As a nation, we have become accustomed to paying relatively little for our food as a percentage of overall income.[i] While this cheap food may on the face of it seem like a good thing, it actually comes at an alarming, and astronomical, cost. This is due to the fact that whenever you buy non-organic food, the price you pay doesn’t actually reflect the true cost of production. The true costs of chemical, industrial agriculture are externalized and society is stuck footing a hefty and unacceptable bill. These include the sky-rocketing costs of health care associated with diet-related illness, like diabetes, obesity, compromised immune systems, and learning disabilities, the widespread poisoning of groundwater, the dramatic loss of species including song birds and butterflies, not to mention more hidden costs like steady soil erosion. Buying organic food is really an excellent alternative and a sound investment in your family’s health. Because organic food doesn’t contribute to these health and environmental burdens, it doesn’t simply shift these costs to other parts of your family budget like chemically-grown foods do.
More and more of us are learning that organic is a bargain relative to the unsustainable costs of conventional food and that’s why demand for organic goods has shown double-digit growth for well over a decade. The Cool Foods Campaign believes everyone should have access to wholesome, nourishing organic food, so to help in that effort we’ve compiled ten tips to help make organic more affordable upfront:
1). Eat in-season
Foods that are in-season tend to have more flavor, (because they are ripe) more nutrients (because they are freshly picked) and be more affordable (because there’s plenty). It’s a classic case of supply and demand! When things are out of season then there’s a scarcity and the prices go up, even for conventional. Of course, what is in season will vary widely depending on where you happen to live. Nowadays, our food is more well-travelled than most of us, and to quote Farmer Joel Salatin, “Folks, that just ain’t normal.” So let’s cut the jet-setting of table grapes and try to re-learn eating according to the season. (Don’t worry if you don’t remember anything besides the fact that pumpkins are ripe in October, you can pick this stuff up pretty quickly).
2). Shop at your local farmer’s market and You-Pick
If you aren’t attending your weekly farmer’s market, you may be missing one of the best parties in town! We’ve yet to visit a farmer’s market that wasn’t fun, festive and kid friendly. Be sure to walk about sampling the wares to make sure you go home with the yummiest, fresh produce. Look for the Certified Organic seal and talk to the farmers about what varieties they grow and how they grow it. Many Farmer’s markets across the country now accept SNAP and WIC benefits, and some even have “double-value” coupon programs.
You-Pick spots are also worth investing time in, and while they won’t meet your every need, they are great if you need quantity. The attraction is you pay a bit less because you are doing some of the work yourself. You-Pick farms are another great family activity. Pull your helpers away from their screens and remind them that apples grow on trees, not in the supermarket.
3). Join a Co-op or a CSA
Co-ops are worker or customer owned businesses that support their local communities by selling family farm products. (Local Harvest is a great resource to locate the best organic food that is grown closest to you).
Alternatively, CSAs (which stands for Community Supported Agriculture) are a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal, organic food directly from a farmer. Typically joining a CSA means you’ll subscribe to a weekly box of seasonal produce. There are also eggs, meat and even fish CSAs in coastal communities. CSA boxes have been known to get kids (and grownups) excited about trying new veggies!
4). Buy in Bulk
For those of us mesmerized by colorful labels and pretty pictures that advertise the fountain of youth in every bite, those great big no-frills bins of unpackaged food can be daunting. But, there are savings to be had in those bins. Do a little simple math and you’ll soon discover that buying staples like rice, beans, pastas and oatmeal from the bulk bins is going to save you a pretty penny! All this means you’ll soon be swishing right by the sugar-coated, cartoon-cute boxes of instant oats to the wholesome stuff. Don’t worry, with all that money you save buying in bulk you’ll be able to afford organic toppings like berries, and who doesn’t love berries?
5). Buying Big In-Season and Canning or Freezing for Year Round Eating
That abundant produce you bought in-season can be preserved for the lean months (old-fashioned speak for winter). Surely you’ve met people who say things like, “my grandma canned everything: tomatoes, carrots, squash. She made pickles, jams and relish.” Sadly, most of us never learned these skills. Fortunately, do-it-yourself (DIY) projects like canning are experiencing a resurgence of popularity (the upside of the recession!) that community organizations now offer classes so you can learn the basics, and you can find canning supplies at hardware stores and supermarkets.
6). Reduce Your Consumption of Meat & Dairy
Not only are these expensive, but remember how conventional methods take their toll on the environment, the climate and your health? Well, confinement animal operations are without question some of the biggest offenders. Replace those animal proteins with legumes (like beans and lentils) and nuts (like sunflower seeds and almonds). If you do buy animal products, be sure to spend the extra money on organic, pasture-raised products that don’t externalize those costs. Some, like grass-fed beef, can be found on the internet.
7). Food Swap or Barter
Now that you are busy building those relationships at the Farmer’s Market you can try your hand at bartering. The easiest way, of course, to barter is to trade food for food, i.e. “I’ll trade you a pound of my to-die for heirloom tomatoes for a pound of your to-die for peaches. Or I’ll trade you a pie for some of your peaches.” Don’t despair if you don’t have food or cooking skills to trade. You likely have other tricks up your sleeve! Are you a photographer, an electrician, a hairdresser? Do you babysit? Consider trading your useful services for fresh, fabulous, organic food.
What is gleaning you ask? Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. Thanks to new initiatives like Crop Mobster, this practice is experiencing a resurgence. The internet is your go-to spot for finding a gleaning program near you. We’ve taken middle-schoolers out to glean fields of romaine lettuce with Marin Organic. “Food Forward” in Los Angeles has turned gleaning into a rock-star activity where everybody comes out ahead. Check out their site for inspiration.
9). Instead of Eating out, Host an Organic Potluck
Eating out may be a nice treat, but it should be a treat, not a way of life as it gets pricey fast. Throwing potlucks can be just as much fun and no one hands you a bill at the end of the evening! Regular potlucks can inspire your friends to eat healthy, delicious organic food too, making it easier for you and your family to stay the course.
10) Try Growing Your Own Food!
Have you heard the saying “growing your own food is like printing your own money?” It’s true! The key to gardening success is good soil. Once you’ve got that, your plants will do their thing. Don’t have a yard or a patio? Put your name on a waitlist at your local community garden. Meanwhile, the Cool Foods Pinterest boards are full of clever ideas for growing things on decks, roofs, in apartments, even in shopping bags. After all, what could be better for your health, your wallet and the planet than growing food yourself?
[i] In fact, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service people in the US spent only 6.6% of their income on food at home in 2012 - less than almost any country on earth on food! By way of comparison, consider that the average expenditure in Brazil is 15.9%, in Mexico is 24.9% and in Vietnam 35.95% of income is spent on food.