I’ve had a lot of questions lately about the economics of food preservation. If you have to buy 20 pounds of tomatoes to make it worth your while, and farmer’s market tomatoes cost $3 a pound, how can you afford it? And if you can only afford to can/freeze/dehydrate supermarket tomatoes, why bother? This is an excellent question—it’s also come up in the national media, like this article in Salon by someone who tried to “save money” by making strawberry jam with Union Square Greenmarket berries.
So let’s talk about it.
First, it’s true that, traditionally, food preservation was the province of people who grew their own food. Canning and freezing have long been the default choices of cash-poor farmers with lots of land and time on their hands. This description no longer fits most people who can, but it remains true that the cheapest way to preserve food is to grow it yourself.
Unless you’re living on a small-scale organic farm, though, this isn’t helpful advice. Fortunately, there are other options for city and suburban folks. In order of frugality, your best options are:
1) Pick your own. Prices at Mood’s, my favorite U-pick in South Jersey, range from $0.85 for peaches to $1.15 for blueberries. Hard to beat, but you do need time. And a car.
2) Buy seconds. “Seconds” are fruits or vegetables that aren’t quite perfect. You have to be careful—sometimes seconds are actively gross. Mostly, though, they’re perfectly serviceable. This photograph shows what someone at my local farmer’s market sold me when I asked her for $20 worth of seconds. She gave me about 57 pounds of slightly cracked (look carefully at the bowl on the left) but otherwise beautiful tomatoes—a steal at about $.40 a pound. If you don’t see any on display, ask. Often a farmer will have bushels of seconds stashed until a table or in a truck, just waiting for someone to ask for them. Other tips: show up early (beat the other canners!) and build a relationship.
3) Buy in bulk. If seconds aren’t an option, at least ask for a discount. To your left, check out the 50 ears of corn I lugged home last weekend. Ordinarily, corn sells at our market for the premium of $0.50 an ear. For a farm girl, this is borderline extortion. So, I simply asked: how much of a discount would you give me for 50 ears? The price dropped to $0.40/ear. Still pricey, but 20% less than advertised (and, incidentally, cheaper than at my grocery store). You can improve your odds by showing up toward the end of the market, especially on rainy days. Look around for whoever has lots of produce left, and make them an offer.
And remember, you don’t need to invest in fancy equipment. If you’ve already got a chest freezer, you’ll only need to invest in a solid stash of freezer bags. If you’d rather can, Mason jars and lids are all you’ll need. Once you’ve bought the jars and rings, you can reuse them indefinitely. You do need to buy new lids every time, but that will only put you back about $2 per dozen lids.
Now, what did I do with my 57 pounds of tomatoes and 50 ears of corn? A dozen pints of canned tomatoes, 9 pints of tomato sauce, 3 pints of roasted tomatoes, 6 half-pints and one pint of roasted tomato salsa, 6 pints of tomato-pepper salsa, 7 pints of corn relish, and about 15 quart bags of corn for the freezer. Not bad for $41.