Tip #1: The Farmers Market.
I know, I know, those of you who know me well are wondering why Trader Joe’s wasn’t the very first place I posted about. That’s only because I intend to feature a series of Trader Joe’s lessons in the future; and I just didn’t feel like heading back out today, after a fun stay at the farmers market under the freeway and some quality time at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op for some bulk grain-buying. I recently moved to this apartment and still haven’t figured out all the decorating & window treatment schemes for it, so it takes up some time to do all that. The time that you can’t spend frolicking amongst fresh produce.
If you have access to a farmers market in your area, GO. No ifs, and, or buts about it, you simply must GO. You are all probably aware of the increasing cost of food these days, so it should be no surprise to you that places like Safeway and Raley’s are marking up their food by more than the parts counter at work does. I know good, fresh produce doesn’t come free, but it is simply ridiculous to be paying $1.99 per avocado, or $.99 for an anemic bunch of cilantro, let alone $3.99/lb for heirloom tomatoes. What you are paying for here, folks is good ol’ business & capitalism. The stores have to make a profit somehow, and marking up the prices is how they do it. Not to mention the fact that you have to pay for all the fluoridated water that is sprayed on said to produce about 5X per hour, guaranteeing initially aesthetically pleasing produce, but not so much once you’ve brought the soggy mess home.
At a farmers market or a flea market where fresh produce is featured, you have a much better chance of getting fresher produce than you would at your favorite grocery store for a whole lot less. Sure, the staff at the store looks prettier, but again….. what is it you’re really paying for? Your tomato or the wax on it so it looks all shiny & new? Is the tomato even worth it anyway, considering it was picked the instant it turned pink, just so it would still “look good” in the store? Don’t get me wrong, large chain grocery stores really do make a strong case for their veggies & fruits, polishing & moistening them so that they look enticing and new. The fact of the matter is, you’re just not getting the quality you deserve for the price you’re paying. I can’t think of anything short of cereal that has gone up so much in price without getting anything extra. When you’re at the farmers market, not only are you supporting locally grown foods that are, 9 times out of 10, organic (something everyone knows you’re charged a LOT more for at a regular store), but you’re getting food as it was meant to taste. Vegetables & fruits that were allowed to grow & ripen on their respective plants until they were ready to eat, not ready to go to the treatment plant for processing. Tomatoes ripened on the vine, root veggies allowed to reach their full potential, herbs that haven’t been bred out of their scents & flavors. In short, you’re getting REAL FOOD, and for a fraction of what you would pay at the grocery store.
Case in point: Today. In my 2nd weekly trek to the Farmers Market under the freeway on 8th & W Streets here in Downtown Sac, I was working on a much smaller budget than I had the previous week. I did a great job last week, spending around $35 for a ton of food that I am still working through. Today I only took with me $20, and I knew I would have no problem buying a great deal more than I could at my local Safeway. For $19.40 I was able to get:
I’m positive that the same shopping list at a regular grocery store would have cost me about 1.5 to 2x more than I paid. There is no way in hell I’d even be able to get the tomatoes for less than $7-8 these days, not to mention the avocados!
My point, dear people, is that you get better food for what it’s SUPPOSED to cost you, not for what big business says it should. Your veggies will taste delicious without any seasoning (which most grocery store produce begs for…… ever have a real heirloom tomato straight off the vine? Not even salt is needed!), your fruit will be ripe right now, not 5 days later because you put it in a paper bag. AND you’re supporting the local farmers that work so hard to bring this food to your table. No matter how you look at it, you win. For those of us on a strict budget who just can’t afford what a regular grocery bill would be, you will go absolutely nuts at not just the savings, but the quality of what you will buy from your local farmers.
Now, I know there are many places that do not have farmers markets available to them, nor the variety of produce that is always so plentiful here in California (I have to admit that living here spoils you, foodwise). If you’re unable to find such a gem or even a flea market that features fresh produce, your next best bet will be a natural foods co-operative (Co-op). Yes, they will mark up the food a bit more than you would pay for at a farmers market, but you have the advantage of getting less commercial products, and the added advantage of an organization owned by regular people (you), NOT the big business. For a list of natural foods co-ops nationwide, visit http://www.coopdirectory.org/directory.htm
Lastly, let’s not forget the fun you can have at one of these markets! People from all over flock to these and you’ll find some sort of local performer or political activists nearby, so if anything, you’ll be entertained AND well-fed. 🙂