This article appears in its entirety in the 2015 edition of the Farmers’ Almanac, pages 60-64.
It’s no secret that organic food is notably pricier than conventional—on average, costs can be 50 to 100% higher. That’s because organic foods are more limited in supply; tend to have higher production, processing, and transportation costs; and have higher standards for environmental protection and animal welfare, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate more organic foods into your diet without stretching your wallet past its breaking point. With a little bit of know-how and some strategic planning, it’s absolutely possible to eat organic foods on a budget. For proof, just take a look at these 8 smart shopping tips:
1. Choose Organic With The Foods You Eat Most Often
Whether you serve chicken several nights a week for dinner or snack on celery with peanut butter on most afternoons, the mainstays of your diet should be organic whenever possible. Because you’re eating them so often, they’re the items that will, over time, result in higher exposure to potential toxins. On the other hand, if there’s a food you eat only rarely, don’t worry as much about seeking out an organic version.
2. Buy big
By purchasing organic dry goods like grains and legumes from the bulk section of your grocery store, you save on the cost of packaging and branding, resulting in a less expensive product. For non-bulk items, turn to big-box stores, which are often able to offer better deals on produce, meat, milk, and eggs. “Bigger stores like Costco and Wal-Mart now have organic, grass-fed meats. When they go on sale, buy a lot and stick extras in the freezer,” says Mira Calton, a licensed certified nutritionist and co-author of Rich Food, Poor Food.
3. Shop store brands
Private labels are almost always less expensive than their big-name counterparts, and the same applies to organic foods. Many major retailers now offer their own natural and organic product lines, including Kroger, Publix, Randalls, Safeway, Supervalu, Target, Stop & Shop, and Whole Foods Market. If you spot a private-label version of an organic product that you like to buy, snap it up—and reap the savings.
4. Buy foods in season
Shopping at your local farmers’ market isn’t just a fun way to find fresh, organic produce, eggs, milk, meat, and cheeses that were likely grown or produced right in your area. It can also be a smart money-saving tactic: When they’re in season, you’ll pay nearly 40 percent less for organic foods like lettuce, string beans, blueberries, peppers, and eggs bought at the farmers’ market compared the same organic grocery store items, found a 2010 study by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. It’s much cheaper to limit your diet to what’s supposed to be grown in your area at that time of year, since you don’t have to pay for the cost of a food to be shipped in from far away. As an added bonus, you’ll get to meet and chat with some of the people who grew your food, which could likely help expand your culinary horizons. (Not sure what to do with that organic kohlrabi? The farmer who grew it probably has plenty of recipes and suggestions.)
5. When You Can, DIY
You’ve likely experienced sticker shock if you’ve ever walked through the organic packaged snack section or bread aisle at the supermarket. It’s not uncommon for a box of organic cookies or crackers to cost $3 or $4, which seems like an enormous sum when you can make better-tasting versions at home for much less. Sometimes convenience will win out, but when you can, reach for organic pantry ingredients (like inexpensive flour and sugar) to make your own snacks and baked goods from scratch instead. “They’ll taste fresher anyway, and you’ll be able to control the amount of sugar and sodium that goes in,” says Calton.
6. Join a CSA
CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture programs, have grown popular in recent years, and for good reason: When joining, you pledge to support a local, often certified-organic farm by paying for a season’s worth of edibles in one lump sum, and receiving a portion of the harvest fresh each week.
The cornerstone of most CSAs is fresh-picked fruits and vegetables, though many also offer the option to buy eggs, milk, coffee, bread, jam, and even meat or poultry. But the basic concept always remains the same: With each new box of goodies, you get whatever edibles the farm is currently harvesting. You’ll also likely get exposed to a new kind of fruit or vegetable you’d never tried before, like Japanese eggplant or gooseberries. Or if the farm has a big bumper crop, you might get a ton of one type of thing, encouraging you to try creative new ways of preparing it.
When they’re in season, you’ll pay nearly 40 percent less for organic foods like lettuce, string beans, blueberries, peppers, and eggs bought at the farmers’ market compared the same organic grocery store items.
And though it might come with higher up-front costs, the per-week price for your food tends to be lower than what you’d pay at the grocery store.
7. Scour for coupon opportunities
Coupons for organic goods don’t usually pop up in the regular circulars, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Websites like organicdeals.com, mambosprouts.com, and healthesavers.com feature printable coupons, as well as deal alerts for e-commerce sites. If there’s a specific brand or product you’re looking to save on, check the company’s website or social media pages. Many big organic manufacturers, including Stonyfield, Organic Valley, and Annie’s Homegrown, regularly post new coupons on their homepages, or offer the opportunity to sign up for email coupons. Finally, don’t forget to check your grocer’s weekly or monthly flier.
8. Grow your own
The one place you’re guaranteed to never experience sticker shock for organic fruits and vegetables is in your own garden. In fact, growing organic produce might even cost less than conventional: Instead of shelling out on chemical fertilizers, you’ll rely on inexpensive compost, cover crops, or mulches, and trade toxic pesticides for low-cost natural alternatives like essential citrus oils, baking soda, garlic, and chili powder. Now that’s the sweet taste of savings!
Be sure to check out the full article in the 2015 edition of the Farmers’ Almanac for more info, including the “Dirty Dozen” – foods that you should absolutely buy organic!