farmers’ markets. And the social benefits of getting outside, meandering through a farmers’ market, and running into friends, are unsurpassed.
However, many people go to a farmers’ market without a shopping list and without a budget, and buy a bunch of random stuff because they want to show their support to all of those smiling, hard-working farmers. If this makes you happy and you can afford to buy stuff on a whim, then go on with your bad self!
In general, I’ve found that a farmers’ market doesn’t save me money because I often don’t find what I’m looking for. If I do find what I’m looking for, I rarely know in advance what it’s going to cost, which messes with the budget.
A la carte purchases are always going to be more expensive – as they should – since the farmers sit at the market for long hours at a time (time = money).
Visiting a farmers’ market is also more time-consuming for the consumer than a CSA pick-up. The occasional farmers’ market stop for social reasons or a special purchase is great fun, but by and large, what I really need is a quick stop with a defined price.
The CSA Pick-Up is Fast and Easy
A CSA pick-up is quick but pleasant, and payments aren’t necessary because I pre-paid at the beginning of the season.
My Diet is More Varied
Having high-quality bulk produce once a week requires me to find recipes that use it up, and oftentimes the combination of vegetables is not what I would have grown or picked out for myself.
In the end my diet is more varied with a CSA than it would have been if I had picked recipes first and then gone shopping.
Farmers’ markets and CSAs are both great ways to meet your local farmers and other like-minded consumers in your area, and you should have at least one of these in your life! Do whichever fits your lifestyle and budget.
There is no doubt about it, CSAs are the most economical way to get the most nutrient-dense produce for your dollar. This is our
5th 7th year participating in a fruit and vegetable CSA. While our share costs $20 per week, the abundance of clean, fresh produce is amazing.
There will be plenty of extra produce to can or freeze for wintertime eating – much more than I would get for $20 at the regular grocery store or farmers’ market.
I recently wrote a little piece about our Meat CSA that showed up in the Mother Earth News 2014 June/July issue. This particular CSA operates like a buying club: a group of people pools their money and makes a 6-month order + payment to the local farm for pasture-raised beef, chicken, and pork (updated 2016: And now lamb, too!).
The payment–like the produce CSA–is a commitment, and allows the farmer to humanely raise the animals with confidence that customers are already committed. Unlike the produce CSA, however, there is no minimum order for the meat, so we can order as much or as little as we want.
Luckily, I don’t need the freezer space for 6 months worth of meat, because we pick up on a monthly basis. We finally got a chest freezer, but it isn’t the largest one by any stretch.
We order the cuts of meat that are cheaper than grocery store prices. Can you believe pasture-raised meat can be cheaper than the grocery store? The catch is learning how to use some uncommon cuts, but we like the nutritional variety and the fact that the whole animal is being used. I even save the bones to make gut-healing, nutritious broth.
We save 13% over grocery store prices, largely due to the cuts that we order. This would be a steal even if the cost differential was nil, because the animals are so much healthier and happier.
The Bottom Line
When your garden doesn’t produce all the food your household needs, food audits and CSAs are two ways to find extra money in the budget for purchasing nutrient dense, high quality food. They are also efficient uses of your time.
If we can stick to this new purchasing philosophy here at Tenth Acre Farm, I estimate that we will consistently save $100 per month over our previous practices (which I thought were already pretty good until I did the audit!). What’s great is this frees up money to start saving in advance for the next CSA share price, or to put towards food and water storage for emergencies. We follow Dave Ramsey’s budget plan, which requires us to save ahead for purchases like these.
What are you doing to get the most nutrient-dense food for your dollars?