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Buying local meat while trying to stick to a grocery budget

It's taken me awhile to adjust to food shopping here in Columbus, Ohio. Gone is my trusted one-stop, locally-owned, organic foods-promoting grocery store in Portland. Here I find myself improvising with the big chains (mainly Whole Foods and Kroger) and making more trips than I'd like. But I have finally figured out where we'll be buying our meat, and it's (dare I say) an even better solution than I had back in Portland. In Columbus we have the North Market, which, if you know Seattle, is like a smaller Pike's Market. At the North Market, a huge, renovated warehouse located downtown, you'll find local vendors offering fresh produce, cheese, ice cream, bulk spices, seafood, wine, bread and pastries, a huge selection of freshly-prepared foods, and much more. While I enjoy perusing and buying from many of these vendors, my main goal is to stock up on a month's worth of beef, chicken, pork and bison for my family.

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At North Market Poultry & Game, the owner buys direct from local farmers who raise mostly pastured, grass-fed, drug-free poultry, bison and venison. I buy chicken breasts and legs, and a cut of bison for slow-cooking. At Bluescreek Farm Meats, I ponder over their huge selection of beef and pork products, typically buying some ground beef, ground pork, bacon, chops, a pork butt for slow-roasting, and a beef roast. The friendly folks behind the counters at both of these establishments will de-bone and chop or butcher it however you like. They'll give you preparation tips and answer any number of questions about their meats. It's an interaction like one you'd have at a farmer's market, but with a much larger selection.

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Yes, the prices are more expensive than at Kroger, et al, but not necessarily any more (and sometimes less) than you'd pay at Whole Foods, New Seasons or the like. To me, whatever they charge is simply what good meat costs. I know I'm supporting a local business with like-minded standards, and I know I'm getting an excellent product in return. How are we not spending a small fortune? Well, we don't eat meat every day. And we'll stretch much of that meat (like roasts and ground meat in casseroles) over the course of a few days. I'm guessing I bought about 14 pounds of meat over the weekend to feed my family of four for a month, and I'm betting we'll have meat left over.

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I'm challenging myself, for the month of February, to see if I can spend no more than $700 on groceries, including the cost of this meat (I think we typically spend between $800-$900, including beer/wine). Why $700? The USDA has created four categories of budgets for typical families: Thrifty, Low-cost, Moderate-cost and Liberal plans. (I have not read their methodology for coming up with those budgets.) On the low end, they claim that a family of four using the Thrifty plan should be able to meet their nutritional needs on a food budget of $587 per month, while the Low-cost plan comes in at $765. (The Liberal plan is $1163 per month.) I want to see if my family of four can eat a diet of organic produce and dairy, locally-grown meats, whole grains and a bit of processed stuff in that kind of budget. I know it can be done and is done by many families for far less than $587 a month.

Why am I doing this? For one, I have time on my hands (aka, 'no life'), and I am trying to learn this new foodshed. For another, I just want to see if I can stick to a budget. We've blogged about grocery budgets in the past, and $700 seems like the average. When I hear middle income people claim that 'organic is too expensive', I wonder how much they are spending and what they are buying. I just want to see if I can stick to (what I'm assuming is) a typical food budget while supporting local, organic food producers. I'll keep you posted.

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