Whenever people discuss frugality or ways to stretch your budget in this tough economy, one of the first things that gets suggested is starting a garden and then canning or freezing what you grow. I myself am a big proponent of both, as should be obvious to people who read this blog.
But really -- how much does one save? Well, that depends on a lot of factors. Let's take, as an example, the tomato sauce I made this weekend.
around a bushel of tomatoes (~50 lbs)
one large onion
a head of garlic
four bell peppers
Yield: about eight quarts (I like thick sauce; you could probably get ten if you like it thinner)
Time: six to eight hours, including processing time.
First, let's assume best-case scenario: starting your own plants from seed and planting on land you have access to: your yard, or a neighborhood garden.
A packet of tomato seeds and a packet of pepper seeds would set you back about $5 total (and that's using cheap, hardware-store seed, not organic seed). Alternately, healthy young plants cost about $2 each -- you'd need at least 4-8 tomato plants depending on yield and at least one good pepper plant, for a total of around $15. Then you have to tend and water them for at least 3 months. Total cost, not counting time and water investment: $5-$15, plus $2 for lids, plus another $1 for a big onion and $1 for a head of garlic, best case scenario, assuming you already own canning jars; that's somewhere between $1 - $2.40 per jar.
Buying direct from the farmer's market, tomatoes cost around $25 per bushel. Best case scenario, if you qualify for SNAP and have a participating market, you might be able to get them for $12.50. Plus lids, onions and garlic again, you're looking at $2 - $3.75/jar.
None of this takes into account having a functional stove, pots big enough to boil two gallons of sauce down, a food mill, the time to process the food, or the transportation to get a bushel's worth of tomatoes back home (try that on the bus sometime). Even if you only "pay yourself" $1 per hour for your time, and ignore the transportation/gas/electric/water costs involved, those quarts are much closer to $5-$10 each. Throw kids into the equation (either watching, or figuring out babysitting during shopping/gardening and cooking) and the time cost gets exponentially steeper.
I grew my tomatoes from seed at a community garden, but bought the peppers, garlic and onion, and that made my material costs equal to about $1.50 /quart. I'm blessed to have inherited a seemingly endless supply of canning jars, as well as a Victorio Strainer, so I don't have any equipment costs beyond lids. Giving myself $1 an hour, and factoring in a few external costs, I project my sauce actually works out to someplace around $5-$8/quart. Not much of a savings when you consider you can walk into Meijer's and get Newman's Own for $2.16. True, organic sauce at the food co-op costs $6/quart -- but that $25/bushel at the farmer's market is for conventional tomatoes. The cost goes up if you buy organic (again, unless you grow your own).
Here's another thing to consider: I don't have a yard suitable for growing food in. I did cobble together a couple of small garden boxes, but the light is weak enough that I'm pretty limited to what I can grow. That still gives me a much better setup than someone with an apartment balcony, and works out to about 16 square feet of dirt. I'm a pretty good gardener, can afford good seed, practice square-foot gardening, use trellises and can afford the odd bit of fish fertilizer. I also have space for a compost heap, which keeps me from having to buy more dirt every spring --again, not something someone could do in an apartment, or in most rental scenarios (though one of my landlords did let me keep a garden when I asked, so it's not out of the question). All this means I have much more knowledge, space, and tools at my disposal than your average person off the street. That being said, here's what my home garden yielded this year:
a pint of sugar peas
a dozen tennis-ball sized tomatoes
a quart of string beans
a pint of edamame beans
three small bunches of chard
about fifteen salads' worth of lettuce
about a pound of runner beans
and that's all. This was a legume-heavy year to prep the soil for nightshades or cucurbits next year -- and while I could do another late planting of lettuce or kale, I'd only get maybe another two small bunches out of them. (Cold frames are off the table this year -- I just don't have the time, energy or tools to build them, and even if I found some storm windows to salvage, I'd still be looking at about $30 in lumber, parts, and gas.) And again, this is with a better setup than many urban gardeners could hope for.
Yes, gardening, cooking, and food preservation *can* help extend your food budget -- and home- or locally-grown food is better for you in all sorts of ways -- but they're just not magic bullets. Unless you have a huge yard, save your own seed every year, and have the time and energy to throw into heavy-duty gardening, they're a supplement, at best.
I am, of course, going to keep doing each of these things as long as I have the time, money, and location to do so -- and I want somebody to come check me for a pulse if I ever stop -- but I think it's important to have a look at the total cost at the end of the season.