Agri Leader

Shop around to save money on local produce


Last week, I shared some nutrition tips to consider as we enter the new year. I focused on a study that encouraged low-income participants to eat healthy without spending too much money.

Because produce is a big part of a healthy diet, I thought I'd take things a step further this week by comparing your best bargains for in-season Florida produce. I've been in and out of so many supermarkets this past week, I feel like I should compete on "Supermarket Sweep," where contestants are timed as they find a list of items. I also earned strange looks from at least one stock clerk, who must have wondered why I eyed the tomatoes so closely without buying any. Surely he thought I was a retail spy.

I decided to compare prices for three in-season items - Florida oranges, strawberries (just now coming in season), and tomatoes. I made sure to compare prices only for items made here in Florida. You can support Florida agriculture in a similar way by looking for the sunny "Fresh from Florida" logo on your food items (it's part of a marketing campaign from the state's agriculture department) or by reading the produce labels. It's amazing how many items are from our backyards in Central Florida this time of year.

I visited five different markets - a local produce market, Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Publix, and a high-end gourmet market. I'm not naming the first or last market because unless you live in my town, you likely won't find them in your neighborhood. However, suffice to say they represent the bottom and top market prices you might find in any area.

The overall price winner was my local produce market, which doesn't surprise me. The budget-conscious will tell you that local vendors like roadside stands and farmers markets are usually where you'll find savings and locally-sourced food. However, there were a few other budget-saving tips you can use based on my market journeys.

1. Buy in season to yield savings. Citrus is king in Florida this time of year, and it shows. Although my local produce mart had the cheapest price for Florida navels - 4 for $1, and four of them came to about 1 pound - all other markets averaged about $1.49 per pound. The same thing happened for Roma tomatoes, where the average price was $1.89 a pound.

2. Still, shop around. Let me contradict myself just for a second. It's true that in-season items will usually have the best prices, but there will be some items with more price fluctuations. Take strawberries, for example. Surprise! Walmart was not the cheapest. Both Walmart and Winn-Dixie had the same strawberry package from a farm in Riverview, but Winn-Dixie sold it for $2.99 versus $3.48 at Walmart. Publix was only 20 cents more than Walmart, while my local produce mart matched the Winn-Dixie and Walmart price of $2.99. Here's something interesting: My high-end market had the same-sized strawberry packages for a whopping $5.99 - and they were from a California source.

Understandably, we don't usually have time to troll from market to market for our food items. However, read the flyers in your newspaper, from the mail, or price info online to save yourself some legwork.

3. Look for sales. This may seem obvious if you're shopping on a budget. Still, let's explore it a little. I compared prices for grape tomatoes. Funny enough, Publix matched the price of my local produce market with their buy-2-for-$4 offer - so both stores averaged $2 a container.

One way to take advantage of sales: Instead of planning your recipes in advance and looking for ingredients at the grocery store, buy a few on-sale items, and then plan your recipes around those items.

4. Consider quality. I noticed a range of quality among the produce items at the various markets. Most items looked colorful and fresh-the local produce market, which averaged the cheapest prices, had items that were particularly attractive considering the price. However, there were a couple of items at larger-sized stores that made healthy eating not so appealing. Bottom line: Aim to save money, but a spending a few extra cents can be an investment in your health and food flavor.