How to Grocery Shop at Your Local Farmer's Market
One of my goals this year was to transition to completely local perishables. I made this mostly lofty goal after noticing that the apple I was eating in Houston, Texas was from New Zealand, and possibly over half a year old. To lower my carbon foot print another 4-5%, I would have to eat local and seasonal fruits and veggies. I already make my own vegan dairy like milk and butter and can buy rice, flour, nuts, and legumes at my local grocer or co-op. So, how hard could it be?
Well, there's certainly a lot of trial and error. After all, how many times have you dropped by the store after work to grab an extra tomato or garlic? To get you started on the right foot, here are five tips I wish I had kept in mind before making the switch:
Be (and Stay) Realistic
The market where I live has the best organic fruits and vegetables, most of which I would never see at a national chain grocer. Nothing beats the atmosphere either! But, I have to be realistic about what I can make with what I buy. If you have a routine where you make similar dishes each week, shopping this way may be a little jarring at first. I can always find amazing herbs, gourds, mushrooms, etc but sometimes I can't find good citrus. How does that affect the dishes I will make? Eating this way requires adaptability but thankfully, that is just something that strengthens with time.
If you're not great at cooking on the fly, consider buying a seasonal cookbook for your area or city. Here's one just for Connecticut! General farm to table cookbooks are great too but note that most of them are not vegan. If all else fails, food blogs are your friend!
Simply put, start out with an open mind and a little patience.
Pick the Best Market For You
If you’re looking to transition your home too, you first have to become well-versed in the farmer’s markets in your city. If you don't know where to start, here is the USDA Farmer's Market Directory. Sometimes googling your 'zip code + farmer's market' is all you need. Chances are your area has more than just one and each is going to have a different array of vendors, some more suited to your needs than others. In Houston, the two I love are only on Saturday and Tuesday. Back in Austin, there was a farmer’s market five days out of the week. All markets have fruits and veggies, most have eggs, meat, fish and cheese, and some have bread loaves and flour, etc. You can also find kombucha, pickled goods, coffee, and likely a variety of food trucks.
Make note of your favorite stalls and take a photo of their banner to keep in mind for later (more on this below). Introduce yourself whenever possible, though some stalls get really crazy; how often do you get to say you know the people who grow your food?
Okay, so you’ve found the perfect fit for you, and your stomach. Now you need to stay friends. I recommend adding your farmer’s market on Facebook or Twitter, as they’ll likely post tidbits on which vendors will show or highlight certain fruits and veggies (like the best watermelons!). The same goes for your favorite vendor — it’s a real bummer when you really need something special like vegan bread or kombucha and that stall is a no-show. Be the first to know about sick days and early bird specials. The more informed you are, the more positive this process will be and you’ll be less likely to burn out six months down the line.
TIP → Scope out each market’s cash or credit options. The markets in the last city I lived in were practically all electronic and card friendly, whereas Urban Harvest, my current beat, leans way more towards cash transactions. It can also get really crowded, so sometimes handing someone a five dollar bill is just more efficient.
Make a (Vague) List
It’s different for everyone but whenever I go to the market without some plan, I end up buying too much of the wrong thing (i.e., squash blossoms) and then potentially waste that food as the work week gets busy. Don’t let the unpredictability of the market psych you out. Get to know what’s in season where you live - this is a helpful tool - and make a practical list based on your lifestyle. You’ll always have choices for substitutions (peaches instead of pears, etc) and you’ll be thankful for the structure, nonetheless.
My list usually contains two or three leafy greens, but I’m intentionally vague on what kind. Bok choy was a happy surprise two weekends ago and the hydroponic lettuces below were recently on sale - 3 for $10 - and will last up to 5 weeks in our fridge if cared for properly.
TIP → Always make a few laps with your list. Another great aspect of farmer’s markets is competitive pricing — tomatoes at one station could cost $1 less per pound than the last!
The Freezer Is Your Friend
Okay, make a list but don’t pass up on a good deal. Last week, every vendor had an abundance of long beans and one farmer was practically giving away big bags full of them. If you’ll eat it and it’s a steal, then freeze it for the future. We can eat these long beans for the rest of the month and just give them a quick steam whenever we need them. Another farm was selling a quarter peck of peaches for a good price, just way more than we would ever eat in a week. They freeze nicely when cut, however, and thaw perfectly in slow-cooker oatmeal. Good deal!
Another big reason people give up on farmer’s markets is because of food waste. Stay in tune with the food you’ve bought and be proactive. Keep on top of things by setting aside time each morning or every night to freeze and compost food accordingly.
Freeze herbs in oil using ice cube trays or canning jars. Turn mushy tomatoes into a sauce and then freeze. Chop and store everything else as you normally would; for tips on freezing food without plastic click here.
Still Can't Make it Out?
Understandable! Life happens; birthday parties, flus, work schedules, you name it. Try a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) instead, where in you can receive a box up to four times a month, each week, for $25-35 on average. I had one delivered to my apartment for a time and many have convenient pick-up locations, too. This is a new one in Houston. Here is a great one in Austin.
They’re perfect for couples and small families and depending on your area, you can get a lot of food. On your next trip to the farmer’s market, ask farms if they offer these services; chances are that they do!
Shopping at the farmer's market is a great way to lower your carbon foot print while simultaneously supporting farmers and makers directly, ensuring that they receive a fair wage. They incite spending at neighboring local businesses, stimulating the economy further. One in four farmers also 'cultivate land that is protected from commercial development' and you can always ask about sustainability concerns like pesticide use, irrigation, and fertilizer. Whether you aim to serve your community or just a great plate at your dinner table, eating locally is a stellar choice to make.
And if you needed another gentle nudge then remember: vegan cinnamon rolls. ▲