The $100-A-Week Farmers Market Challenge

The $100-A-Week Farmers Market Challenge
Dave Lieberman

Shopping at the farmers market is the prerogative of the wealthy, right? It's a place for well-heeled yuppies with environmental guilt to pretend they're in oh-so-enlightened France or Italy. Eating local food is a nice buzzword but out of the reach of the average Californian, right?

Wrong, and after my snarky post about how the University of Washington proved that junk food is cheaper than healthy food, I set out to prove it. While there's no definitive source on what an average family spends on food (it's not, for example, a Census question), a jaunt around the Internet shows that the average Californian family spends between $85 and $110 on food in a week, nearly half of which is for meals out.

As it happened, the day I sat down to write this, the TV at the gym was tuned to the Food Network, which was showing "Sandra's Money Saving Meals"--the queen of "semi-homemade" cooking, famous for using expensive, processed convenience foods, is now talking about cooking from scratch to save money. The irony is there--it's not delicious, because I saw what she cooked, but it's there. The worst part, though, is that she still managed to spend nearly $20 for four people for a single meal, without planning for much in the way of leftovers. I'm not sure how she managed to turn a plate of white macaroni, red beans and a few vegetables into a $20 meal.

I set out to prove that my family of three could eat local food, including sustainably raised meat, for $100. I went to the largest--and most expensive--farmers market in Orange County, on Saturdays in Irvine, built a menu around vegetables, added protein, and then supplemented with food from other stores.
 
I spent $99.82. Here's the shopping list:

The $100-A-Week Farmers Market Challenge
Dave Lieberman

Irvine Farmers Market: $58.00

Valdivia Farms Watermelon, oranges $3.00
Livacich Farms Bell peppers, carrots, lettuce, asparagus $5.00
R Farms Momotaro tomatoes, Japanese cucumbers $3.25
Dry Dock Fish Mussels $7.40
5 Bar Beef Grass-fed ground beef $9.00
Soledad Goats Goat yoghurt $5.00
Buenrostro Farms Cauliflower, poblano chiles $3.50
Sweredoski Farms Potatoes, fennel, basil, marjoram, tomatoes, squash blossoms $8.00
Picket Lane Bakery Bread $3.50
Lee Farms Eggplant $1.50
Arnett Farms Geo Pride pluots $3.85
Cortez Farms Strawberries $5.00
One organic chicken, head and feet removed and spatchcocked.
One organic chicken, head and feet removed and spatchcocked.
Dave Lieberman

Outside the Farmers Market: $41.82

OC Poultry and Rotisserie Organic chicken, 20 free-range eggs $11.17
El Metate Tortillas, panela, Oaxaca cheese $4.72
Trader Joe's Unsweetened almond milk, 2% milk, buttermilk, apple juice, tomato paste $16.07
In-N-Out Hamburger, animal-style $2.01
Sprouts Steel-cut oats, cranberry juice $5.24
El Super Key limes, mint, Jarritos grapefruit soda $2.61

I also used some things I had in the pantry: flour, sugar, oil, vinegar, a tin of chocolate buttons we were given as a gift, a can of chickpeas, some lemons I preserved from our tree back in February, part of a box of couscous, spices and salt. Of course, these things aren't free, but most people have a pantry full of things like this that get replaced occasionally.

Friday evening we had Gustavo and his chica, freshly returned from the world's largest yard sale along U.S. 127 in Kentucky and Tennessee, over for dinner; while it was a hodge-podge of assorted small plates, the fact is we had enough food to provide for guests.
 
So what did I make?

Breakfast varied; I made a big pot of oatmeal which lasted us a couple of days, and we had a couple of days of cold cereal and milk. I made omelets with marjoram one morning (bad idea--the taste of the herb is far too strong for the eggs) and I made enough pancakes with plum compote to last a couple of days.

The idea was to make enough food for dinner to last us, through leftovers, for lunch the next day, though one day my wife had an appointment in Burbank and snuck a $2 burger from In-N-Out for her lunch.

Moules frites, the pride of Belgium
Moules frites, the pride of Belgium
Dave Lieberman

Saturday: Moules frites (steamed mussels and fries) and lettuce salad; no dessert.

Sunday: Grass-fed beef meatballs in tomato sauce spiked with preserved lemon; homemade flatbread with za'atar; roasted cauliflower with rosemary; watermelon.

Meatless Monday: Chile relleno casserole (layers of tortilla, roasted poblano chiles and cheese); carrots glazed with fresh-squeezed orange juice, piloncillo and butter; no dessert.

Tuesday and Wednesday: Roast chicken; roasted potatoes, fennel and asparagus; strawberries with zabaglione.

Thursday: Chicharrones de queso (cheese toasted brown on the griddle) in tortillas; fresh Swiss chard given to us from the neighbor's garden; figs from the same place.

Friday: small plates. Roasted chickpeas with mint; eggplant "tagine" with couscous; poultry meatballs in tomato sauce; flatbread with yoghurt-cucumber dip; bread pudding with fruit sauce.

Flatbread with za'atar (spice mixture with sesame seeds)
Flatbread with za'atar (spice mixture with sesame seeds)
Dave Lieberman

I work a full-time job--this food writing lark certainly doesn't pay me enough to be able to spend $100 a week on groceries--and so the weeknight meals tended to be simpler, except the Friday dinner, which was later than normal anyway. The chicharrones de queso and the Swiss chard took maybe 15 minutes from the first step into the kitchen; I spatchcocked the chicken so it would roast in the same time as the vegetables, about 45 minutes starting from a cold oven.

The meals are relatively healthy; they all tasted good, with the exception of that unfortunate omelet, and there was fruit and vegetable in every lunch and dinner--not hard to do with such amazing produce.

It was not, frankly, difficult. I could have budgeted even further and found cheaper sources of protein such as nuts, beans and tofu. I did have to restrain myself when I got to the middle alley of the market, which is lined end to end with a stunning array of fruit, and I did have to keep a running tally to make sure I had enough to finish my shopping with, but this was not that challenging to do. If I'd been less picky about my meat, I could have knocked another $10-$15 off, but the quality would have suffered.

Now I challenge you: eat in this week. Go out this weekend; find a farmers market near you. It's the end of August, and the stalls are groaning with every kind of summer produce you could want. Buy what's in season, buy what's cheapest, and cook it simply. Plan your meals around vegetables, then add meat in reasonable quantities.

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