Grocery store vs. Farmers Market: Which has the cheapest produce?

Last year I asked, “How much do you spend on food?” Answers varied widely. Some commenters couldn't comprehend that others could spend so much — or so little. I've always believed that buying produce at the farmers market is a good way to cut food costs. But is it really? This weekend I decided to find out.

Over the past two days, I've surveyed produce prices at five different locations: the farmers market, a produce stand, and three different grocery stores. I did my best to compare apples to apples (so to speak), but I cannot guarantee that my methodology was flawless. Still, this survey was accurate enough for me to draw general conclusions about my personal shopping. Here are the places I scouted:

Milwaukie Farmers Market

The nearby farmers market is a great source for produce, but it's not exactly convenient. It's open every Sunday from 9:30am to 2:00pm between May and October. The market is a crowded, bustling place with dozens of local growers offering their wares. Quality is good, and most items are raised organically. The market also features cheese-makers, bakers, and the all-important knife man. (We take our blades to be sharpened at the end of every summer.)

You won't find out-of-season or out-of-region produce at the farmers market. Ginger and bananas and asparagus are nowhere to be seen. You can, however, find a dozen different types of tomatoes, or sample the fall raspberries before you buy. Prices are good on some things, poor on others. For us, it's worth paying a little extra to support local farmers and businesses with our food dollars.

New Seasons (Sellwood store)

This high-end grocery store is tucked at the edge of a wealthy neighborhood. We shop it a couple times a year, generally before dinner parties. It stocks a variety of interesting items, and has the highest-quality meats of any nearby source. New Seasons sells a lot of organic and “health” foods, but is less concerned with local items.

The produce here is high quality, but it's expensive. I have friends that refuse to shop for groceries anywhere else because they support the ideals New Seasons represents. This hinders their ability to economize, but it's a price they're willing to pay. I find it difficult to justify the forty minute round trip and the higher costs.

Safeway (Oak Grove store)

Safeway is the closest source of food for us. It's a mile from our house, and I often walk to the store if our grocery list is light. The prices are decent, especially on sale items. Kris usually plans her weekly shopping list around the Safeway sale inserts.

While the store stocks some organic items, these are costly. The concept of local produce — or local anything — doesn't enter into the picture with Safeway; we're treated to woody California strawberries even during the peak of Oregon's berry season. Produce quality here is good but not great. Safeway's real competitive advantage is that it sells just about anything we cold possibly need for our home.

Grocery Outlet (Oak Grove store)

Just beyond walking distance is a discount grocery store that features nick-and-dent items, as well as products approaching their expiration dates. We don't shop here much because Grocery Outlet mostly sells processed food. They do have a small produce section in the back of the store, and their prices are excellent. I can't vouch for quality, however, as I've never purchased any fruits or vegetables from them. On the downside, you must purchase produce in bulk. They don't sell Costco-sized packages, but still — does anyone really need three pounds of plums?

Spicer Brothers Produce and Tony's Fish Market (Oregon City)

The Willamette Valley is an agricultural region, and there are produce stands all over, even in the middle of the city. I pass three on my daily commute. Produce stands offer local high-quality organic fruits and vegetables. Selection is mostly seasonal, though; you're usually limited to whatever is ripe. For this survey, I chose the closest produce stand, which is located across the road from a fish market.

At each location, I jotted prices and observations. After compiling the data, I created a spreadsheet. I had hypothesized that the farmers market would have the lowest prices, but I was wrong. Click below to open the results of the survey in a new window:

Based on my past experience with each produce purveyor, and based on this new research, I charted the pros and cons of each supplier:

My arbitrary system for evaluating my options.

The choice seems clear. During the peak of the harvest, at least, the produce stand offers the best balance of quality and cost, with the best price on 33 out of 63 items. But will it still be a smart place to shop in February? Instead of berries and tomatoes, perhaps the stand will stock yams and winter squashes, cabbages and turnips. Some produce stands shut down completely in the off-season.

Another advantage of shopping exclusively at a produce stand or farmers market is that there are fewer temptations that fall outside the realm of healthy eating. One vendor at the farmers market sells fresh bakery cookies, but that's as bad as it gets. The produce stand carries bottled soda (including my beloved Mexican Coke), honey stix, wax-paper-wrapped cubes of caramel, and carob balls, but there are few other distractions. Grocery stores — even high-end natural food stores — are warrens of processed food.

What's the cheapest source of produce in your town? Who has the best quality? Are you willing to pay more to support causes that are important to you? Do you always buy from the same source? Or do you shop around based on price and convenience?

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