Yeah, it might look pretty good, but that meat only looks bright red because it’s been dyed or irradiated to react well under the fluorescent lights – that’s why when you open the package and turn over your steak, it suddenly looks brownish. They do that because the meat is generally trucked in from far away, and they have to keep it looking fresh somehow, or nobody would buy it. That’s also why they pick produce before its fully ripe – it has to survive a week in the back of a truck without going moldy. The result is a product with lackluster taste and a too-firm texture.
Even if you don’t care about the environmental impact, irradiation, GMOs, etc., you should still care about getting great-tasting food for your hard-earned money. Especially as food prices are set to rise – in some cases, triple – in 2013. The solution is to eat locally-grown food.
You usually won’t find it in the supermarket – ironically, Florida grocery stores sell oranges from South Africa and limes from Peru, and similar shenanigans go on in your state. No, you have to look outside the big box store to find the best food for your money.
Community Supported Agriculture is your best bet for a steady supply of fresh foods. What happens is this: local farms sell shares in their upcoming crop, and the holder of a share is guaranteed a big box of that crop weekly for however long the term lasts. Your share will vary throughout the year as various things come into season, and there’s usually a pretty nice variety.
The websites for these farms usually list an example of the typical share so you know what to expect. Fruits and vegetables are most common, but some farms offer meats and dairy as well. Check the Local Harvest website to find participating farms in your area. Share prices vary, but most farms offer the option of a half-share so you don’t end up with more food than you can handle.
So there’s a rancher down the road with beautiful grass-fed cows. Great. Chances are, though, he won’t just sell you a single Ribeye. Smaller farms generally sell meat by the whole, half or quarter animal – that can be an awful lot of meat. If you have a deep freezer and a spare $2,000, this may not be a problem – but if storage or cost is an issue for you, consider a meat share.
A meat share is basically a group of people who get together to split the cost of a whole cow or pig, and divide the meat equally. It’s best to do this with people you know, because money will exchange hands and you have to trust them to not take all the steaks and leave you with the organs (unless you like that kind of thing), but there are options. Some farms organize meat shares themselves, and all you have to do is sign up for however much you want and pay – in some cases, you can even choose your desired cuts. Some CSAs that offer meat do this, or they may offer a separate meat and dairy membership. If all else fails, try Craigslist or your favorite foodie forum for volunteers.
True farmer’s markets are great because you don’t have to make the long-term commitment of a CSA, and you can just go pick up what you need for a couple of days instead of buying a huge amount of food at once. But make sure the food is actually local – there are open-air markets that call themselves “farmers’ markets” but they actually sell trucked-in grocery store rejects.
If there are no farmers’ markets near you, check your city’s Chamber of Commerce website’s local calendar to see if there’s a weekly green market. These affairs are usually held in open public spaces, usually early weekend mornings. The selection may be limited, but what you do find is often very high quality. Always ask if the food is local though, because there usually isn’t a law that says it has to be.
If you enjoy gardening, try growing as much produce as you can. Make friends with other like-minded individuals, and you can trade wares at harvest time. This can be great for those with limited space – you only have room for an herb garden, but the guy down the street with the beautiful heirloom tomatoes might be willing to trade for a bunch of fresh tarragon. Never hurts to ask. Some neighborhoods have community gardens that operate like a mini-CSA, where everyone gets a share of the crop – as long as they put in their share of the work. For bonus points, try starting one of these in your neighborhood.
Buying local doesn’t have to mean buying expensive. In many cases, it’s actually cheaper because of the lower transportation costs. It may mean sticking to foods that are in season (no strawberries in February), but once you get used to just-picked produce, you’ll feel spoiled rather than deprived.