Going Organic on a Budget

Organic apples

Organic Swiss Gourmet Apples from the Garthe Farm (used in our Fruit Juice Sweetened Apple Preserves)

I often hear friends say “I’d like to eat organic, but it’s just too expensive.” Well, if you are reading this I doubt I have to tell you of the dangers of the pesticides, herbicides and fungicides sprayed on our foods. And you may also know that the jury is now in on the fact that organic fruits and vegetables are higher in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Given the choice between two apples, who wouldn’t grab the organic one if price weren’t an issue? So the big question is: Can I afford to change? While some would say from a health perspective alone, you can’t afford not to change. But for this post, I’ll keep it to helping you bring more organic food into your life while minimizing the financial impact. Fortunately, there are some hints and ideas that I’ve learned over my 20 years of eating organic.

Avoid The Worst Offenders

If you can’t afford a complete conversion to organic, you need to identify those categories of food where you’ll receive the greatest benefit. For example, consider buying only the fruits and vegetables found to be the least contaminated. A group called The Environmental Working Group reviewed more than 100,000 tests performed by the USDA and found that the following fruits and vegetables consistently showed the highest levels of toxic chemicals on and in them. This doesn’t mean not to eat them; it means to buy this produce in organic whenever you can or pass them up for something different.

Listed in order from most to least toxic, the following list contains the produce you want to avoid or substitute if organic is not available:

Organic pears

Organic Pears from the Garthe Farm (used in our Michigan Pear Preserves)

  1. peaches
  2. strawberries
  3. apples
  4. spinach
  5. nectarines
  6. celery
  7. pears
  8. cherries
  9. potatoes
  10. bell peppers

Here are the least toxic according to USDA testing.

  1. avocados
  2. pineapples
  3. cauliflower
  4. mangoes
  5. sweet peas
  6. asparagus
  7. onions
  8. broccoli
  9. bananas
  10. garlic

Shop Locally

While “local” alone says nothing about food integrity or levels of contamination, it can have financial advantages. It can often be cheaper than mass-produced versions. Also, it’s not uncommon to find organic produce at a farmer’s market that is of similar or better value than conventional produce. Perhaps you can pass up the trendy and expensive non-organic Honey Crisp apple and grab the equally yummy organic Empire apple? Also, isn’t it frustrating when you have to toss out perfectly good fruit or vegetables because they’ve gone bad? Buying locally means that product likely has about a thousand fewer miles on it’s odometer. Studies have shown that buying local produce means less goes to waste due to it’s longer shelf life. So even if the price is a bit higher, it may cost you less.

Get Involved in Community Supported Agriculture

Join an organic CSA (find one near you here). In my community there are more than a few organic CSAs. By buying shares in a CSA you will likely end up with a very good value, saving you money over conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables at your local grocery store. And it’s freshly-picked every week of the growing season. In my view this is truly one of the best ways to have a personal relationship with your grower, save money and be assured of the quality and integrity of your food. It’s like having your own private gardener!

Buy in bulk at your local natural food Co-op.

Organic tomatoes

Organic Tomatoes from Earth Turtle Farm of Kari Tomashik (used in our Salsa Virtuosa and Cherry Salsa Atento)

Fresh produce aside, the price gap between some basic staples is narrowing and in some cases , non-existent. At my natural food co-op, organic rice, oats and dried beans are so cheap it hardly registers on my grocery bill. A big pot of organic oatmeal that feeds my family of four costs about .40 cents. That’s .10 per serving and is a fraction of the cost of boxed conventional cereals. It’s a regular feature at my house, especially in the winter. Check out my recipe here.

Furthermore, if processed and packaged food such as instant rice, frozen entrees, boxed cereals and canned goods make up the bulk of your grocery cart, you are likely paying a lot more than an organic shopper who is buying fresh or in bulk. “Instant” anything may save you some time, but you’ll pay dearly for it.

Join a Buying Club

Buying clubs are a great way to eat organic and save lot of money. When you join one, you are basically making a monthly purchase of bulk items and you pay wholesale,
the same price the food stores pay. If you are willing to buy some of your regular commodities, like pasta, canned goods, grains etc, in case quantities you’ll end up with organic food that cost much less than you pay for conventional at the grocery store. And once a month you get to hang out with other people from your club as you collect your orders. It can be a fun social gathering. Check out the Organic Consumers Association website where you can read their Buying Club Primer and find a buying club near you.

Organic leeks

Organic Wild Leeks from the Food For Thought Farm (used in our Pickled Wild Leeks, Wild Leek Relish, and Wild Leek Vinegar)

Consider Canning or Gardening at Home

Start a garden. It doesn’t take much. From a window box or rooftop pots to a plot tilled in your yard, there’s an opportunity, fun and a rewarding experience for you and your kids. Spinach and peppers, both members of the most toxic list, are easily grown in a window box or decorative pot. Any plans to plant some trees in your yard? Consider fruit bearing trees. You can’t beat the spring blossoms of most fruit trees and I’ll never forget the look on my daughter’s face when she picked the first apple from a tree she helped me plant.

Consider canning at home. I do it for fun, educating my children and as a means of spreading my grocery budget further. You can do it when there’s abundance or just about any time of year. When I cook a pot of soup or pasta sauce, its not that much more work to make a double or triple batch, leaving enough for canning. Organic dried beans are very inexpensive. For bean canning recipes with no overnight soaking, drop me an email and I’ll send you some recipes I’ve developed, or watch this blog as I intend to post some soon.

Two of my favorite books, which cover freezing, drying and canning, include:

  • Stocking Up: The Classic Preserving Guide: Hupping, Carol.
  • Putting Food By: Greene, Hertzberg and Vaughan.

Take It Slowly

Will moving toward organic require some lifestyle changes? Yes. Creatures of habit that we are, change is often a greater barrier than cost or convenience. So take it easy. Any change in life is better viewed as a journey, not a destination. Take it one step at a time, have fun and don’t neglect to take the time along the way to smell the organic roses.

Do you have some tips for going organic on budget that you’d like to share? Or if you have any comments or suggestions abou this post, please click on “Comment” below and share your thoughts.

3 Responses to “Going Organic on a Budget”

  1. Angela September 1, 2008 at 3:38 am #

    Fantastic site. I found it best to start by purchasing one new organic line a week, then before you know it your pantry and fridge will be stocked organically and effortlessly.

  2. C Garner September 11, 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    After reading Jillian Michael’s book Master your Metabolism, I cam completely convinced that I need to switch to an organic lifestyle. It is overwhelming and Im afraid I can’t afford it

  3. Megan Jones April 24, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Great post, it was very informative. I have a very small budget because I am currently under employed, however I can still find the funds to eat healthily. It is a matter of priorities. I may not see as many movies as I’d like or not drive to the beach as much as I’d like, but I am not slowly poisoning myself with pesticides!

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