Many times the supermarket is the gateway to healthier eating if you know how to shop. Healthy eating gurus talk about shopping around the perimeter of the store and avoiding the processed food in the center. Sometimes, the fresh selections at your local supermarket, while cheap, come at a cost. They may not be sustainable food choices or perhaps they were flown or trucked great distances to get to you.
I am not saying you should only buy organic and local, but thinking more about where your food comes from is part of the process of thinking about what you are putting into your body and your overall decision to eat healthier.
The supermarket has made many fresh items available to us throughout the year. Yet, I’ve found that the tomatoes in December have no flavor and the puny asparagus from Peru utilized thousands of pounds of fuel to stare at me in the local supermarket. I decided to start looking at alternatives to how I shopped for fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.
This multi-part article will tackle some ways to look beyond the supermarket for healthy choices.
The Farmer’s Market
This is an excellent option for those seeking some of the freshest fruits and vegetables around. Living in California, the farmer’s market is not really a new concept for me. I used to attend them with my dad on Saturday mornings when I was a little kid. But what’s truly great is that in the past 10 years, so many small farmers and community members around the country are seeing the benefits of locally grown produce, which is resulting in a rise of farmer’s markets in cities large and small. Locally grown is a way of supporting the community, where consumers benefit from fresh produce and an opportunity to develop relationships with farmers and farmers benefit from reduced transportation costs and not having to sell products to a wholesale distributor, which keeps money in their pockets.
Is it Expensive?
One of the words most often associated with “groceries” is “budget.” Folks are often quick to point out that farmer’s markets are more expensive than supermarkets. This however, is not always the case. I often find the prices are the same if not a little lower at your local farmer’s market. Some farmer’s markets now even take EBT/food stamps, so no matter what your income or budget, there really is no reason to not go unless it is a great distance from you.
Let’s Make a Deal
Unlike a supermarket, the price you see is not always the price you pay. Since you are dealing directly with the grower you can negotiate. Want to teach your kids to haggle? Give them each $20 and tell to get the most fruits and veggies they can with that money. It teaches them to shop, speak to others, haggle, simple math, etc. Besides, people are generally happy to bargain with a youngster.
Where is Just as Important as When
Most often, the first to the market gets the best selection, but the late comers can benefit from the best deals. Generally about 30-45 minutes before the end, many farmers start selling things at a discount so they can make a sale and don’t have to ship all the produce back with them. Those $2 per lb nectarines from this morning are now 5 pounds for $5. Remember, many people are selling similar products so if you don’t find a price you like or someone isn’t willing to deal a little, move on. You have cash and money talks. But just keep in mind that with haggling and dealing, you should be respectful and not insult the grower. The great thing about farmer’s markets is you can develop long-term relationships with the people that grow your food.
Best of the Best
Lastly, the farmers market usually carries a selection of produce that most supermarkets can’t match. Heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables that often taste better than just about anything you find in a local supermarket. Also, you may find items that you have never seen before. I recently discovered one vendor that had a variety of Asian vegetables I had never even seen, much less heard of. I implore you on your journeys each week to try one new thing, even if its a sample. Not sure how to cook it? just ask the farmer. Yes, that’s right…talk to them. This week one grower had around 6 or 7 varieties of grapes. I asked which one he like the most? He pointed me to a seedless red varietal only in season for a few more weeks. I picked up a few bunches and have to admit, they were really fresh and very flavorful.
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. CSA’s are popping up all over the country and can operate in a variety of ways. The most familiar business model is where you pay for a “share” of the crop that is produced and then each week or so you receive a box of freshly harvested produce. If you are currently a member of a CSA that operates this way and love it, great! One main complaint about CSA’s that use this business model is that your “share” boxes often contain a lack of variety. Many times you may receive a 5 pound box of carrots and a ton of kale or 90% yellow squash or tomatoes in the summer.
So Much Produce!
It is important to consider a CSA carefully. With the “share” model, one upside of this is you learn to eat with the seasons. No melons or tomatoes in December. The downside is what do you do with all of those beets? A couple of options, aside from giving it to family and friends, would be to invest in a dehydrator and/or a juicer. I can’t tell you how much these two devices can allow you to utilize fresh produce like never before. Drying things in a dehydrator is a great way to make snacks that have a good shelf life and can be taken anywhere. A juicer, which we used everyday when my wife was pregnant, is great for making healthy drinks with those greens.
Do Your Homework
When I lived in New Jersey, there were quite a number of CSA’s in my area. However, after researching them I found one with a great model. What I liked about this particular CSA is everything was certified organic.
Next, you basically paid up front in the spring (at a discount) and had a revolving credit throughout the year that didn’t expire and could rollover to the next year. So, you would only have to pay $225 for $300 worth of produce up-front.
Each week the farmer would send out an email to CSA members describing what was available that week. The best part is she would send out a form on Google during the week where all you had to do was fill in what you wanted in the specified fields and send it back.
If you didn’t want anything then you didn’t have to return it. If you wanted 5 pounds of potatoes, and a single bunch of basil then you could fill in the fields accordingly. The icing on the cake was that your produce would be bagged and ready for pick up Sunday morning. She made sure CSA members were taken care of first, before she took the rest of the produce to the local farmer’s market to sell. Whatever didn’t sell, she would give to those who volunteered to help her harvest and sell at the markets. It was the best!
The only way you will know is to research what is available to you in your area.
Grow Your Own
Growing your own fruits and vegetables is another rewarding way to have quality fruits and vegetables for your diet. Gardening can be anything from mini-farm in your backyard to a few small containers on a patio. The size of your garden depends mainly on your time and space, costs for start-up and maintenance, and how large your “green thumb” actually is.
It’s Not For Everyone
If you are up for a garden, it’s a great way to watch something grow, offer your children teachable moments and make something you can eventually eat! Like anything, realistically consider if this is a good option for you. In a suburban backyard that is fenced in, you can really get creative with containers. I have container-gardened for as long as I can remember. Strawberries do well in planter boxes while carrots and potatoes do well in old oak barrels that have been cut in half.
Weigh the Costs
When I lived in a rural New Jersey, I calculated that for the first time in my life, it would actually be easier and more economical to join a CSA than to have a garden out back. If you calculate that you need to spend close to a thousand dollars in supplies and operating costs to grow a few hundred dollars worth of vegetables in a season, then is gardening really the best option?
Costs can be both time and money. When you live in rural parts of the country, you have to consider sources of water and potential pests. Organic farming in rural settings is especially challenging because you have to contend with deer, squirrels, birds and other small critters that want to partake in your bounty. Nothing will break your spirits more than watching a beautiful watermelon grow only to come out one day and see its been half eaten by a furry neighbor. It takes time to water, weed, sustain and harvest a crop. Even if you have the space and the money, time is another factor that should be considered.
Herbs = Healthy Flavor
Consider growing herbs if your space is limited or if you are just starting out. They require little maintenance and can even grow in pots inside. Mint, basil and cilantro are some of my favorites and can add a loads of flavor to simple dishes.
Some seed companies offer exotic varieties you can’t find in a local grocery store, like Thai basil or Greek oregano. Not sure if you want to grow them from seed? Some vendors occasionally sell herb plants at the farmer’s market. You can harvest a few sprigs the next time you want some fresh flavor.