Monday, April 13, 2009

Locavore on a Budget

I’m finding, fairly often, my new locavore habit butting heads with another, older philosophy I’ve long held: frugality.

Frugality is not just being cheap. It’s pinching pennies, to be sure, but it’s also learning to live better on less. Living on less leaves more to give, or calls for less income and thus offers you more freedom. Frugality gave me the ability to open my own business, the chance to stay at home with my children, and the opportunity to return to school, all in the same three-year span.

So it’s not something I turn away from lightly; but many areas of local eating simply cost more. How do I move forward with one without throwing away the other?

Well, given that I’ve been a frugalite for over a decade, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve already come up with a long list of ideas to live local on the cheap. Some of the items below go hand in hand to the point that they may seem to be saying the same thing; all I can say in my defense is that they mean something different to me.

Don’t be a purist

Sometimes there are things you won’t be able to find locally; don’t go nuts here. You’re not taking a vow at a monastery, and there’s no need to do without things you enjoy just because they’re not local. I for one am still likely to make the occasional pitcher of sangria, and I don’t know of any citrus groves here in New York. I’ll probably never give up California strawberries completely, either. I just don’t relish the idea of limiting myself to in-season strawberries that cost twice as much.

Choose your battles

This is similar to “don’t be a purist.” Some foods will be too expensive locally, and too hard to grow. Sometimes you use so little of something that going local isn’t likely to make a huge impact. Go with it. Go as local as you’re comfortable, as local as is practical for you. If it’s too difficult for you, you’ll go nuts and stop trying. Being a locavore should be about the love of food, not being obsessive-compulsive.

Grow a garden

For some people this may be tough or impossible. Here in Schenectady I only have a small front plot at my disposal. All the same, even in a small space you’d be surprised what you can squeeze in. I can plant all the herbs I’d ever want, and this year I’ll be growing lettuce, spinach, and carrots, too – all in a space that’s about nine feet by thirteen. It doesn’t take much room to make a big impact in your eating.

And the first two rules deserve restating here in the context of gardening. Choose your battles – grow what’s easy, or grow what’s expensive so you can squeeze the most savings out of it. And don’t be a perfectionist here. Maybe you don’t know much about gardening – just give it a whirl. Despite being raised around farming, I didn’t know very much when I started gardening last year, and I still got a lot of fresh salads and steaming pots of tea out of it. More things failed than succeeded, but what I remember is what went right – and I learned a lot for the next year.


This is something I haven’t done myself yet, but I’m hoping to start this year. A lot of experts make this sound complicated, but my friend Kittencaboodle tells you the simplest method ever right over here. (Be sure to check the comments for some clarifying details.)

Waste less

I know, this goes without saying. But you’d be surprised how much you waste. Food from the grocery stores can be so cheap that it’s hardly worth the effort to plan and take care not to waste. Well, local food is usually either more expensive or harder to get, and you’ll be cooking a lot more and thus wasting more effort whenever you throw something out. Now that’s motivating!

Get a freezer, learn to can, learn to dehydrate

This is an old rule in frugality, and it’s no less true in local food. If anything, it’s more so. Freezing is especially good since it diminishes nutritional content the least. Learning to preserve your foods means you can pack them away when they’re in season, or buy in bulk. You’ll be able to eat local for more of the year, and cheaper.

Take notes

When you’re cooking, write down what you do. Eating locally often means a lot of experimentation as you alter recipes to use fresh ingredients, or to use ingredients you can’t even find recipes for because they’re not exactly mainstream. Taking notes as you cook allows you to repeat an experiment that went right, and can help you adjust where it went wrong.

Plan menus

Failing to plan is planning to fail. Planning is trickier for the locavore, though, since you can’t necessarily predict what will be on sale at the farmer’s market before you go. But still, when you get home, it’s valuable to plan out the use of what you’ve purchased. Some foods spoil faster than others, and in order to make sure you use up the short-lived items, it’s helpful to plot it out.


This is another one that may not be possible for everyone – but it’s great for those who can. Of course you always want to be careful when foraging, because frankly, there are a lot of wild things out there that are dangerous! But often, a little knowledge goes a long way, and foraging can have a major impact. Wild plants have significantly more phytochemicals, which the plants produce in order to defend themselves – and they’re very good for you, too!

But you might even be able to forage some domestics. It’s surprising how often there are fruit trees on land that no one eats from. Last year my ex-husband found a plum tree planted as part of the green space in front of a Pizza Hut. Plums had fallen all over the ground; no one seemed to be picking them at all. That day I learned that you haven’t eaten a plum till you’ve gotten a juicy, ripe one straight off the tree. There’s also a black walnut tree just around the corner from me that I might ask the owner about next fall.

Look around for bargains

Sometimes you can find local products right in the grocery store, although you have to keep your eyes peeled (and it must be said, the farmer probably gets a smaller portion of the proceeds than selling at the market). There’s a Hannford in Wilton, for example, that carries Battenkill milk and a number of other local products. I’ve seen local produce in the Price Chopper near me during the summer, too. I noticed it because it was on special that week, and I always note what sales are on.

Another good place to scope out are co-ops. When I lived in Albany I was within walking distance to the Honest Weight Food Co-op. I started going there because it was closer than the grocery store, and after moving I continued going because it’s a great place to find better foods at lower prices. But it’s also a great place to find local food, and no doubt some of that’s at a low price, too, like so many of their other items.

The Niskayuna Co-op has plenty of local produce, too, as well as Battenkill milk. You can get the gallon-sized plastic jugs of their milk at either the Niskayuna Co-op or the Wilton Hannaford, which are significantly less expensive than the glass-bottled half-gallons.

Trade or Barter

This is another classic from frugality. It’s not always possible, but if you can do it, more power to you! Lots of people with gardens wind up with too many tomatoes, or more zucchini than they could ever use. Someone you know may own a pear tree but be unable to eat or preserve all the fruit that it grows. I have a friend who, it turns out, has a blueberry farm; I’m hoping that I’ll be able to trade labor for berries this summer.

Eat less meat

Local meat is definitely expensive. Eating less meat in general and taking care not to waste what you do eat will make a big difference in spending.

Learn to make from scratch

I have a long-standing habit of learning to make strange things from scratch, just to see how it works. Most people are content to buy instant pudding or a jar of alfredo sauce and call it a day; but me, I want to know what makes it taste that way, what gives it that texture, or what’s in it. And then, when I’ve figured that out, I want to know how I can make it in another flavor, with a different vegetable, or in pie form.

Making it yourself broadens your horizons for eating locally. A lot of pre-made items will be impossible to find locally; what’s more, processed foods have a number of ingredients, each traveling from long distances and adding up to more fossil fuel usage than single-ingredient foods.

There are a surprisingly large number of foods that are commonly bought ready-made, yet are very simple to make. I’ve heard that ricotta is dead easy, and mozzarella isn’t too hard, either. Yogurt is simple if you can sort out how to maintain the right temperature while it incubates – and if you can make yogurt, you can let it strain out a bit to make that trendy Greek yogurt, or longer to make your own cream cheese.

Do what you’re comfortable with

This goes along with not being a purist. An old rule in frugality is that you can’t pinch every penny – there will be some things that are worth spending the money on. There will be some things that, for you, will be worth burning the fossil fuels on; these differ for every person, but you’ll know it when you find one.

Read up! And keep reading.

The more you know, the easier it is to keep coming up with new ways to eat local, and new ways to fit it into your budget. Just don’t wait until you feel like you “know enough” to get started – every little bit makes a difference, especially if it makes a change in your view point. Small events can have an amazingly big effect that way.

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