10 Ways to eat organic on a tight budget

The controversy over whether it’s better to eat organic or conventional food is still alive and well. Many of the debates have focused on whether or not there are any measurable nutritional benefits to eating organic food, while others point out that organic growers still do use pesticides, including a small number of synthetic ones. However, as a recent post in the Sacramento Bee points out, this is the wrong debate to be having.

The debate should be over the impact of farming practices on the food chain. When we shift the conversation to the question of growing practices, the issue becomes a lot less black and white.

                 Photo credit: USDAgov via Visual hunt /  CC BY

                 Photo credit: USDAgov via Visual hunt /  CC BY

Organic farmers generally use ecologically sound practices that encourage conservation and minimal waste. And while there is still not enough research out there to demonstrate the health effects of organic or natural pesticides (with few exceptions: tobacco, for example, is a commonly used pesticide in organic farming and one that I use in my own urban garden. But it is highly toxic to humans and can penetrate the skin), there is a large body of research that demonstrates the harm that many synthetic pesticides cause to human health.

Some conventional farmers are not certified organic, but use organic growing methods. They should not be cast as examples of the evils of industrial agriculture. In fact, getting organic certification is more difficult than ever, and the problem is compounded by the fact that organic farmers have much less access to subsidies and resources to make their operations financially prosperous.

The difficulties and expenses involved in running an organic farm operation is just one of the reasons why organic food costs more to buy. But buying organic food need not be cost-prohibitive. In fact, there are many ways you can buy organic food and not break the bank.

Some of those ways are discussed in Go Green without Going Broke. (It’s available as an ebook ($3.99) or in paperback ($9.99) on Amazon.com for the next week, so please, get a copy and tell me what you think.)

Here are 10 additional ways that you can buy organic food without having to stretch your food budget out of shape:

  1. Buy in bulk – online. The online grocery shopping market has expanded to include many more organic offerings. Even better, there are now a growing number of organic food companies that specialize in organic fare and that will let you buy bulk, and that ship straight to you. Some of these companies require membership, while others let you buy as much as you like with no other obligations.

    In the US, Sunfood Superfoods, True Foods Market, Vitacost, Azure Standard and Thrive Market have an extensive selection of offerings and offer discounts, sales, and even (for Sunfood Superfoods) free shipping if you buy a certain dollar amount of items. In Canada, try Organic Matters or Yupik. In the UK go to BuyBigOrganic. In Australia look at the organic supply database, OrganicFood.com. If you have a US- based business (or want to sign up for your school, non-profit, or online store), you should also check out Organic Wholesale, which has over 20,000 organic foods and specialty products to choose from, and ships free when your purchase totals at least $50.
  2. Eat frozen. Decades after nutritionists told us about the benefits of eating frozen foods, many of us still believe that frozen is not as nutritious as fresh food. In fact, frozen is not only nutritionally similar to fresh foods, it may be healthier in some cases. Here are 3 reasons why. First, frozen foods are typically picked at their peak ripeness, when they’re at the height of their nutritional content. Second, the freezing process only minimally affects the nutritional content of produce. Third, frozen produce lasts longer than its fresh counterparts.

    Don’t hang on to it in your freezer for over one year, though. After a year, it loses nutrients as a result of the oxidation process inherent in storage. And avoid boiling your frozen produce, which causes a loss of most of its nutrients. By steaming or microwaving it instead, you can come closer to meeting the recommended daily allowances, with associated nutritional content, from your fruit and veggie consumption.
  3. Plan meals for the week and buy only what you need. Do I need to elaborate on this? Instead of shopping for organic fare on the fly, buying whatever looks good to you at the moment (which always results in spending more money on food), make one day of the week a meal planning day.
  4. For maximum savings, start by looking at what you already have in your cabinet, and build meals around that. Need some help planning meals? Try our handy weekly meal planner or healthy grocery shopping list. Want to know what food are best to buy organic? We have a cheat sheet for that too. Download to your phone or print and take with you on your next shopping trip. These are among the tools you'll have access to by signing up onour Free Resources page.
  5. Grow your own (organically). Urban gardening is a real phenomenon nowadays. While it may be hard to believe that urban farming can transform cities and save us from the evils of big agriculture, as some have claimed, it does have some advantages over current agricultural practices (not limited to, but including, big ag).

    Don’t know where to start? Try this free ebook from Patrick at Urbanvine.co. and learn how to begin or improve your farming game. In early May, Green and Prosperous will be offering some online organic urban farming courses as well. Sign up for our mailing list to be notified when the course becomes available, and to be eligible for limited-time discounts.
  6. Barter with local farmers. Most farmers have a rough go. The last thing they want to do is have to advertise their wares, on top of all the back breaking work they do just to keep the farm going. And yet, getting their products to market, and finding new markets are two of the most persistent problems that farmers face, aside from lack of access to capital.

    Here’s where you can help, and benefit. Do you have a skill that you could use to help an organic farmer advertise his or her business? Can you set up a website? Do you know how to market on social media? What about labor? Can you lend a hand? Many farmers need help with labor, especially during sowing and harvesting seasons. Others still would like to take advantage of the grant opportunities that are available (for example, through the US Department of Agriculture or the European Union’s Single Payment Scheme (SPS)), but have no experience or time to write grant proposals. If you have skills, or just a good set of hands and a willingness to work hard, you can trade them for food.

