Take a Penny, Leave a Penny: Eating Local on a Budget

So…What is this going to cost me?

This is one of the concerns I had when we first started talking about our Eat Dubuque County! challenge.  While I try to support our local farmers as much as I can, taking the plunge and doing a whole week of only local buying is somewhat intimidating budget-wise.  So, I’m doing my research before the challenge begins to help me (and you!) make the most of our money while enjoying the week of local fare.

Question one: How much do you spend on groceries? 

This seems like a good place to start.  I know how much our family budgets for groceries each month, but I had no way of knowing if that is ‘average’ or if we were way out in left field.  In doing my research I found that the USDA actually collects info on people’s food costs and groups Americans into four categories by their spending habits: thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal.  Our family fell closest to the “low cost plan,” which would mean for the challenge we would be looking to spend $133.15 for the week with our family of 3.

So, can we do this locally?  Well, a 2009 study from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that many items are actually cheaper when purchased locally and in season, than their non-local counterparts.  Items like cucumbers, tomatoes, and ground beef were all found to be less expensive when purchased locally when compared to their supermarket look-alikes.  However, other items like onions, green beans, and pork chops are a bit more expensive.  Local meat, which typically has niche certifications like ‘hormone-free,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘pastured,’ are difficult to compare with conventional supermarket options.  Usually, because of the improved care and quality needed to achieve these certifications, local meats are typically more expensive.

Knowing this, I prioritized our grocery list.  We decided which items we would be ok spending a little more on, and which items we would be ok with leaving off the list.  One of the items we decided to spend a little more on was meat.  Our budget typically uses 30% for meat, so I budgeted an extra 10% to compensate for the uniqueness and price difference with local meats, allowing us to spend up to $53 for the week in this area.  Below is an approximate breakdown of our budget for the week.   For your family, meat may not be as big of a concern, and thus will take up less of the pie.  Figure out what your priority items are and divide your budget accordingly.


Be flexible

Shopping on a budget can also mean being flexible with your meal choices.  Buying items in bulk or in season can definitely help save some cash.  Get items that are versatile and can be used in a variety of meals.  Tomatoes may be a nice note to a freshly grilled hamburger, but can also be a staple of a homemade spaghetti sauce.  No doubt, there are items your family buys repeatedly.  See if those items are available locally. You may be pleasantly surprised by the cost of getting these staples at the farmers market or from a local vendor.  Certain grocery stores even carry items from local farms, so read the label as you shop at your favorite store.

Have a plan

Having a plan makes you much more likely to succeed.  So, take 15 minutes, to check out your budget, set priority items, and create a list of staple foods for your house.  Prepare to be flexible and plan your meals accordingly.  The Dubuque Farmers’ Market website has all their vendors listed for you to check out ahead of time.  If you can’t make it to the market, check out the local tag designation in the grocery store, or search the MarketMaker website for a list of farms in the county that can provide that special food item you are looking for.

Above all, have fun! and enjoy the abundance of local food Dubuque County has to offer.

Don’t forget to share your adventures in local food with us on Facebook and Instagram with #eatdubuque.

Happy eating!

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