Think fresh produce is cheaper in grocery stores than at farmers markets? Think again.
One might think of farmers markets as places for organic and high-quality produce at equally high prices. But Chris Curtis, director of the Northwest Farmers Market Alliance, can prove that this isn't so.
"They're all in the same ball park," Curtis said. "It's a perception we know is out there. We try to do our best to let people know."
Take, for instance, the University District Farmers Market, says Curtis. Students at Seattle University recently conducted a price comparison between the prices offered at the market and the prices of produce items at chain grocery stores. What the students found was that most vegetables sold at the market had lower if not comparable prices to their grocery store counterparts.
Collard greens for example, sold for $0.75 at the U-District Market, $2.49 at Metro Market, $1.33 at PCC, $2.49 at QFC and $1.87 at Whole Foods. Carrots, however, were $3.00 at the U-District Market, $1.99 at Metro Market, $1.29 at PCC, $2.49 at QFC and $0.99 at Whole Foods.
Another SU comparison of the U-District Farmers Market versus Whole Foods and QFC conducted in January 2009 showed an average saving of $0.62 cents on a number of items including squash, potatoes, apples, free-range chicken, carrots, cabbage and other leafy green vegetables.
Shoppers looking to stretch their grocery dollars can also benefit from buying locally-grown produce, which has a shorter travel time and consequently a longer lifespan after purchase, says Curtis. Produce sold at grocery stores are shipped an average of 900 miles prior to purchase, drastically shortening their shelf life.
EBT and food banks
The NW Farmers Market Alliance, which began accepting food stamps more than 20 years ago, has a clever system to help facilitate EBT cardholders.
"Food stamp redemption has doubled in our markets within the last two years," says Curtis. "It's a big part of market day now."
Prior to purchase, the cardholder must visit an information booth at the market and swipe the EBT card. The cardholder will then be given a currency unique to the market -- wooden nickels stamped with dollar amounts.
Such is the system, at least for now. A change in technology may be in the works, as Curtis hopes to implement a different method in the future. The wooden nickel transaction has worked flawlessly over the years, however.
Markets also understand the importance of giving back. At the end of the market day, each farmer is given the option to donate any of the leftovers the market's local food bank. In 2011, the NW Farmers Market Alliance donated more than 40,000 pounds of fresh market food to Seattle food banks, providing families with a fresh and local option.
"I just noticed year after year we're noticing more and more food bank clients at the farmers markets," Curtis says. "Looking at numbers from last year, in all seven markets, we served about 5,000 low-income citizens."
Best practices for best prices
As is the case with grocery stores, there are tips and tricks to finding the best deals at the market. This begins with creating relationships with farmers at the market, and knowing your seasonal produce. Mia Armstrong, grower at Nash's Organic Farms, offered several smart methods for extending your dollar.
-Do a lap around the market before you buy
-Compare prices and be strategic
-Get to know farmers, they appreciate long term relationships
-Learn what's in season and buy seasonally
-Don't be afraid to ask about prices if it doesn't work for you
Several neighborhood markets are open year-round, and offer great opportunities to add fresh produce to cheap pantry staples.
Curtis recommends finding fruits and vegetable that are in season, then adding the fresh items to pasta or rice, or even slow-cooking vegetables for a nutritious soup. Local market blogs and websites also provide seasonal produce lists, along with recipes, examples of what shoppers can find at the market that week, and Curtis' best practice list for smart market shopping.