    Find opportunities by 1) visiting a local farm or farmer’s market and speaking to individuals personally. (If they look busy, just ask when or how you could contact them outside of market hours, or whether they have a phone number or website with email where you could reach them). 2) Volunteer to man someone’s booth in exchange for food. This method works best with farmers who you develop some kind of rapport with beforehand, like that farmer whose veggie stand you’ve been visiting weekly for the past month.
  7. Buy in-store organic brands. Many large stores now offer their own brand of organic fare. Whole Foods’ 365 Brand, Safeway’s O Organics, Albertson’s Wild Harvest, Publix’s Green Wise, Tesco’s Organic, and Sainsbury’s SO organic are among the many store brands available. However, be aware that some corporate organic brands may be diluting the standards for organic products. Others are playing both sides of the food game, with their organic brands promoting GMO-free fare while the corporation behind that brand working to dismiss claims about the harmful effects of GMOs, or actively trying to suppress efforts to legislate for GMO labeling.
  8. Join an organic co-op. (Caveat: these are not always the cheapest option, and you’ll need to shop around for the best prices) Generally understood, a co-op is any member-owned, voluntary organization comprising of a group of people (or organizations) formed for their mutual financial benefit. Food co-ops have been around a long time, but they weren’t always ideal. Remember the days of food co-ops that you had to drive far and wide to reach, that had very limited selections of organic food, exorbitant membership fees, and high prices? (I do.)

    These days, there are many choices in the food co-op game, and organic food co-ops are among them. Don’t know where to find a co-op near you? Try this directory if you live in the US: http://www.coopdirectory.org/. Based in Canada? Try the Ottawa Valley Food Co-op, the Ontario Natural Food Co-op (if you have a group of 5 or more families), Eat Local Grey Bruce (in Ontario), or the East End Food Co-op (in Vancouver).  Live in the U.K.? Type “organic food” into the keyword search box at Cooperatives UK. In Australia? The University of Sydney has a food co-op that’s open to everyone. Other food co-ops elsewhere in the country include Thoughtful Foods (New South Wales), Peach ‘n’ Pear (Ellwood section of Melbourne), and The People’s Market (Perth).
  9. Join a CSA. CSAs work like this: you purchase a share (or partial share) of the seasonal harvest, and a fresh, local supply of fruits and/or veggies is delivered to you (or to a designated place) at intervals (e.g. weekly, biweekly) determined by the farmer(s). The concept is similar to purchasing a subscription. Some growers offer additional products: honey, flowers, eggs, and bread, for example.

    Not long ago, buying CSA shares — at anywhere from $200 on up for a full share — was out of the reach of most families that were cash-strapped or low income. In part because of new incentives at the level of the US federal government, which have enabled small-scale farmers to benefit financially and spread their reach, and in part because of a growing interest in healthier eating among families across the income spectrum, many farmers have now begun to make purchasing CSAs more affordable for people on a tight budget. If you qualify as low-income, you may be able to pay for your shares on a weekly basis, contributing as little as USD $10 a week for a half share commitment.

    Payment installations are also being offered by some CSAs in Canada, the UK, and Australia. In the U.S., a few major grocery chains have also begun to offer CSA signups at similar prices, enabling those with less cash up front to not only purchase shares cheaply, but also to save the cost of traveling to the farm to pick up their shares. Instead, shares are delivered to the grocery store and you can collect them while you shop for the rest of your family’s needs. Find a CSA through these databases: Local Harvest (US, Canada), Community Supported Agriculture (UK), or Natural Bridge Organics (Gold Coast, Australia). You can also just Google “CSA” and the name of your city or province to find one near you.
  10. Contact your local Weston A. Price Foundation. The mission of this non-profit foundation, founded in 1999, is to restore “nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism.” One of their local chapters (located in 41 countries) can help you find fresh, organic food, CSAs, food-co-ops, farmers, and holistic healthcare practitioners. Local chapters also host cooking classes, potluck dinners and other activities, all with the goal of helping you integrate whole, healthy foods into your lifestyle.
  11. Look for sales and coupons on organic items. Search in store or online. Make it even easier to find discounts and sales by signing up to receive a list of deals on organic, natural, and GMO-free products, whether you live in the US, Canada, UK, or Australia. Want a list of coupons and online deals in any of these countries? Click this link.
Photo credit: linsight via VisualHunt /  CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: linsight via VisualHunt /  CC BY-NC-SA

Finally, there is one thing you can do to make sure that we’re all able to afford healthy, organic food in the long term. Shop for those brands that practice and support responsible growing, producing, and animal husbandry practices. If you stop buying chicken eggs from chickens that spent their lives cooped up in pens, eating the kind of food you’d never consume yourself, then manufacturers will be forced to stop (or engage less in) raising chickens that way. If you press legislators for GMO labeling, they will support GMO labeling. If you buy more organic fare, more manufacturers will switch to making more organic fare. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

Sometimes the only way to bring change is to be the change you want to see.

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