I have a strict $300-a-month grocery budget. If you’re doing the math, that’s $75 a week. Believe me, it goes more quickly than you think.
I’m obsessed with budgeting, but I’m equally obsessed with eating locally and organically, even when I was in grad school at Northwestern living off a teeny, tiny student budget. Most people equate organic and local with expensive, but I’m living proof that this doesn’t have to be the case.
Here are five tactics I use to stick to my budget while enjoying local, organic food.
1. Volunteer With a Local Farm at the Farmers Market
This was my saving grace as a poor grad student. I went to the farmers market every Saturday anyway, so one day I just started asking my favorite vendors if they needed help running their stands on weekend mornings. One of them graciously accepted, and in return for my four hours of volunteer time, I received tokens to use at the market. Plus, the vendor often sent me home with extra goodies or some of the veggies that didn’t sell.
Not only did I become well versed in hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, I was also introduced to myriad new vegetables and I drastically cut my grocery bill. Some weeks, I ate for nearly free. Additionally, I formed a strong relationship to a local farmer that persists to this day.
2. Volunteer on a Farm
Even if you live in an urban environment, chances are there are countless farms just outside of city limits looking for extra help here and there. I lived in Chicago, and connected with a farmer 20 minutes away who gladly put me to work once a week.
Use LocalHarvest to view all the farms near you, choose the type of farm that interests you (dairy, produce, goat, nut, etc.) and then just start emailing or calling until one takes you up on your offer. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t hear back right away; be patient but persistent.
Tell the farmer you’d like to lend a hand once or twice a month, but don’t mention wanting to get anything in return. You may not get any goods the first time you go because farmers want to be sure you’re truly vested in their mission and not just looking for a handout. Build trust with the farmer and soon you’ll be overwhelmed with goods you helped grow. The farmer I worked with gladly sent me home with boxes of beautiful produce as “pay” for my time and effort. Oh yeah, and did you know a little time in the soil will make you a happier, smarter person? The benefits just keep on coming.
If you don’t want to commit to a set amount of volunteer time, you can also get some soil time while saving money on veggies by visiting you-pick farms. These are especially fun with kids, as it gives you an opportunity to teach them that food does not come in a prepackaged container. Use PickYourOwn to find you-pick farms near you!
3. Use Your Skills to Earn Free Food
If you have a creative skill, such as design or writing, use it to earn yourself free food. You can go about this in a number of ways. Try marketing yourself in person by going stand to stand at the farmers market presenting your offer, or use LocalHarvest to find a farm that looks like its website or social media could use some love.
Don’t overcommit yourself, however. If you don’t know how to do website design, don’t offer to build a website. If the only drawing you’ve ever done is a stick figure, don’t offer to design a logo. Stick with what you know.
Let’s say your skill is writing. Offer to write a weekly blog post for the farm or post to their social media channels. You may have to do a little persuading to convince them of the value of an online presence, but it’s likely the farmers know they should be active online but just don’t have the time. Work out a deal that you’ll commit so many hours a month to building their brand in exchange for a certain amount of goods, i.e. a dozen eggs, a box of produce, a jar of honey, etc. Now you’ve got free food as well as an awesome project to add to your portfolio.
4. Sponsor a Farm Animal
Apartment dwellers, listen up — you don’t need acres of lush, green land to own a farm animal. Many farms offer sponsorship for a cow or a chicken, where you pay a fee at the beginning of the season and then bask in the glory of free milk and eggs every week.
The sponsorship fee is usually around $25, and goes toward feeding and maintaining the animal all season. In return, you get a share of what that animal produces each week. Take it a step further and go visit the farm and your sponsored animal, and you may walk away with an extra bounty. If you ask nicely, the farmer may even let you name the animal, but don’t get carried away.
Some farms list this type of program on their websites, but if not, mention it to your favorite farmer to see if he or she would be open to the agreement. Don’t be ashamed to say you’re looking to save money but are committed to supporting their farm. The farmer will likely work out a deal with you.
5. Make Your Own Cheese
Few things are more delicious than fresh mozzarella cheese, but it’s pretty expensive to buy those little prepackaged circles at the grocery store. That’s why it’s worth your time to learn how to make it at home.
Start by finding whole milk that is deeply discounted because it’s set to expire in the next week or so. Or use the milk you received from your sponsorship animal. You’ll need about a gallon of whole milk. You’ll also need rennet tablets and citric acid, which you can find near the canning supplies at a specialty grocery store or online. The only other thing you’ll need is a stainless steel pot.
You’ll find innumerable instructions online for how to make mozzarella cheese, but New England Cheesemaking Supply has one of my favorites. The Kitchn also has an excellent, easy-to-follow tutorial. Read over the instructions several times before you start, or watch a YouTube video if you’re a visual learner. The whole process takes only 30 minutes and when you’re done, you’re left with an entire pound of fresh mozzarella cheese. Even if you buy a gallon of whole milk that’s not discounted, the price is usually less than $5, about the same price as one of those half-pound mozzarella circles. So now you have double the cheese for your money, plus your friends and family think you’re the coolest person they’ve ever met.
These tactics have saved me thousands of dollars over the years. No matter the balance in my bank account, I’ve always been able to eat locally and (mostly) organically by being a creative consumer and building relationships with local farmers. You’ll be amazed how quickly your fridge fills up without breaking your grocery budget.
Your Turn: How do you enjoy local or organic food without overspending?
Disclosure: We have a serious Taco Bell addiction around here. The affiliate links in this post help us order off the dollar menu. Thanks for your support!
Natalie K. Gould is a content manager by day and freelance writer by night. She is seriously addicted to European butter and finding the perfect bottle of rosé.