Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Savor the Savings at Farmers' Markets

The Topic: Saving big at farmers’ markets with Editorial Assistant Joni Sweet
The Dish: With the local food movement well underway, farmers’ markets have been popping up all over the country, bringing fresh produce to the masses. Step into nearly any market and you can expect to see boxes of streaked and striped heirloom tomatoes, wooden bins overflowing with leafy greens, aromatic herbs, and even purple string beans! But as a savvy vegan, farmers’ markets can either be your best friend, or your worst enemy. Increased demand for local food has sent prices skyrocketing at some of the more gourmet markets, often making a bag of vegetables cost three times what you would pay in a supermarket. Yet, with the right tricks up your sleeve, you can saunter out of a farmers’ market with a canvas bag stuffed with a bounty of vibrant vegetables, knowing you’ve made even the most diligent coupon-clippers envious of your steal. 
1. Choose Wisely
The first step toward savvy shopping requires careful consideration of which market to visit. While the larger, gourmet markets may offer a greater assortment of produce and artisan foods, don’t be surprised to see price tags that match the foodie scene. Instead, try visiting smaller markets that have built their reputations on offering fair prices and friendly service. In San Francisco alone, there are more than a dozen farmers’ markets, so depending on where you live, you may have to shop around. Try visiting the weekday markets, as they are often less crowded and expensive.
2. Timing is Everything
Think the best time arrive at the market is bright and early? Think again—while the early shoppers certainly do have an advantage in terms of variety, coming to the market as it’s shutting down is prime time for savings. Unlike at a supermarket, where it's difficult to discern how long the produce has been on the shelf, farmers have to load up the truck with whatever they don’t sell and lug it back at the end of the day, risking damage and rotting along the way. Vendors are much more likely to cut you a deal if it means they save time and energy by avoiding reloading the truck. Also, scope the stands for ‘seconds,’ over-ripe or slightly bruised, yet perfectly delicious, produce, often sold at half the price! 
3. Savor the Season
While supermarkets have most Americans believing that strawberries grow all year round, farmers’ markets show visitors that each type of plant has its own specific growing season, with price tags that reflect the supply. If you make a point to ask about what’s in season, both your mouth and wallet will be pleased with the results. Toward the beginning or the end of a season, expect to pay top dollar for produce, especially berries. Focus on discovering ways of making a fruit or vegetable that you’ve never heard of (Chinese long beans or bitter melon, anyone?) taste great and avoid reverting back to the habit of buying the same produce week after week. One of the best resources of interesting recipes using foreign fruits or vegetables is the person growing them—don’t be afraid to ask questions! 
4. Buy in Bulk
When buying more than 10 pounds of a particular item, say tomatoes, farmers can, and do, shave dollars off of the price per pound. To ensure your money goes a long way, formulate a plan for those tomatoes. Make a giant pot of spaghetti sauce to freeze and save (or in my case, eat atop spiral pasta every night until it's gone, because homemade sauce is delicious!), learn how to preserve via canning, or plan a tomato-themed menu for the entire week.
5. Knowledge and Flexibility
Overall, to have the best experience at a farmers’ market requires exercising flexibility and staying informed. Before making any purchases, orient yourself with the prices and selection by first strolling through the market. Maybe you went to the market hoping to find strawberries for a shortcake for Grandma’s birthday, but your favorite farmer ran out by the time you arrived. Be flexible and try raspberries or blueberries, instead. If you’re a proponent of organic produce, you surely have felt the pinch on your pocketbook when paying $5 or more per pound of organic bell peppers. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s guide on what produce should be bought organically, so you can limit your pesticide exposure while also maximizing savings. 

The Final Word: Being a savvy, smart shopper requires little more than learning about seasonal availability, timing for buying, and speaking to your guides—the farmers—to save big at farmers’ markets. Just don’t forget to bring your reusable shopping bag!

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