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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plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

This is a good question. Near me I have:
Tescos – large generic supermarket
Lidl – discount supermarket
Farmers Market – twice monthly, sells local goods
Asian corner shops – sell a variety of mostly exotic fruit and veg
I’ve never really looked at which is cheapest, I usually buy from one of the supermarkets, but I should probably check out the Asian shops as well. The farmers market is not very convenient.

Peter
Peter
12 years ago

One other factor is the time it takes to go to several places for only a few items. While the food may be better or cheaper going to the produce store, the fish store, the bread store, and the butcher on a regular basis is a very time consuming task. We do it sometimes if we need or want something special, but who has time to do that every week?

Angie
Angie
12 years ago

Seems like I remember produce stands being fairly common around here (suburban Florida) back when I was a kid (in the ’80s), but gosh, I hadn’t thought about one in so long until you brought this up. I haven’t seen one in this area for years now. I *wish* I had the option of shopping there.

christine
christine
12 years ago

We also do a lot of produce shopping at a Farmer’s Market during the summer. Personally, I’m ok with spending a bit more there – I’m helping to support local farms and the FLAVOR of the fruits and veggies is like nothing you can get at the grocery store.

Catherine
Catherine
12 years ago

In the sticks of the Kansas City area, we have few options within 10 miles. There is a basic grocery store with decent produce and average prices 7 miles from my house. Other than that, there is a convenience store. Most people near here grow their own produce during the growing season, so Country Mart seems to slack during that time and focus it’s quality produce buying during the offseason. However, if you’re willing to drive 20 miles to town, you have HyVee, which generally has high quality produce at decent prices, Price Chopper, which has excellent produce and slightly… Read more »

KM
KM
12 years ago

I live in Davis, CA, a college town that is surrounded by ag. There is a farmers market two days a week with plenty of fresh produce and meats/fish/cheese. I find that buying from the farmers market is often cheaper and fresher than anywhere else. I can’t find any produce stands near where I live.

Our “upscale” market is called Nugget, often the prices are perceived to be expensive. In reality, they are actually cheaper than the local Safeway. I know that they are probably the exception to the rule for the higher quality markets.

MoneyChangesThings
MoneyChangesThings
12 years ago

I have the pleasure of shopping at a local food coop, which combines the best of both these options. It requires membership, but nonmembers can shop and pay a surcharge. check out http://www.coopamerica.org to learn more about food coops. The key is that if you have the luxury of doing so financially, put your money where your mouth is (literally)and like JR says, support local farmers who treat the land with less pesticides. People wonder if organic is “worth it” in health benefits. That is the wrong questions. It is very worth it in benefits to the land and water… Read more »

cmadler
cmadler
12 years ago

Sadly, on the few times I have visited my local farmers’ market, most of the produce was being resold rather than locally grown. For example, iceberg lettuce in May (in Michigan) still in the plastic wrapper, avocados, bananas (!). I don’t understand how they can get away with doing this at a “Farmers’ Market”, but as a result I won’t buy anything there.

bree
bree
12 years ago

We live in Vancouver, B.C. and Superstore almost always has the cheapest prices on everything. Their produce quality is pretty hit-and-miss though, and they don’t have a great selection of more exotic items. We do a lot of our regular shopping there, but if we have time to compare flyers we’ll plan our shop to take advantage of sales at Safeway and Save-On. The best store for produce here is Kin’s Farm Market, which is found in many of the local malls. The produce is beautiful and fresh, though not necessarily organic, and the prices are competitive, though not always… Read more »

Kris77
Kris77
12 years ago

I live in NYC, where prices are decent if you shop in ethnic markets or from the circular in large-scale grocery stores. Our farmers’ markets are phenomenal (particularly Union Square), but the prices tend to be much higher. I sometimes find myself split between supporting local farmers and the nice Asian couple at the corner food mart.

@MoneyChangesThings – we, too, have a coop in the neighborhood, but are undecided about joining.

