If you’ve been paying attention to the green foodie movement at all in the past few years, you’ve heard it before: organic is good; local is better.
We’re encouraged time and time again to buy local produce, milk, and meat, to support our local foodshed and our local farmers. It’s incredibly important to do, especially as our national food system is so broken, as climate change threatens our food supply with drought and other extreme weather conditions—we must support our local food producers to ensure that they will be there when we really need them.
And I’ve talked before about how organic foods are more expensive and how to eat organic on a budget (I even wrote a book about it!). But the truth of the matter is: local can be even more expensive than organic.
I wanted to find out what it would actually cost my family to buy as much local food as possible, because our sustainable eating tip No. 4 is…
Buy local. And when you can’t buy local, buy organic.
So, I did a little research. I already knew that we’re very lucky to live in Colorado; our state produces a lot of food, and a wide variety of foods. Here on the Front Range, we also live in a very food-conscious society so, for example, I can buy locally-grown and hand-ground flour at the Boulder farmer’s market. Not everyone in every part of the country is going to be so lucky—so this case study is really just that, and your mileage may vary. I decided to define “local” as being from anywhere in Colorado (not adopting the 100-mile rule of a strict locavore). And, of course, this is just an experiment based mostly on Internet research. I haven’t actually done this—yet.
The first thing I had to consider is what kind of equipment I’d need for this sort of lifestyle, because there’s no way to get around it: if you’re living a locavore lifestyle outside of California or Florida, you’re going to have to do some kind of preserving.
I know I’d need a dedicated freezer in my garage for storage. I’ve already been looking into this, so I know that small freezers (the kind that would fit in my garage) cost around $450 new. I could get a used one for much less, but there’s no guarantee of how long it would last (or how well it would freeze) so we’re going with the new option.
In addition to that, I’d almost certainly want to do some basic water bath canning. A home canning kit runs around $40, and I’d probably need to spend another $40 or so on jars and lids. (I have some, but for purposes of this experiment, we’re pretending I’m starting from scratch.) Here’s a tip: thrift stores are GREAT places to find canning jars if you don’t mind adding to your collection a couple of jars at a time. Run your finger around the lip of the jar to check for chips in the glass before you buy. Anything less than $1 a jar is a pretty good deal.
I might also eventually want to add a vacuum sealer and a dehydrator, but those aren’t totally necessary, so we’ll skip those for now. I’m also not including the cost of plastic bags, foil, butcher paper, or other containers for the freezer.
Total for equipment: $526
Next, let’s look at produce. There are lots of CSA (community supported agriculture) programs in my area, so for my 100 percent local experiment, I’d have lots of options. The average CSA season in our area lasts 22 weeks and a medium veggie share, which should feed an average family of four, costs around $32 a week. Add fruit, mostly from the Western Slope, and you’re adding an additional $20 a week on average.
But, of course, that only covers the high season of the harvest around here—we still have winter to get through! Several CSAs in our area offer a “preserving share.” The biggest one I could find offered 15 different items for around $600. And that’s probably not enough to get us through the entire winter, so I added an additional $20 a week for the 30 weeks not covered by the CSA season to spend on winter greens, squash, and other cold storage crops.
There is another option here, too, and that’s Door to Door Organics—a service similar to a CSA that will deliver local produce (and other products) directly to my door. (I did a round-up of similar services across the country for Organic Authority.) Door to Door Organics offers a local box in the summer (other companies may not offer an all-local option) for $35.99 a week—that’s a little more expensive than a CSA, but you get to choose what you get, they deliver it to your door, and you get the option of adding other local products (see below), so it might be a good option. On the other hand, you don’t have an all-local option for winter, so you’d still need to buy extra produce somewhere for preserving.
For simplicity’s sake, though, I’m using the CSA prices for this experiment.
Total for produce: $2,344
While researching this, I found out that there are two local brands of organic dairy available around here, which is awesome! One, Organic Valley, is available at my local supermarket and runs about $4/half gallon for milk, and $5 for a pound of butter. For this estimate, I’m going to say that our family uses a gallon of milk per week and half a pound of butter per week.
Interestingly, we have another local brand, Morning Fresh Dairy, which is not yet certified organic, but is in the process of getting its certification—which means that, right now, their milk is priced like non-organic milk, but is produced to organic standards. (A farm has to show that they meet organic standards for five years before they can receive USDA organic certification.) That means I could pay as little as $2.39/half gallon. The catch is that the dairy doesn’t deliver to my house and Morning Fresh isn’t available at my local grocery store. The only way I could get it is to add it on to a produce delivery from Door to Door Organics or Mile High Organics (a similar service).
So, for the sake of this experiment, I’m going to use the Organic Valley Prices.
There’s a local egg producer that sells to my local Costco, and I can get 18 eggs for around $4; that lasts us approximately two weeks. Cheese, on the other hand, could be a problem for us, as in, we eat a lot of it! Right now, we go through about 2 pounds of cheddar a month. I found a cheese CSA from a local dairy, but it costs nearly $9 a week! If we were really going to do this, we’d probably have to reconsider our cheese habit, but for the sake of this experiment, we’ll go with the $9/week CSA.
