For most families, produce is a significant portion of their food bill (in our household, it's about a third of our total monthly food expenses). I know there are some families on tight food budgets who feel that their only option is to eat less fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, that doesn't have to be the case if you employ some of the following strategies:
1. Buy local, seasonal produce (and save some for later):In-season produce is not only fresher, it's usually much less expensive than it would be at other times of the year. While most grocery stores will have great sales on seasonal fruits and vegetables, it's likely you'll save even more by visiting a pick-your-own farm (and this is a great family outing if you've got kids!). You can search for local pick-your-own-farms in North America (plus a few other countries) at PickYourOwn.org. This site is also a good resource for information on freezing and canning; if you want even more I recommend the Bernardin Complete Book of Home Preserving (also published as the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving). By buying in-season produce in bulk, you can have enough to eat now plus save some for later by freezing or canning it for use during the rest of the year. Fresh berries, for example, are very easy to freeze and are great for using in smoothies and desserts during the off-season. Some produce will keep just fine on its own for several months if stored properly - we buy several 10 lb bags of onions in the fall and they last most of the winter stored in our basement.
2. Grow your own:This is hardly a new money-saving idea, but that doesn't mean it's not a good one! Growing some of your own food will save money and provide you with the freshest possible food you can get. There is something incredibly satisfying about rummaging around in your own garden and coming up with the ingredients that will make the basis of your dinner. If you don't have your own space, consider joining a community garden; there are more community gardens being started every year, so it's likely there's one near you. New to vegetable gardening? I recommend Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew and Incredible Edibles: 43 Fun Things to Grow in the City by Sonia Day, especially if you're going to be growing in small spaces.
3. Consider a food swap:Once you decide to take the plunge and grow some of your own veggies, you might want to consider starting a neighbourhood produce swap where members share their surplus garden goodies with each other. This idea has been used very successfully in the Southern U.S.; you can read about the Hillside Produce Cooperative here. Hynden Walch, the founder of the Hillside Produce Cooperative, wrote an article about how to start your own local group, which you can find here. I think this is such a fantastic idea that I'm in the process of getting a group started in my neighbourhood! Hynden had this to say about her experience: "It's astonishing just how much food we see in our bags each month, not to mention the variety. The contents of our bags looks like we just dropped about $65 at a really great farmers' market. But instead all the food is FREE."
4. Do a workshare for your local CSA: If growing your own doesn't seem like a feasible option (or if you need to supplement your homegrown goodies with extra produce), Community Shared Agriculture (or Community Supported Agriculture, as it's called in the U.S.) might be another option worth exploring. Although the cost of a CSA membership is usually a bit on the steep side for those on tight food budgets, there are a couple of ways you might be able to reduce (or altogether eliminate) the expense. Some farms offer a small number of work shares to their membership; usually the setup is that you do a designated number of hours of work on the farm in exchange for a free (or greatly reduced) membership. My husband and I did this one year and it was interesting to participate in the workings of the farm. You should be prepared to do some hard physical work, though! I've also known people who did some of the administrative work for their CSA (such as writing the farm newsletter) in exchange for a lowered membership fee. Finally, I know at least one local CSA that offers subsidized (reduced-cost) shares for low income families, so if you're in this position, it might be worth inquiring about - it never hurts to ask! If you do sign on with a CSA, you might want to check out my 7 Tips for New CSA Shareholders to help make the process as smooth as possible.
5. Forage/Glean:There is an awful lot of perfectly good food going to waste in farmer's fields, wild spaces, and your neighbour's back yard. If you learn to keep an eye out for it, you might be surprised at what you find. In my city, there is a wonderful program called the Fruit Tree Project, which uses a team of volunteers to pick backyard fruit trees. The harvest is split between the tree owners, volunteers, and local food banks/shelters. In 2010, they harvested 13, 300 lbs!! If you happen to spot a fruit tree that's clearly not being harvested, there's no harm in asking the owner if you can pick it for them in exchange for some of the bounty! Some farmers will open their fields to the public after harvest to allow people to glean the remaining food - the one drawback being that if these events are well publicized, they can draw large crowds in the thousands. If you're the quiet type, foraging may be a better option for you. There is an abundance of food growing in wild areas that is seldom harvested, except by other intrepid foragers. If you're lucky, you may find wild blackberry or raspberry bushes, but there is much more food growing out there in the wild! I found a trip through Samuel Thayer's The Forager's Harvest incredibly informative and entertaining; I was reading it in mid-winter otherwise I would have immediately started wandering the neighbourhood hunting for edible plants! Of course, if you're going to start foraging you should always be mindful of where you're doing it and stay away from protected wilderness areas and private property (unless you've gotten permission from the owner).
Books mentioned in this post:
(Disclaimer: the links to books are affiliate links to Amazon.com; if you purchase anything after clicking through I will receive a small commission from your purchase. As usual, I recommend checking out your local library for these resources first!)