Great, great article JD.

metroknow
metroknow
12 years ago

Thanks for the article – I really enjoyed it. For me, cheap is important, but I’ll opt for quality over quantity every time. I would rather find the money elsewhere – like sacrificing the $50 a month for cable in favor of supporting local farmers and fresh produce if it comes down to it. I recently read an article in the Oregonian that suggested that some folks have a preconceived notion that farmer’s markets are more expensive – this was a surprise to me, as I had the opposite! I also frequent the Milwaukee Farmer’s Market, and I’ve found the… Read more »

Leslie
Leslie
12 years ago

I generally buy produce from the local (meaning very small) farmer’s market that runs on Saturday mornings from June through October. For the most part, produce is actually cheaper there and in the few instances where it is the same price as the grocery store (or on occasion, a little higher) I feel like I am still getting better value – fresher, better tasting etc. Our farmer’s market requires that you grow everything yourself in order to have a stall there. I frequent two grocery stores near my house…one upscale and one not so much. The produce at both stores… Read more »

Z
Z
12 years ago

Thanks for your research!!! This is some quality findings here.

Melissa A.
Melissa A.
12 years ago

We have two basic big stores here. SuperStore (aka Loblaws to many Canadians) and Sobey’s (which is an Atlantic Canada owned company). I find produce at SS is great, and I always live closer to one, so that’s where I shop. I live really close to the Farmer’s market, but unless I get up early, I don’t go because I can’t handle the crowds. I love the idea of supporting local farmers, that’s almost impossible if you shop at a box store. We also have one organic store, but I rarely shop there because it’s not in my neighborhood, and… Read more »

MizD
MizD
12 years ago

I live in a wealthy neighborhood? Huh. Who knew. (Not me or most of my broke friends who live in Sellwood, anyway.) A couple points about New Seasons (Full disclosure: It’s been my favorite place to shop for years, and my husband just started working for them): They do have a “Home Grown” program, but because so many of the local farmers market vendors can’t handle the volume needed for New Seasons’ eight locations, they extend their definition of “local” to cover the Pacific NW. This might not fit into the “100 mile diet” definition of local, but I think… Read more »

FamilyFinanceBlog
FamilyFinanceBlog
12 years ago

Great article … thanks for doing a lot of work to get that done. I’ve always wondered how things would compare.

We get our veggies through a local co-op farming system. It’s expensive, but we justify the cost through supporting local and organic practices. We may switch to farmers markets, though, which would certainly be cheaper.

Amelia
Amelia
12 years ago

Great research. I live in the Portland area and have wondered where the best produce prices are. For a long time, I thought it was the Farmers Market as well, but after this year, I started to change my mind. Now I have hard data to back up my suspicions. Even though it’s not the cheapest all the time, I will still shop at the Farmers Market because I like to support local farmers and the idea that less gas and resources are used to transport the produce to my area. Now actually getting to the Farmers Market during the… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Yo, Portlanders: Just to be clear, I like New Seasons. I’ll continue to shop there a couple times a year, just as I always have. If I were doing a full review of the store, praise for its virtues would outweigh complaints. Great olives! Great bread! Great cheese! Great meat! Chocolate milk in a glass bottle!

It’s just expensive. 🙂

Cheap Like Me
Cheap Like Me
12 years ago

This is terrific! We don’t have produce stands around much in Denver here. I must shamefacedly admit that I went to the farmer’s market only once this year. I live within two blocks of two grocery chains that proudly stock a lot of Colorado produce, so it’s hard to justify planning a special driving trip to go to the farmer’s market — especially because when we went in spring, the market was full of vegetables that would not naturally be ripe in Colorado in early June, even from a greenhouse. Importers at the farmer’s market? Sheesh!

zach
zach
12 years ago

I shop at whole foods and typically only spend about $40-$60 every week or so.. . is that a lot? We typically buy *real* food, and some of their grass-fed beef.

Anybody know a good source for grass fed beef?

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

Costco and ethnic grocery stores. costco has bulk produce and fruit that we eat lots of, so they are perfect for us. ethnic grocery stores seem to be cheaper.

don’t like whole foods, b/c we feel they are a rip off.

we like farmer’s markets b/c we enjoy the experience more than the prices. it’s something to do for us. we may buy something, but not necessarily.

MossySF
MossySF
12 years ago

Looking through the list, the mom & pop gocery stores in San Francisco Chinatown sell veggies at about 25%-50% the price of the produce stand surveyed. Fruit is 50%-75% the price.

Mrs. Micah
Mrs. Micah
12 years ago

I haven’t yet been there, but if this Thursday is sunny I plan to head over to the farmers’ market near where I work. I just started here and I think it could be handy for picking up produce.

