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Cost of preserving and storing food

One way to help manage rising food costs is with a garden hose and canning jars. Home food preservation does save money for some people. For others, it may not. Costs to consider include produce and added ingredients, equipment and supplies, fuel consumption to preserve and store the foods, lost interest on large capital outlays such as a freezer, personal time and energy, and the cost of similar food preserved commercially.

Produce used in home food preservation may come from several sources: home gardens, roadside markets, pick-your-own fields, or gifts from “green-thumb” family or friends. If you purchase the produce, the cost is evident. If you have a garden, some costs to consider include the cost of the land; special costs to till the soil; the cost of such reusable equipment as garden tools; the cost of non-reusable items such as seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and water; and your time and energy. The harvest value of your gardening efforts will depend on the market value of the food produced minus any costs incurred. If you produce a bumper crop, the savings may be great. However, if you’re plagued with crop failures, the savings may be small.

Although gardening may not be exceptionally profitable when you consider your time, it does offer many side benefits. In addition to the cash you don’t spend at the supermarket, you gain, through healthy outdoor exercise, opportunities for family activities, across-the-fence neighborliness and the pleasure of sharing extra produce with neighbors and friends. Other benefits include the ready availability of fresh garden produce without making a trip to the supermarket, that fresh-from-the-garden good taste, and the challenge and ecological satisfaction of growing some of your own food.

Freezing has advantages and disadvantages for food preservation. The two main advantages are that the procedure is simple and that it keeps food more like fresh produce than any other method of long-term preservation. A disadvantage is the cost to buy and operate a freezer. If you already have one for convenience, freezing inexpensive sources of produce can be an economical way to provide a variety of high quality fruits and vegetables during out-of-season months. Also, home frozen foods can be preserved to your own taste or special diet needs.

The cost of packaging, including reusable containers, will range from 2 to more than 6 cents per pound. Rigid containers, such as plastic cartons or glass jars, cost more initially, but not when divided over several years’ use. The cost of water and fuel used in washing, blanching, and chilling foods varies with area costs of these commodities and individual practices. One study estimated this cost at less than half a cent per pound of food. The cost of added ingredients also varies with what and how much is added. Added ingredients to consider include such sweeteners as sugar and honey and such antidarkening agents as citric acid and ascorbic acid. Vegetables and many fruits freeze quite well without added ingredients.

Freezing foods at home is not cheap, nor is the cost of storing frozen foods purchased commercially. However, a well-managed freezer can save time, energy and gasoline in fewer trips to the supermarket. To get the most out of your home freezer, select a freezer to fit your family needs, use it properly, freeze only those foods the family likes to eat in amounts that can be enjoyed, and find economical sources of those foods.

Canning usually is a more economical method of preserving food in the home than freezing. The canning operation varies from household to household — as to what foods are canned, how they are processed, the kinds of containers or equipment used and the amounts canned at a given time.

A pressure canner is the most expensive piece of equipment needed for home canning, ranging in price from $100 to $150 or more. The initial cost may be divided over a 15- to 20-year life expectancy. Include allowances for repair and replacement of gaskets, safety valves and pressure gauges. A large water-bath canner is useful in processing high-acid foods, such as fruits, tomatoes, pickles and preserves. One usually can be purchased for $20 to $40. Sometimes a container already in the home can be used. A jar lifter ($3 to $4) and a jar funnel ($1 to $2) are other helpful pieces of equipment for canning. The cost of new canning jars with lids ranges from $5 to $8 per dozen. The jars and screw bands may be divided over an average 10-year lifespan but lids need to be purchased yearly, varying in cost from 3 to 6 cents per lid.

As with freezing, the cost of water and fuel to prepare and process foods by canning will vary with area costs, personal practices and the type of food being processed. The energy cost to process the food will vary with the length of processing time and the efficiency of the burner in maintaining the desired processing temperature. In one USDA study, it was estimated that the energy required to process a 7-quart canner of raw-packed green beans, peaches and tomatoes was 1.6, 2.3 and 2.4 kwh, respectively. At 10 cents per kwh this amounts to 2.3 to 3.4 cents per quart.

Drying may be an economical method to preserve foods. It does not require expensive equipment and dried foods need little space or energy for storage. On the other hand, drying foods is time consuming and the end result may be less desirable than if foods are preserved by canning and freezing. Commercial dehydrators vary in cost from $40 to $350, depending on size, features, and quality of construction. Screens used in ovens or homemade dehydrators may be as inexpensive as a piece of nylon netting or cheesecloth to stainless steel hardware cloth set in a wooden frame. The energy required to dry the food will vary with the type of dehydrator and the length of time needed to dry the food.

Root cellaring or cold storage also may be an economical way to preserve some foods. Fruits and vegetables that store well this way include beets, cabbage, carrots, celery, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, apples and pears. Onions store well through the winter in any well-ventilated, cool, dry place. Store pumpkin, winter squash and sweet potatoes in an unheated room or basement through the winter. Green or white tomatoes will keep from one to six weeks.

For more details and specific cost information on preserving and storing food, check out www.ext.colostate.edu and look up fact sheet 8.704.