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Taking the Bite Out of Organic Food Costs

It’s no secret that organic products have a reputation for being more costly.  In fact, some people use the price premium to justify branding organic consumers as elitist, a charge that’s even been leveled in the pages of the Sierra Club magazine.  To those of us who are simply trying to make healthier choices about what goes into our bodies, our air, our soil, and our water, that’s a real shame.  What we should all realize is that there are ways for everyday people to trim their organic grocery bill and rein it in from being a budget-buster to something that’s more within reach.

My own interest in organics arose from my concern about the toll that chemical-intensive conventional agriculture takes on the land and the farm laborers who work on it.  However, to put these lofty ideals into practice, I find that I need to strike a balance between eating organic, being frugal, and keeping my meal preparation routine quick and simple.  I’m still in the process of learning how to do this, but here are some strategies I’ve tried so far in order to tame my organic food costs without overly complicating my life.

Buy Bulk to Save Money 

One useful piece of advice I’ve heard is to “buy bulk.”  This can mean one of three things, all of which can save money.

First, there’s the bulk bin section of the grocery store - the bins with loose flour, rice, etc. that you scoop into a bag and pay for by the pound.  Not all grocery stores have a bulk bin area or carry organic items in it, so you may need to shop around.  At my local store, I’ve realized big savings by purchasing staples like organic flour, dried beans, pasta, cereal, peanut butter, and cooking oil from the bulk bin section.  An eco-friendly bonus is that less packaging is used for foods sold in the bulk bin section.  I sometimes go the extra mile and bring my own clean, reused plastic bags to the store so that no new packaging is required.

Second, you can “buy bulk” by buying organic foods in bulk packages.  These big packages often have a lower price per pound than smaller packages and also generate less packaging waste.  In my case, I like to buy the 25-pound sack of organic brown rice.  It costs less per pound than a one- or two-pound package and lasts forever.  Single people, small households, or those with limited storage space can team up with one or more friends and split a bulk package between themselves.  (A helpful side note: stores with bulk bin areas probably carry 25- and 50-pound bulk packages - that’s what they use to fill the bins.  Ask your friendly organic grocer if they will sell the bulk package to you directly, at a discount.)  I’ve read that certain commodities like organic coffee and chocolate can cost the same as their conventional counterparts, if you purchase a year’s supply at a time and then store it in individual airtight containers.  And this strategy isn’t limited to dry goods, either - I’ve also read about several families who realized savings by splitting a side of organic beef. [Ed. note: Many of the organic meat suppliers listed in this section sell larger cuts of meat.] 

A third way to “buy bulk” is to buy large numbers of organic items, especially when they are on sale.  Organic canned soup on clearance?  Don’t stop at 5 or 10 cans - think big - buy a case or two and keep them in your closet or share with friends.  Fresh produce is a good candidate for similar treatment.  If you can’t eat all that discounted organic produce at once, items like berries or chopped bell peppers can be frozen in plastic bags for later use.  A chest freezer, especially an energy-efficient model, may come in handy for doing this on a bigger scale.  These freezers come in all sizes, from ones small enough for single people, to large models for big families.  Just make sure that the operating costs for your freezer don’t cancel out the savings from your bulk buys!  Another option for preserving large batches of discounted organic fruits and veggies is to dry or can them, if you have the time, equipment, and know-how.

Local Farmer's Market 

I’m a regular at my local farmer’s market, where I’ve found more opportunities to save money on freshly-picked, locally-grown organic produce.  The vendors sometimes give discounts for larger amounts, so sometimes I’ll go with a friend and we’ll share a large purchase.  But even if I’m shopping by myself, there’s usually at least one fellow shopper in the market stall who is willing to split the purchase with me.  I recently saved a couple of dollars on a box of organic strawberries this way.  Also, sellers at the farmer’s market are frequently open to bargaining, so you may be able to haggle down prices, especially if you’re buying a large amount or it’s close to closing time.  The closing hour is a particularly good time for finding bargains, when vendors need to move the last of their perishable inventory.  During that time, they may mark down their produce, or agree to your asking price.  More tips for the farmer’s market: Look into volunteering at the market in exchange for free or cheap produce.  Stock up at the peak of the growing season when stalls are overflowing with fruits and vegetables and prices are low; then freeze, can, or share with a friend what you can’t use right away.  Inquire about “seconds” or “sort-outs” (discounted bins of cosmetically-blemished, “ugly” produce that is still fine to eat).  Vendors welcome questions, so ask about their growing practices - some growers may not have their organic certification, but may still use fewer or no pesticides, or may be currently making the transition to organic.  [Ed. note: See our listings of farmers markets to find out where there’s a farmer’s market near you.]

Prioritize Replacing High-Pesticide-Contaminated Food First

When it comes to choosing between organic and conventionally grown foods, one budgeting tip I recently learned is to buy organic when it counts the most.  Some foods have higher pesticide contamination rates, and for those, the organic version gets a higher priority in my grocery budget.  For low-pesticide foods, the conventional version may be an acceptable, and perhaps less expensive, choice.  Washing conventional foods thoroughly and peeling them may further reduce pesticide intake, although peeling also removes some nutrients and does not eliminate pesticides absorbed internally by the plant.  The Environmental Working Group has compiled a list of the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables with the highest risk of pesticide exposure: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries.  (Soft fruits in particular receive multiple cosmetic fungicide treatments to preserve their appearance during shipping.)  EWG’s list of least contaminated fruits and vegetables includes asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwis, mangos, onions, papaya, pineapples, and sweet peas.  (You can download EWG’s handy wallet card as a reminder while shopping.)  Processed foods can have different levels of contamination, too.  According to this article, beer and chocolate are more likely to be contaminated (oh, the tragedy!), but the likelihood for orange juice is lower, since juice oranges don’t need to be treated to look perfect.  So conventional orange juice may be a reasonable and economical choice for your breakfast table.  Likewise, the cookbook Fresh Choices: More than 100 Easy Recipes for Pure Food When You Can’t Buy 100% Organic is another great guide for deciding when to go organic.

