Eat More Veggies: Smart Shopping

Earlier this week, I wrote a post highlighting the amount of food – especially produce – that we waste, despite both good intentions and the fact that we are healthier when we eat more plant-based foods. In Monday’s post, Eat More Veggies: Waste Not Want Not, I shared my top tips for reducing waste: First In First Out, Don’t Throw Away Good Stuff and Shop Smart. Today is all about how to put the Shop Smart part into action.

Shopping Smart means looking beyond the traditional grocery store for ways to buy fresh, healthy food. The grocery store is not a bad option and you can score good deals if you shop the sales, but it is important to have some alternatives. More Choices = More Savings. My favorite ways to save on produce are farmer’s markets, food rescue and co-op buying. To learn more about the treasures you might find at the farmer’s market, check out my post, The Downtown Phoenix Farmer’s Market.

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Food Rescue: Market on the Move
There are groups in some communities that rescue surplus produce that would otherwise get wasted and provide that produce at a low cost to families. In Phoenix and Tucson, Market on the Move is a weekly event where surplus produce from farming communities is trucked into the city. Generally there are 8-12 varieties of produce and with a $10 donation participants can take all the food they want. That’s right – there’s no limit. Some families fill reusable shopping bags and others come with wagons or rolling coolers. The idea is that you take what you can use and a little extra to share with friends and neighbors because the food would have otherwise been wasted.

The first time I participated in Market on the Move, I was a little weirded out. I wasn’t sure if the program was more like a food bank than a co-op and I didn’t want to take food that was meant for people with fewer resources than I have. On top of that, I wasn’t sure about “rescued” food. Sounds kind of dubious, right? Was it going to be all rotten or go bad in a day? Was it going to be oddball stuff nobody would want?

I decided to see for myself and I was pleasantly surprised. One Saturday morning I showed up at a church near my home to find a huge line of (really friendly) people. I was pretty far back so I had about 40 minutes to wait and used the time to get to know my “line neighbors.” There were people from all walks of life and they had various reasons for participating. Some of the folks I chatted with were looking to add healthy veggies to their diets, some were participating because it stretched their food budget, and others were excited to participate in a program that prevents waste. My concern that I was taking food from others who might need it more was unfounded because there is more than enough to go around and the process only works if there are enough participants contributing. Another important thing is to note is that Market on the Move is not year-round. The service is suspended during the hottest months of summer so it’s always a good idea to double check the website before you head out.

So, what do you get? Most of the food is conventionally grown, but I have seen a few organics mixed it. The selection varies every week and you never know until you arrive and read the whiteboard, but last time I went there were eggplants, red bell peppers, tomatoes, four varieties of squash, green beans and cucumbers. I took some of everything except eggplant (yuck!). I used some food right away because grilled squash is a big hit at my house. I made a few loaves of zucchini quickbread which were devoured in a flash. Homemade tomato sauce? You can bet your baked ziti I made a batch! Cucumber sandwich with dill and cream cheese? Don’t mind if I do. After the first wave of my cooking frenzy quieted, I sliced and shredded portions for the freezer so I have quick side dishes for future dinners and ingredients ready for more quickbread. My daughter’s day care provider was thrilled to have a bounty of grape tomatoes for the kiddos and my coworkers were not shy about taking the rest. Not a single veg was wasted and many, many mouths were fed with a single $10 bill. Granted, I had to put in some effort and it’s not something I have time for every weekend, but it made a big difference and it was well worth my investment.

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Food Co-Op: Bountiful Baskets
I remember back in 2008 when a colleague at work told me about her friend who got a big laundry basket full of fresh produce from Bountiful Baskets for only fifteen dollars. I remember thinking she was probably messing with me or there had to be some kind of a catch. We gathered around the website reading every detail and trying to figure out how to do it and whether there were strings attached. It sounded too good to be true. In the end we decided to gamble the fifteen bucks and give it a try. Fortunately for us it was NOT a scam and I was so pleasantly surprised that I began participating every other week. For a while, I even volunteered and helped to establish a new pick-up site in a local park. Now, I’m very fortunate to work for a company that participates in Bountiful Baskets Corporate Sites so my veggies and fruits get delivered right to work every other Thursday.

Bountiful Baskets is a food co-op, which means that people from all over the community contribute money online to the bulk-purchase of hundreds of pallets of food direct from the distributor. The organizers work with the produce house to get the best deals possible and arrange for trucks to deliver the produce to local parks, churches or other pre-designated meeting places. From there, neighborhood volunteers work together to distribute the produce into equal shares. Volunteer Site Coordinators then check participants off of the list as they come to pick up their shares of the bulk purchase. Over the years, the process has become much smoother. In the past, food always had to be distributed into baskets onsite but now some sites enjoy pre-packed boxes. The organization has grown significantly, too. There used to only be sites in Maricopa County, AZ but now several states have Bountiful Baskets.

The online contribution form has the choice of conventionally grown produce for $15 or a slightly smaller box of organically grown fruits and vegetables for $25. Participants can add extras like breads, tortillas, granola, cookies or specialty packs of extra veggies for a small additional fee.

My experience with Bountiful Baskets has always been more good than bad. I’ve found mixed reviews online and generally those fall into two groups: people who don’t like not being able to pick out their own veggies and concerns about the quality of the food. I see not being able to choose my own veggies as an adventure and I like that it pushes me to try new stuff or share something I don’t want with others (for example, eggplant lovers) who will use it. Occasionally I’ll get a box that’s kind of boring to me, but I feel like more often than not I get a good variety. For Arizonans, the things you find in your basket usually correspond pretty closely to what’s on the front of the Sprouts sale flyer. As for the quality complaints, sometimes I get a few items that are over or underripe but I just use them in the order they’re going to ripen and I chalk it up to being a natural part of the co-operative buying thing.

What’s your experience with alternative food buying? Have you ever participated in a co-op or food rescue operation? Do you think you might like to try it? Continue the conversation in the comments below. We always love to hear what you think!

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