Do you think inflation's under control? If so, you probably haven't been to the grocery store lately.

Food prices are up substantially this year, with the food component of the consumer price index having risen at an annual pace of more than 6% through May. Higher prices are affecting items in every aisle of the store, with recent hikes in meat and dairy following on the heels of spiking costs for fruits and vegetables over the winter. Some reporters are looking for $5 milk this summer, spurred by higher transportation costs.

When it comes to budget-crunching, food isn't the easiest place to look. While you might be able to find a hidden fortune by cutting back on trips to restaurants if you eat out a lot, there's only so much you can do to lower your grocery bill. Yet there's one thing many people don't consider that can save you a load of money. And the best thing about it is that you'll probably like the food better.

Locally grown food
There's no denying that supermarket chains like Safeway (NYSE:SWY), Winn-Dixie (NASDAQ:WINN), and Kroger (NYSE:KR) offer efficient one-stop shopping for families who don't have a lot of extra time. And for bulk items, warehouse stores like Costco (NASDAQ:COST) and Wal-Mart's (NYSE:WMT) Sam's Club can create big savings. However, some of the best deals you'll ever find come from places that are close to home.

As you'd expect, cutting out the middleman means more money for both food producers and consumers alike. Many farms in rural areas invite people to pick their own fruit and vegetables directly from the plants and trees in their fields, at prices that grocery stores can't beat. Even if you live in the middle of a city, many communities have established markets for sellers from surrounding areas to sell their goods. In some places, vendors will even sell to you on street corners.

Cheaper and better
Buying from close to home has a number of benefits that go beyond cost. Buying local food reduces the need for farmers to transport their products across long distances, saving both money and energy. Perhaps most importantly, you can't beat the quality of fresh produce straight from a farm. After experiencing the taste of freshly picked strawberries in season, you'll never want to go back to those plastic containers.

Of course, some areas have a greater selection of food than others. States like California and Florida that have a huge agricultural base obviously have a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Similarly, Western ranch areas offer fresh meat in abundance. But you might be surprised at some of the different types of food you find in your particular area. Whether it's lobster in Maine, corn in Indiana, or salmon in Seattle, there's something for everyone in nearly every part of the country.

In addition to personal benefits, buying locally helps to support the economy in your own community. As increased globalization has forced many cities and towns to reevaluate the viability of their economic bases, local communities are paying more attention to the effect of sending money and resources to other areas both here and abroad.

Saving the Foolish way
Eating locally grown food is just one way you can save money without sacrificing your quality of life. The Fool's Motley Fool Green Light personal finance newsletter looks high and low for ideas that will put money in your pocket. From getting the best travel deals to telling you how to avoid costly credit card transaction fees, Motley Fool Green Light is a valuable tool you can use to improve your finances. And with the Fool's 30-day free trial, you can take a look at everything the service has to offer with no obligation.

Related articles:

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger craves fresh Okanagan strawberries every summer, and he's looking forward to harvesting his raspberry bushes in a month or two. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value recommendation, and Costco is a Stock Advisor selection. The Fool's disclosure policy is fresh off the vine.