Total for dairy: $1,118
I’ve always been interested in buying a “share” of a cow, but having never had a freezer, it wasn’t an option. So, I was excited to research what that would actually look like.
Colorado’s Best Beef offers beef halves and quarters to the public. A quarter gives you about 210 pounds of meat (after it has been processed) and costs about $882. That’s a pretty good deal, averaging at just over $4 a pound—and $4 a pound is my rock bottom price for grass-fed ground beef, so that would be a GREAT price for more expensive cuts.
We eat a relatively meat-lite diet, so I figure that 200 pounds would last us about 2 years, assuming it didn’t get freezer burned in our new freezer.
If I buy only whole chickens, I can get them for around $5 a pound, or about $15 per bird. I estimate we would eat one chicken every week.
And if we wanted to supplement our diet with other meats, like pork, lamb, bison and turkey, it averages out to about $7/pound if I stick to the cheaper cuts. So let’s add a pound of other miscellaneous meat per week.
Total for meat: $1,262
It was at this point that I realized that we are EXTREMELY lucky to live where we do when it comes to living the locavore lifestyle, because we have access to services like Door to Door Organics, which sell local meat, dairy, and other products, as well as the In Season Market store—which sells ONLY Colorado-grown products. WOW. That made my research a heck of a lot easier, and would make my life a lot easier were I to decide to try this for real.
So, quickly, here’s a rundown of other products we would need to buy—that I can get locally:
- Whole wheat flour — $1/pound x 5 pounds/month
- Dry pinto beans — $2.75/pound x 1 pound/month
- Honey — $4.50/pound x 1 pound/month
- Coffee (locally roasted) — $11.99/12 oz x 12 oz/week (we might have to examine our coffee habit!)
I know we grow sugar beets and make sugar in Colorado, but I haven’t figured out how to find it. There are also various other products that I can get that are made locally—like chocolate, peanut butter, and tea—but I don’t know if that counts, so we’ll leave those out for now.
Total for other products: $770.48
So, what’s the real cost of going local?
The total cost of food as I estimated it above is $10,921.96 for one year. That comes out to about $210 per week.
That is a little more than double my current weekly food budget.
That’s a big honkin’ deal, and that doesn’t include: the outlay for the equipment, the cost of OTHER food stuffs not included in this list (like peanut butter, oatmeal, chocolate, sugar, etc.), the extra cost of gas to drive around to different farms and stores necessary to pick up these specific foods, the cost of any garden materials we might want to invest in, or the cost of “household” products like paper goods, cleaning products, etc. or “personal” products, like soap, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.
This also doesn’t take into account the fact that for a lot of these things—like the CSAs and the beef shares—you must pay upfront, so you can’t spread the cost out over 52 weeks the way I’ve artificially done here.
That’s a big honkin’ deal. (I felt the need to say that twice.)
The reality is that going 100 percent local isn’t feasible for my family.
It would be a huge chunk of our yearly income—a chunk that’s already allocated to little things like housing and student loan debt (*shakes fist at student loan debt*).
The reality is that if we wanted to go 100 percent local (or as close to that as possible), we would have to drastically change our lifestyle.
- For one thing, we’d have to take a hard look at our consumption of cheese and coffee.
- We would probably have to eat even less meat than we already do.
- We wouldn’t be able to buy ANY convenience foods (even if we could find them locally); I would be making all of our bread products, for example.
- We would probably have to commit to growing a great deal more of our own food (right now we just have a small hobby garden).
- We might have to change our living situation and move to a less expensive home. (And believe me, we’re not living in Ritzy-McMansion-ville.)
- We would have to get exceptionally good at preserving food—and then rationing that food through the winter.
What’s the alternative?
Clearly, I won’t be transitioning our family to a totally locavore lifestyle any time soon, but that doesn’t mean I just throw up my hands and start shopping at Wal-Mart. (Sorry Wal-Mart.)
What it means is that you and I have to make conscious decisions about what we can and can’t buy locally.
For example, now that I know I can buy locally-produced organic milk at my regular grocery store, I think I can swallow an extra $0.50 per week or so to upgrade to that. That’s a choice I can afford and feel good about.
I can buy my whole wheat flour from the sweet local guy who sells it at the farmer’s market, because it’s about the same price as what I pay in the bulk bins.
I can shop at my farmer’s market as often as possible and I can learn how to grow more of my own food.
We can also take the pledge to try to shift 10% of our food budgets to local food.
And, for everything else, I’ll buy organic when I can. But this was a very sobering experiment for me; I knew in a vague sense that local food was more expensive, but I didn’t realize how MUCH more expensive. I’m not blaming the local food producers here, either: what’s sobering to realize is that this is the REAL cost of food, when it’s unsubsidized by the government, not produced under horrendous conditions, and not imported from poorer countries.
What do you think? Does this change the way you think about local food? Let me know in the comments below.