We tend to shop at the Giant close to our house. There’s a Mercado Hispanico closer, but it doesn’t always have the same selection and Giant has discount cards/coupons. When I have a higher salary, I might buy more foods from places which specialize in ethical/organic/etc. As it is, I try to get healthy, non-processed foods at low prices.

freecia
freecia
12 years ago

I like to stop at Trader Joe’s because it is a small store with quality goods and they don’t do all those “on sale” promos.

(BTW, the Nugget and Farmer’s Market KM mentioned are really fantastic. I used to go to school up in Davis and I still miss the Nugget a bit. Wish they’d open a few down in the San Jose area)

There’s also local “Fresh Box” delivery services, where they deliver local produce to your front step. I found a few of my local listings via yelp: http://www.yelp.com/topic/dWb-Xl9PDoAXctkdHpvTQw#E8fq_EYQqSL2a8UViGGNqw

zach
zach
12 years ago

I can’t imagine NOT buying organic anymore! Why NOT pay more for REAL food that actually TASTES and SMELLS awesome??

That being said, I read a book. . . . Animal Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver that stated that non-organic agribusiness recieves HUGE government subsidies while hurting the environment, while sustainable growers of organics get JACK.

Stephanienie
Stephanienie
12 years ago

When comparing food prices for farmers’ markets vs. brick&mortar stores, keep in mind that prices may vary between markets depending on overhead charges and (maybe?) vendor quality control requirements. I also live in the Portland area and work near the Pearl District farmers’ market. I have been reluctant to shop there often, as it was hard for me to swallow how fast $20 would disappear there with little produce to show for it. (Even compared to New Seasons & Wild Oats! Not to knock them: I’m a HUGE fan of New Seasons.) When I visited the Hollywood farmers’ market for… Read more »

Leslie
Leslie
12 years ago

Zach – check out eatwild.com. There are tons of resources there for grass fed beef…

sheri
sheri
12 years ago

I usually do the trio of Trader Joe’s, Costco, and Fred Meyer (all within 3 miles of my house). TJ’s covers most stuff, but their bread sucks and with their ever-changing stock you just can’t find “everything” there most of the time. I used to shop New Seasons for “good” stuff, but TJs has most of the same things I bought there for a lot less. I’ll still go by New Seasons on the weekend sometimes for their “tasting” events and then buy lunch, fresh bread, and/or drinks (best drink selection I’ve seen). I’ve been telling myself to go to… Read more »

twosandalz
twosandalz
12 years ago

My experience in seacoast NH is that farmer’s markets are much more expensive than grocery stores. I wonder if this is because of the high property tax rates. Pick-Your-Own fruit farms are the same price or cheaper than grocery stores, and the quality is top notch. However, they are usually not pesticide free.

In my town, Super Wal-Mart has the cheapest produce, with Market Basket a close second. I prefer MB myself, because its a regional chain. Shaw’s has the most expensive grocery store produce. I’ve noticed tho that in other towns the same stores price things differently.

Marie
Marie
12 years ago

I used to live in Hilo, Hawaii. The farmer’s market there is heaven! Fresh food and flowers straight from the little farms around the town as well as fresh coffee from the Kona side and packaged honey and macnuts. Five papayas (or more, depending on size) for $2, sometimes $1. A hand of apple bananas for $1. Three green peppers for $1. 4 tomatoes for $1. A bunch of anthuriums for $2. A bag of green beans for $1. Need I go on? I could leave loaded down with bags and bags of produce that felt like it weighed at… Read more »

Ben
Ben
12 years ago

You have a pretty different Grocery Outlet from the one near me in Western North Carolina. I’m within walking distance of one with a pretty good produce section.

