small change toward a rich life

Frugal foodie: agony at the farmers’ market

I had a sort of mini-vacation last week; didn’t go anywhere, but took off work to hang with a visiting friend. I had every intention of posting during the break, but … I was too busy playing. And eating. Stacy and I are both unapologetic foodies, which means we spent much of our time bouncing between restaurants, markets, and kitchens …

I’ve been trying to hit the farmers’ markets as much as possible this summer, but I’m finding those visits increasingly stressful. I am hugely in favor of both buying local and supporting small farms, but that desire is at war with my equally strong tendency toward frugality.

Today I was talking with a friend who lives in the DC metro area; he extolled the cheapness of farmers’ market produce, which he reckons as being about on par pricewise with the budget grocery chains like Safeway, but with consistently superior quality. I was envious to say the least. In the Seattle area, even Whole Foods is often cheaper than the farmers’ markets. This week, a pint container of organic multicolored cherry tomatoes is $4.50 at various farmer stalls, but only $2.99 at Whole Foods.

Last Thursday I tried a different market from my usual, in hopes that maybe it was a neighborhood thing, but no — still expensive. I did walk away with some cheap zucchini (three large for $2!), but otherwise the prices were astronomical. Peaches were $4/pound; I bought four small ones. They were much more flavorful than the ones I got at Fred Meyer for .79/pound, but at a dollar for about six bites, they were no bargain.

Tom reports that in Maryland, eggs at the farmers’ market go for $3.25 or $3.50 per dozen. Last week I saw eggs at the market listed at $5 and $6 per dozen. At the regular grocery they run around $2.50, and by watching for sales I can cut that considerably — this weekend I got two dozen for $2.69 in a buy-one-get-one-free deal. Costco regularly carries two dozen for under $3.

I have no idea why market produce is so expensive here. Perhaps it’s another manifestation of our (relatively) robust local economy, and farmers are merely charging what the market will bear. Perhaps Seattleites have such a green-and-local focus that the demand outstrips the supply — certainly the markets have been mobbed every day I’ve been since June.

Meanwhile, my internal battle rages on. Lately I’ve been compromising by buying certain ‘treat’ foods where flavor quality is most important — the sweet peaches, Rainier cherries, assorted berries — from the farmers’ markets, and getting the bulk of our staples from grocery sales and Costco. But I sure do wish I could satisfy both mandates at the same time instead of having to choose.

(Photos by Sasha Kopf and Chas Redmond.)


8 responses

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  1. FruGal says

    Ooh that’s unlucky. Over here in London I find that my local farmers’ market in MUCH cheaper than the supermarkets, especially for fruit and veg and fresh flowers. Although meat, seafood and fresh baked products are a little more expensive (but of such superior quality that a girl can’t really complain). I think in many ways being frugal is at odds with being green (I consider farmers’ markets to be quite green due to their local produce, lack of food packaging, etc), for example the green energy supply tarrifs are quite a bit more expensive than the regular ones. It’s hard to always make the right choices as a result, but sometimes the money will only go so far! Nice site btw :)

  2. karawynn says

    Thanks! :) I didn’t mention it above, but fresh flowers are one area where the markets in Seattle have both a price and quality advantage. I rarely splurge on flowers, though — in part because my cat finds them irresistible and tends to gnaw on them and knock the vase over. /sigh

  3. Karla says

    Farm market prices are just as bad here, Karawynn… don’t feel singled out. And don’t even get me started on Whole Foods… I think it’s rather telling that the only one in the area is in West Vancouver – that’s the only community that can afford their prices!

    I’d like to know in what universe Safeway is a budget grocery chain? Around here, of the big-box grocery stores, it’s the most expensive – I try to stick with Save-On Foods but it’s a little out of the way for me and requires getting a co-op car, so I’m often stuck with Safeway prices just because it’s on a bus route.

  4. karawynn says

    Interesting that Safeway is the most expensive in Vancouver. Locally, I have Safeway and Albertsons, which are a titch cheaper overall than QFC and Top, which are in turn cheaper than Whole Foods.

    Costco, of course, is cheaper than all of the above, in any circumstance where buying in bulk is not wasteful.

  5. FruGal says

    I mentioned your post on my blog today… just thought I’d let you know – damned if I can get that pingback thing to work! :)

  6. deepali says

    Interesting. I live in the DC area – I don’t find Safeway to be inexpensive. Actually, Whole Foods is about on par (cheaper on some things) with Safeway, but far better selection and quality.
    In the summertime, Whole Foods is occasionally cheaper than the farmers’ market. But interestingly, the cheaper WF stuff is local too (just priced better, presumably because it is bought in larger quantities). I would actually say that the majority of in-season produce at WF comes from within 200 miles of the city.

    But the cheapest option is almost always the CSA….

  7. karawynn says

    Thanks, FruGal! Trackbacks flusterate me too. :)

    Deepali: what I’m wondering now is how Safeway et al stack up to overall cost of living and incomes in various areas — that is, is Safeway relatively more expensive where you are, or is Whole Foods cheaper?

    CSA isn’t cheaper here than grocery stores either, though it may well be cheaper than individual market purchases. Trouble with CSA for me is that I nest in spurts, according to whim and schedule — one week I’ll cook a lot and the next week hardly at all. And I hate to waste food. :(

  8. What's New in Maryland says

    In Maryland, there’s a website called Maryland Online Farmers Market – http://www.foodtrader.org/, where people can buy and sell locally grown food. Anyone can browse the site to see food people have available, along with prices. I’m not sure how cheap the prices are, but it seems like a good amount of people are using it and some other states might be building their own sites. Maybe a website like it will be available for Washington; then you can compare prices on it or even call farmer’s markets ahead of time that they have listed to see how prices are.

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