Preserving Food and Money

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Does preserving food save you money?

When considering the economics of canning, the key pieces of the equation are the costs of the equipment and the produce you are canning. Pat Kendall, professor and extension specialist with the Colorado State University Extension Office, suggests starting with fruit, jams or pickles because those items don't require a pressure canner; that reduces the startup costs to about $50.

Kendall analyzed canning yields and found that one bushel of peaches produces 14 to 18 quarts of canned peaches at a cost of about $40 for the fruit and $60 for start-up equipment and supplies. To buy about the same amount of canned peaches in a grocery store, you'd pay $68.70, assuming a 15-ounce can of peaches costs $2.29. But the next year, when you'd have less equipment to buy, canning would cost closer to $50.

If, like food bloggers Clay Dunn and Zach Patton, you get your peaches as part of a CSA (community-supported agriculture program, or farm subscription) and don't spend extra money for the fruit, canning makes clear economic sense. Sure, they pay to belong to the CSA, but the U-Pick days are a free bonus with their membership.

Kendall says that for some types of fruit, the taste difference makes the canning costs worthwhile.

"Home-canned peaches don't taste like store-bought canned peaches," she says. "Store-bought are sweet and plastic-y. You may choose to preserve for reasons outside of expense. You could be after a particular taste."

Dunn and Patton acknowledge they probably couldn't taste the difference between their tomatoes and store-bought canned ones. But the cost difference is another story. Kendall's analysis shows that one bushel of tomatoes yields 15 to 20 quarts of canned tomatoes, a quantity that would cost about $80 at the grocery store. This year, if Dunn and Patton wait for the U-Pick tomatoes, they will need only to buy new lids (under $10) and rent a Zipcar (under $30).

The bottom line? The more often you do it, the more your initial investment pays off.

Of course, none of this takes your time into account. Though as Kendall is quick to point out, it also doesn't take into account "the value in your sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction that you have canned your own."

-- Kelly DiNardo

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