Mariette
Mariette
12 years ago

Im in the San Francisco Bay Area so I’m a bit spoiled when it comes to locally grown produce since our growing season is longer than most of the rest of the country. I’ve always been willing to pay more for organic because it tastes better and is better for the environment – there are enough toxins around which I can’t avoid living in a city without my volunteering to eat them in my food too! Having said that, during the height of the season you can find organic food at the produce market that is cheaper than conventional food… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

yeah, there really is no reason to pay more for organic, other than the fact that organic growers are charging more on the “organic” craze. organic = poop fertilizer to me…and i’m really not wanting to eat poop. however, we did use poop in our own garden growing up. there is also the difference in “organic”, so you might look into what it means to be “organic” and have the “organic” label. second, i don’t think organic tastes any better than non-organic. i think the biggest difference between produce tasting good is if it picked riped off the plant or… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

zach,
much of the farm subsidies has to do with not to produce rather than to produce. because of the yield farmers can get, it would effectively drive prices down. with the effective excess capacity huge farms can generate, it is a good cushion to maintain stable prices just in case.

Keith
Keith
12 years ago

If you go to a Farmer’s Market, watch it carefully. Not all of them are true Farmers Markets. We have a big one in downtown Minneapolis every thursday, along Nicollet Mall. Significant numbers of the stands are selling the same produce as any of the local supermarkets. I’ve seen small signs that say “locally grown” on things like avocados and bananas. I highly doubt that these folks are growing bananas in Minnesota. I’ve also seen the stand workers pulling lettuce out of boxes clearly marked “California”. And when a stand has every fruit and vegetable you can think of, it’s… Read more »

m
m
12 years ago

I’ve worked in the produce business 9 years, and I started working at the aforementioned Spicer Brothers Produce when I was 16 years old, now I work for New Seasons. I can say with full confidence, your assessments of those two stores are not fully accurate. And before I get started, for the love of GOD, please never buy anything from that fish market. I’ve known people who work there and seriously, please, I’ve heard stories and seen things that would turn the stomach of Chuck Palahniuk. First, let’s tackle the produce stand. You gave them good marks on quality,… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Awesome comment, M. Thank you. It’s fantastic to get a response from somebody who actually knows the industry.  I’ve worked in the produce business 9 years, and I started working at the aforementioned Spicer Brothers Produce when I was 16 years old, now I work for New Seasons. I can say with full confidence, your assessments of those two stores are not fully accurate. I’m sure this is the case. I have limited experience with both, rather than daily experience. However, please note that except for pricing my comments regarding “produce stands” are general. The prices are from Spicer Brothers,… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

A local store in Lansing, MI, named Horrocks has 90%+ of its products from local Michigan suppliers. The prices on nearly all of this stuff is cheaper than the chain grocery stores. We typically just buy anything non-canned, non-boxed and non-frozen here (fruit, veggies, dairy, bread). We spend probably $50 a month on this stuff, whereas buying the same items at the chain store (Meijer/Kroger) would cost nearly $200. Examples: romaine lettuce is $.99 vs. $3-4, green peppers are $.16 vs. $.69, cucumbers are $.20 vs. $.89, strawberries are $1.50 vs. $3-4, peaches/plums are $.15-.20 vs. $.50, the list goes… Read more »

Giant
Giant
12 years ago

I live in Houston, Texas. The idea of a Farmers market or Produce Stand here seems to be lost. Sure we have people selling stuff from the back of their car or on the side of the road, but for the most part it’s shopping at the big grocery chains.

Ben Gessel
Ben Gessel
8 years ago

Here in the North Seattle/Everett area, it seems (aside from bulk food places like Costco), that Grocery Outlet has pretty much the lowest prices on produce, etc., but the quality of the produce is often questionable. I have my own system of checking how tasty/nutritious produce really is, but we’ll get there in a bit. So, aside from Grocery Outlet, Fred Meyer is a good place to buy 100% juice, including the never-from-concentrate stuff, as well as good prices on milk substitutes (almond milk, etc.), and grocery items like nuts, seeds, cereal, that sort of thing. I’ve never been impressed… Read more »

Haydée Lopez
Haydée Lopez
8 years ago

Hi, I’m moving from Mexico to Irvine in a few weeks, and I’m very interested in finding out the cheapest place to buy fruits and vegetables, i’m a little confused because in Mexico’s farmers market you’ll be able to find the best fruit and the cheapest prices… is the farmers market more expensive? i’ll apreciate all your help

Greta
Greta
4 years ago

I always go to speciality stores and farm markets for my grocery shopping if I can. Very rarely do I go to a Walmart or supermarket. It doesn’t take that much extra time and is well worth the trips. Better food and a relationship with the people who run the businesses is well worth the tiny bit of extra effort. #SupportSmallBusiness #BuyLocal

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