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Pruning the Produce Bill

Knowing where and when to buy your veggies can benefit your bottom line

Even if you clip coupons until your scissors dull, shop “huge” sales and always use your store card to save on groceries, there’s one section of the grocery store it’s not always easy to save in: Produce.

It’s rare to find a coupon good for anything from the produce department, and often you’ll find things on your grocery list that are not on sale. What’s more, the produce section isn’t like the cereal aisle, where you not only have lots of options, but can also save by buying for generic. Sometimes there is only one artichoke to choose from, so if you need an artichoke you’ll pay whatever the going rate is.

How can you cut back on the fruit and veggies portion of your grocery bill, without sacrificing quality or giving up any of the colorful goodies you need and love?

Buy in season: You’re going to pay more for corn and watermelon in February than in July. Why? Because local weather conditions are not conducive to growing these summer-bearing plants, they are either being grown in hot-houses, which require more resources to maintain, or they’re being shipped in from California or Florida, or even South America, adding significantly to transportation costs. For these reasons, you’ll find the best deals and sale prices on summer fruits and veggies in summer, and fall and winter produce in winter.

Produce outlets: Produce Junction has locations throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, offering huge savings on fresh produce, plants, flowers and garden accessories. 

Farm markets: They've already started opening: the weekend Farmer’s Markets and roadside farm stands, offering locally-grown fruits, veggies and plants, many owned and operated by the farms themselves. Save by purchasing directly from the farmers and growers, and support your local agriculture at the same time. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture maintains a searchable database to help you find farm stands and markets near you.

Grow your own: The time to plant a backyard garden is coming up soon – Mother’s Day is the unofficial milestone for safe planting, when most danger of frost has passed. Planting veggies that you use frequently, like tomatoes, peppers, carrots, onions and beans can save you a bundle on groceries. You could also try potatoes, melons, corn, cucumbers, and many more fruits and veggies that grow easily in our zone. You’ll probably never get produce more fresh than picked out of your own garden, and there’s something extremely satisfying about preparing a meal with stuff you grew yourself.

Sign up for a CSA: A Community Supported Agriculture program is a popular way to connect you directly with a local farm, which will provide you with locally grown, seasonal food. How does it work? You purchase a “share,” which is basically a subscription for a weekly box of fruits, vegetables and farm products that are currently in season. By signing up for a CSA, you’ll get super fresh food (often organic), be exposed to different types of fruits and veggies (each box is a surprise waiting to happen!), and help support your local farmer. Find out more, and search for a local farm offering CSA shares here.

Pat May 02, 2012 at 04:08 PM
As a Produce Dept. Mgr. 37 years for a major food chain, I feel I am capable of responding to the many discreptancies in the above article. Sarah mentions Produce Junction as an outlet to save money, granted their plants and flowers are reasonably priced, however their produce is not top quality, most of it comes from the food distribution cente in Philadelphia which has been rejected from major food chains. You also have to take what they give you and must buy in quantities. The best way to save in a produce dept. is to buy what is on sale. A great percentage of the sales in produce comes from fruit and salad items, very little is generated from vegetables. You cannot buy local grapes, nectarines, oranges, bananas etc. you should buy fruits or salad items when they are on sale. Popular vegetables are onions, potatoes, cabbage, which are reasonbly priced all the time. You can save a lot by using the salad bar or premixed bagged salad, as you are getting more variety for your money, and use only what you need. You are not saving, with the price of gas, traveling to a farmers market, which many of their items are not locally grown.
Feodor Tiorlenko May 02, 2012 at 09:22 PM
Buying produce in a supermarket is insane. If one were a produce manager for 37 years, you certainly wouldn't be spending much time at Jim & Ralph's, Produce Junction or others. Supermarkets often mark up the price of produce and then put it on sale. For about six months a year, you can buy produce at 25% of supermarket prices at Jim & Ralph's. The other six months you can still buy produce for less than half the price of supermarket produce departments. By the way, those bags of premixed salads that you pay anywhere from $1.79 to $3.19 a bag for about 5 or 6 ounces have about 10 cents worth of produce in them. When Jim and Ralph has them, and I mean carrying the Dole brand, you can buy them for 3 bags for a dollar. Their still making 23 cents a bag. By the way, an even better way to save money is to grow your own vegetables.
Pat May 03, 2012 at 03:30 AM
I don't spend much time or buy anything at the markets you mention. I care about the quality of food I feed my family. All vegetables sold in supermarkets are stored and displayed under refrigeration. Most emplyees working in the produce dept. undergo extensivie training regarding quality control. Inventory is kept at a minimum to maintain freshness of product. The conditions produce is stored and displayed at the makets you mention reduce the shel life and freshness of product. Most of the produce you buy there you throw out before you get a chance to use all of it, so what are you saving.. Just curious Feodor are you employed by produce junction. Unless one lives on a farm or has a great deal of land I can't believe you will save a great deal of money by growing your own.
Robin Beall May 03, 2012 at 03:59 PM
I believe I saved a great deal of money last year growing my own. On a small patch of land in my own yard, I grew enough tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and herbs/spices that I didn't have to spend a penny on any of those things for several months. And this was my first venture into my own gardening; I anticipate having even more success this season. So, I can't speak on the topic of different markets and such, I can, from personal experience, confirm that you can in fact save money growing your own. I spent no money on chemicals as I went completely natural, and all the work was just at a cost of some of my own time, which I enjoyed anyway.
Billie Bakhshi May 04, 2012 at 03:35 PM
I disagree wholeheartedly with Pat. I have always been pleased with the quality of produce junction. No, I don't work for them. I have always been pleased by the freshness of their produce, which I believe is largely due to the amount they can move because of the lower cost, whereas most supermarket chains have a much higher price and the stuff sits for a longer amount of time. Even Whole Foods has a better price on organics, compared to most supermarket chains. Personally I try to buy hyper local, from area farms. For nutritional value, this is best...the produce doesn't take a long ride in a truck from across the country, losing nutrients along the way. During the summer, we love hitting up the roadside farm stands on the way to and from the Jersey Shore.

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