Q: I used to love filling up on fruit in the summertime — lots of fresh peaches, bags of grapes and cherries. But the prices for produce have just been going up and up at my local grocery store. I have a family of six and want to provide nutritious snacks for them but buying enough produce for all of us is becoming cost-prohibitive. I understand that farmers markets can be cheaper. Aside from that, do I have any other options?

A: I feel your pain. I sometimes have trouble feeding myself fresh produce let alone five other mouths. The stuff can be expensive! The other day at my local supermarket, I lunged toward a display of particularly large, luscious-looking Rainer cherries but stopped dead in my tracks and let out a pathetic half-yelp in defeat when I saw the price per pound. Now I know Rainer cherries are considered a “premium” fruit, but good lord. It was either add a heaping bag of Rainers to my shopping basket — because you can’t eat just a couple — or pay my electric and cable bills for the month. And because of my addiction to “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” I instead grabbed a measly, on-special bag of red seedless grapes and opted for the latter.

Below are a few thoughts on what you can do to get the fresh fruits and veggies a’ coming this summer without breaking the bank or getting arrested for trying to shoplift a watermelon while wearing a pair of old maternity overalls. I may be preaching to the choir with some of these points, but bear with me and hopefully you’ll pick up something new.

Buy in bulk: If there’s a Costco or Sam’s Club in close vicinity to you, by all means take advantage of it! Sure, buying produce in often grotesque quantities at a warehouse club store — where much of the produce is flown in from all over the place and sprayed with pesticides — may seem like a direct slap in the face to the sometimes smug and elitist locavore movement. It may seem like a giant leap away from farm-to-table foodie-ism. It may seem excessive and gross. But it is economical, and that’s what you’re after. Besides, in addition to being cheaper, bulk shopping is indeed often more eco-friendly in the long run. By making one big trip to Costco for aspirin, toilet paper and umm, Kirkland brand apples, instead of making multiple trips to the local supermarket, you’re cutting back on packaging and transportation-related carbon emissions. If you do buy in bulk, here are some tips on how to keep all that produce fresh so that nothing goes to waste.

Be selective when buying organic: This may seem like a horrid thing to recommend on a website like MNN, but if you’re trying to keep costs down and feed a hungry family of six, cut back on the organics, at least partially. Or you can just stealthily swap PLU stickers (as a former cashier at Whole Foods, I encountered plenty of folks doing this) while wearing your maternity overalls in the produce aisle and hope that no one notices.

One (non-shady) thing you could do is choose organic when it comes to the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen produce list and go conventional when it comes to the Clean 15, produce with the lowest pesticide residues. In a perfect world, organic produce — and all organic edibles — would be the same price or cheaper than conventional produce, but for a variety of reasons it’s most frequently not. So until you hit the jackpot with those scratch tickets, practice prudence when buying organic. I have a friend who loudly and proudly boasts about buying only organic produce but then loudly and not-so-proudly complains about having only 30 cents in her checking account. Sure, supporting organic agriculture can leave you leave feeling justifiably good, but not being in the poorhouse can leave you feeling so much better. 

Buy seasonal produce: A no-brainer when it comes to penny-pinching produce shopping. Try planning meals around what’s in season and stock up when certain goodies are at their cheapest, freezing or canning them if necessary. Use the handy-dandy Eat Local interactive map from the NRDC’s Smarter Living website to find out what’s seasonal in your neck of the woods, Claudette. Epicurious also has a helpful state-by-state “what’s seasonal?” map.

Grow your own: Producing your very own fruits and vegetables is another money-saving no-brainer if you have the outdoor space to do so. Given you live in Wisconsin, you may be somewhat limited when it comes to the backyard production of the sweet, summertime fruits that your kids crave, but you can certainly grow simple things like onions, cucumbers and carrots during the summer months. This will free up the available cash you have to buy those peaches, grapes and cherries.

Join a CSA: Subscribing to a local CSA (community supported agriculture) program is an excellent way to keep produce costs down while supporting local agriculture efforts on a scale that’s even more intimate than shopping at a local farmers market. You may not want to rely strictly on CSA produce since the contents of a weekly box could prove to be unpopular (a week’s worth of leeks!). You’ll also need to supplement with supermarket purchases when the growing season is dormant. In addition to produce, you may also get things like farm-fresh eggs, baked goods, cheeses, honey and more. Plus, your kids will think they’ve got the coolest clan in town since you purchase your fruits and veggies straight from a farm (or a designated pickup location) and not that boring old supermarket. Find a local CSA farm and learn about the CSA model over at Local Harvest.

Frequent a farmers market: Like subscribing to a CSA program, buying your produce from a farmers market instead of at a supermarket can often save you a few bucks while giving you super cool locavore cred. But like CSAs, farmers markets aren’t always the most convenient choice, and it sounds like convenience is something that you desperately need with that sizable brood of yours. If the local FM doesn’t fit into your hectic schedule, so be it but at least give it a shot or two. And I wouldn’t recommend driving all over tarnation just to save a few bucks on apples and carrots. The uber-frugal folks over at LiveCheap.com have a few pointers on how to make your money stretch even further at a farmers market. Tips include visiting right before closing when vendors may be trying to get rid of excess inventory and straight-out dickering.

Do what I do: Since I’m too finicky to commit to a CSA subscription and don’t seem to keep the same hours as farmers markets, I’ve found that buying my grapes, onions, kale and lemons at local, ethnic specialty markets is the cheaper and fresher alternative to “traditional” grocery stores in my Brooklyn neighborhood (and I have a couple of really good ones). Many folks swear on ethnic specialty stores when it comes to on-the-cheap shopping for fruits, veggies and other staples. My go-to spot is a Japanese version of an urban produce stand and has never let me down (although there’s no organic produce to be found). Plus, with the money I save on produce I can splurge and buy the pricey Japanese Kewpie squeeze mayo that I love …

Hope this all helps, and you find that you’re able to provide your clan with nutritious snacks while also saving a few pesos. Let me know what works best for you. Happy eating!

— Matt

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