Make Your Own 

I’ve been making my own organic bread lately, using a method that’s fast and cheap.  I get the organic flour and sugar from the bulk bins at the grocery store.  The yeast can be obtained inexpensively by making a yeast starter or buying yeast in bulk from a local bakery or health food store.  I dump all of the ingredients into my bread machine.  The bread machine was a gift from my mother, but I know someone who bought a dirt-cheap bread machine in good working order from a thrift store.  Finally, I press the button, go to bed, and when I wake up - voilà!  Freshly-baked organic bread for pennies.

Grow Your Own

I’ve also turned to my friends and acquaintances for advice on lowering my organic food bill.  The most popular suggestion was, “Grow your own!”  Friends boasted that their home-grown organic fruits and vegetables taste better, cost less, and don’t have negative environmental impacts like pesticide exposure, fertilizer runoff, and the pollutants and greenhouse gases associated with fossil fuel-intensive food transportation.  Now, it’s true that many of my friends have thumbs far greener than mine, not to mention way more time for gardening.  However, I have had success with easy plants like tomatos and herbs.  When pest control was required, I relied on simple, inexpensive, non-toxic measures.  Since I’m an apartment-dweller, I also received many suggestions for cheap/free access to gardening space, such as: container gardening; signing up for a community garden plot; or offering to help a home-owning friend, neighbor, or elderly person with their garden in exchange for part of the harvest.  Another great idea I heard was to put up flyers and start a neighborhood exchange for organic home-grown fruits and vegetables, a fun way to build community while getting more variety in your diet!

To sum up my experiences, there are definitely strategies out there for shaving dollars off of organic food prices, and lots of grocery-shopping tips can be easily adapted for the organic shopper.  Even though I can’t employ all of these strategies all of the time, I can mix and match them to find my own personal balance between organic eating, frugality, and simplicity.

Additional Tips on Cost Savings with Organic Food 

These are some of the best tips I gleaned from my research:

Comparison shopping for organic foods can make a big difference:  There are no hard-and-fast rules about which stores will have lower prices; it really depends on the stores in your area.  Keep a price book and swap information with like-minded friends to make it easier.  Possible sources for organic foods: Chain stores (Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods), conventional grocery stores, food co-ops, farmer’s markets, CSAs (community-supported agriculture, or buying “shares” in the harvest of local farms), “U-Pick” farms, health food stores/natural food stores, online stores/co-ops (ShopNatural, Azure Standard, Ozark Organics, Door to Door Organics, Organic Provisions, Planet Organics, Diamond Organics, Frontier Natural Products Co-op, Organic Connection, GloryBee Foods). Co-op America’s National Green Pages lists even more sources.

Consider a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription from an organic farm: Subscribers receive a weekly box of produce directly from the farm, cutting out the distribution costs.  Smaller households may have the option of buying a half-share subscription, or they can split the cost with another family by sharing each week’s box or taking turns picking it up every other week.

Eat locally and in-season: Produce is cheaper and tastier during the peak of the growing season when it’s abundant and doesn’t have to be shipped from the other side of the country (or planet, as happens during the northern hemisphere’s winter).  Outside of the growing season, canned, frozen, or dried foods may be more economical than fresh.

Prepare organic meals from scratch: it’s much more economical than organic processed foods and convenience foods.  Some people even go to the lengths of making their own organic soy milk and tofu and grinding their own flour from organic grains.  But if you’re pressed for time like the other 99% of us, consider cooking with simple recipes that don’t require a lot of ingredients or prep/cooking time.

Join or form a food co-op or buying club:  They frequently carry organic goods at lower prices, and some co-ops give an additional discount if you volunteer to work there an hour or two per month.  A buying club is a smaller-scale arrangement where you band together with friends and neighbors and order in quantity directly from an organic distributor or grocer.  Search for food co-ops near you, or learn how to start your own.

Base your meals on cheaper staples that are lower on the food chain: like organic beans, rice, and other grains.  They cost less and also have health and environmental benefits over meals centered on ingredients like meat and cheese.

Clip coupons from organic food packages, newspapers, store flyers, and websites of organic products that you use.  Brand websites with coupons include: Stonyfield Farm, Cascadian Farm, Annie’s Homegrown, Soy Delicious, and Silk Soy Milk (both here and here).  Another trick is to type the brand or product name, together with the word “coupon”, into your favorite search engine and see what comes up.  The websites and The Coupon Clippers are also useful.

Weigh the short-term costs of organic food against other long-term costs.  Many aficionados of organic food view it as an investment that will save them a lot of money down the road on health care.  From a broader perspective, the environmental degradations caused by conventional agriculture, such as pesticide exposure and water supply contamination, incur real, dollars-and-cents costs in areas like infrastructure and public health.  These costs are eventually borne by society (i.e., taxpayers like you and me).

Article originally published in Living Green Below Your Means, Sept 2006. LGBM is a project of the New American Dream ( Kathryn Benedicto has been a New Dream member for several years. She’s a Silicon Valley cubicle rat by day, and an aspiring social change agent. She also enjoys reading science fiction and belting bad pop songs from the 80s.


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