Budgeting

Cooking With Maurie: Where to Score the Cheapest Produce

We all know that fruits and vegetables are loaded with properties designed to keep us healthy. But here's the thing about vegetables: They're expensive.

There's a reason why Americans spend 23 percent of their grocery budgets on processed foods and sweets, and only 15 percent on fresh produce. It's more cost-effective to fill up on boxed mac and cheese than it is to dine on vegetable stir-fry. But it's also hard to argue that fruits and veggies pack a hefty nutritional punch that most other foods can't match. In other words, if you're committed to eating healthy, expect to pay for it. On the other hand, you can save money on produce by shopping smartly.

Farmers Markets Versus Grocery Stores
Shopping at a farmers market used to mean mingling with hippies and yupsters galore. These days, visiting a farmers market is a totally different experience, mostly due to the fact that they've become far more mainstream. In fact, over the past 20 years, the number of U.S. farmers markets has tripled, making local produce much more accessible on a whole.

It also used to be that farmers markets were more expensive than traditional grocery stores. After all, you'd expect to pay a premium for fresher product, right? But these days, the gap has narrowed to the point where farmers markets and grocery stores charge roughly the same amount for conventional produce.

Looking to buy organic? Today, farmers markets, on average, charge less for organic produce than chain grocery stores. And you don't have to live in an up-and-coming neighborhood to score some quality veggies and fruits. Farmers markets are popping up all over the country, including low-income areas, to make healthy food more accessible to the masses. Better yet, 60 percent of shoppers in low-income areas report that their local farmers markets offer better pricing than their go-to supermarkets.

Alternatives to Consider
You don't have to visit the grocery store or farmers market to stock up on fruits and veggies galore. Food co-ops and CSAs also offer local produce, and often on the cheap. With a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) arrangement, you're essentially purchasing shares from a local farm. CSA members receive a weekly supply of locally grown goods and pay an average of $250-$500 per 16-20 week season. While CSAs are often cheaper than supermarkets on an item by item basis, they're limiting in that you're not able to choose what produce you receive each week. But if you're the type who can make a meal out of just about anything, you may want to consider joining a CSA to lower your produce costs.

Then there's the food co-op, which is sort of like a grocery store that's owned and run by its members.

Food co-op pricing is often more competitive than that of local supermarkets, but co-ops generally involve membership fees, which can eat away at your savings. And food co-op produce tends to be pricier than similar produce offered at farmers markets.

Then there's the option to bust out your gardening tools and grow your fruits and veggies. If you enjoy planting and mulching, by all means, give it a go. But don't expect to save a ton of money. While certain veggies like lettuce, bell peppers and tomatoes are cost-effective to grow on your own, many popular produce items are cheaper to buy in supermarkets.

No matter where you choose to purchase produce, make sure your food budget allows for a steady stream of fruits and veggies in your diet. It may be hard on your wallet, but it's definitely the right move for your health.

Photo by Frank Heinz via cc