This post is from GRS staff writer April Dykman.

Shopping at a farmers’ market is a great way to eat healthier and support local agriculture, but if you’ve ever been to one, you know that the food isn’t cheap.

When you’re used to fairly inexpensive tomatoes from the supermarket, the price of locally-grown, heirloom tomatoes can be a bit of a shock, leading some consumers to wonder what makes the market tomatoes so much pricier.

J.D.’s note: Three years ago, I did a survey of my local area to find out where to buy the cheapest produce. Farmers’ markets and grocery stores were roughly equivalent here in Portland, Oregon. The real cheap stuff was to be found at roadside produce stands.

The thing is, the farmers’ market prices are the true cost of food. In Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food, author Bryan Walsh writes:

The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals, and humans…our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous. A series of recalls involving contaminated foods [in 2009] — including an outbreak of salmonella from tainted peanuts that killed at least eight people and sickened 600 — has consumers rightly worried about the safety of their meals. A food system — from seed to 7‑Eleven — that generates cheap, filling food at the literal expense of healthier produce is also a principal cause of America’s obesity epidemic.

Cheap food is often unhealthy food, but most of us have a bottom line, a household budget of some sort that we have to keep in mind. There are ways to make farmers’ market food work within your budget, though. Use the following tips to make the most of your market purchases.

Go early for the best selection, arrive late for the best deals
Farmers don’t want to pack up leftover goods and drive them back to the farm, especially perishables like fruit and produce. You’re likely to find farmers discounting their goods if you arrive closer to closing. Because farmers work long, labor-intensive hours, my preference is to not haggle, but many vendors don’t mind at all.

Stop by the information booth first
If it’s your first time at a market, go to the information booth. The volunteers will alert you to deals, coupons, and other specials. Some markets have frequent buyer programs that give discounts to regulars. My city has a “Go Local” card that can be purchased for $10 and offers discounts at the market and at most local businesses around town.

The information booth is a good place to ask about a tasting booth, as well. Usually vendors are not permitted to offer samples at their booth, but can provide samples at a designated sampling table. Finally, the information booth at some markets functions as an ATM if you don’t have cash and some even accept food stamp cards.

Make friends with the farmers
If you want to get the inside track at the market, befriend the vendors. Take a few minutes to say hello and chat about the produce. Also, make their lives easier by keeping in mind the following:

  • Bring reusable bags to carry your groceries. This keeps expenses down for the farmers.
  • Pay in cash, preferably with small bills for less expensive items. Farmers run out of one-dollar bills quickly, and they’re always happy when they get exact change.

One time a vendor lowered my bill just because he was happy to receive so many one-dollar bills!

Prioritize your purchases
If you can’t afford to buy all of your groceries at the market, decide how much you can spend and stick to that. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Start with fruits and vegetables, which are inexpensive in comparison to specialty items like bread, seasoned meat, jam, honey, and olive oil.

Properly pack your groceries as you shop
Local isn’t cheap, so make sure your groceries make it home. As you shop, pack your bags carefully, taking obvious precautions, such as packing the heavier items at the bottom of the bag. Plan ahead if you’re going to buy anything that comes in a glass bottle or jar, such as olive oil, vinegar, and jam, to prevent breakage. Finally, if you need to run other errands after going to the market, bring a cooler and ice to keep items frozen and/or refrigerated.

Don’t let food go to waste
It’s easier said than done, but a good way to make your market dollars stretch is to actually eat what you’ve bought. I still struggle with this sometimes, but a few pointers that reduce the amount of food lost to spoilage include the following:

  • Keep in mind how much your family will actually eat in a given week. There’s no need to dip into your savings account unnecessarily, so try not to overbuy.
  • Plan ahead. On the weekend, wash and cut lettuce to make it easier to take a salad to lunch. Slice up carrots and other veggies. Make it convenient to eat what you’ve bought.
  • Foods like meat, cheeses, and certain breads can be frozen if you know you won’t eat them anytime soon.
  • Shop cooperatively. Go in on food with friends, neighbors, or family members. For example, I love buying a loaf of pecan raisin bread each week, but sometimes my husband and I don’t finish the whole thing. Rather than let it go bad, we split a loaf with my parents.
  • Use as much as you can of what you buy. Buying chicken? Use the whole bird. The ends of squash, green parts of leeks, and other “scraps” can be made into stock. The more you use up, the more you save.

Finally, know what to do with persimmons. Okay, not persimmons specifically, but make sure you know what you can do with the food that you buy, or it’s likely to sit in the pantry until it has to be thrown out. Buy cookbooks ordered by seasons. Two of my favorites are Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets and Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life, but there are a lot of good ones out there.

J.D.’s note: This is a great place for me to plug Simply in Season, a cookbook written by one of my high-school friends. I’m proud of what Cathy has done with this book, and I keep meaning to interview her for GRS but haven’t gotten around to it.

Another great resource is Epicurious: Just type in the ingredient (like persimmons) and pick a recipe that appeals to you. The best resource of all, however, is the farmers themselves. Some have recipe cards at their booth, but even if they don’t, ask them for advice, and you’re sure to get an earful.

The poultry vendor at my market was a chef in the south of France. You can bet I get great advice from him, and I’m not about to let food spoil after he’s given me so many mouth-watering ideas. Just be willing to come back the next week to share how it went with them!

What about you? Do you shop at a farmers’ market? Do you have any tips to save money and stretch your dollars at the market? Also see How to Eat Healthy While Keeping it Cheap for additional tips on how to eat healthy on a budget.

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