Though the ongoing demand for organic food should eventually drive prices down, they can still be pricey for many Americans trying to eat healthful, non-GMO foods on a budget. And even though a University of California-Davis reported that U.S. shoppers who consistently choose healthy foods spend nearly 20 percent more on groceries, it is likely that less money will be spent on medical bills – at least in the form of ‘everyday’ pharmacy visits.
So, as a rule, its pay now, or pay later. Just know that there are ways to reduce your grocery bill if you want to eat better.
1. Start Small and Grow
You don’t have to go all-organic all at once. You can start just by avoiding the ‘dirty dozen’ (most pesticide-laden produce) named by the Environmental Working Group, and instead purchase the ‘clean 15.’ The lists are accessible here. Lettuces, peaches, bell peppers, potatoes, apples, celery and strawberries contain the highest levels of pesticides, for example, so start by switching these out to organic when you shop.
2. Buy in Bulk
Even if you are worried about items spoiling before you can eat them, organic grains and cereals will last up to a year when stored properly, and even organic fruits and vegetables can be frozen to be pulled out later for stir frys and smoothies.
Buy in bulk when food is on sale and stock up. If you are going to eat something right away, look for products that are close to their expiration date, and if they aren’t already marked down, ask the manager or cashiers if they will sell to you at a discount since they will be marked as ‘overstock’ and likely thrown away otherwise.
3. Try In-Store Certified Organic Brands
Just like regular food manufacturers spend tons on packaging, specialty organic foods can cost a lot more just because of a fancy outer coating. But you aren’t going to eat that plastic or the box, so try the simply-packaged, and often cheaper store brand. Safeway’s “O Organics” is their organic line, Shaw’s is called “Wild Harvest,” Publix has “Greenwise,” Aldi’s offers “SimplyNature,” and Trader Joe’s has their own organics, too. You can save a ton.
4. Shop Costco
Big box and discount stores’ organic sections are growing, and the more consumers demand it, the more they will stock. At a recent trip, there were over 200 organic items available at Cost-Co – from bread to chicken to chips and salsa. If you don’t need 50 pounds of organic chicken – go with a friend and split up your take for the day.
5. Join a CSA
Community supported agriculture programs will often deliver a box of local, organic produce and other food to your door for a small fee. These organizations save not only money, but time. If you can’t make it to the grocery store, then have it delivered. You’ll also be supporting local businesses.
We generally suggest to shop at local farmer’s markets to support small business and local farmers, but sometimes it works better for both parties to buy from both.
6. Use Coupons
It sounds bizarre, but you can even buy organic grocery coupons on Ebay if you don’t want to clip them yourself from local newspapers and circulars. If you’re sitting around on a Sunday, though, check your local paper for organic coupons. I once saved $20 on one shopping trip from clipping coupons for a few minutes one day. Also use the ‘save 10%’ when you complete a survey and other offers that print at the bottom of some store receipts.
7. Join a Co-Op
These organic cooperatives are growing. More and more cities offer fresh produce, breads, dairy, and meats to the people who sign up for their fresh foods. You can use a co-op directory service to find one near you, and score some super cheap, healthy eats. Many co-ops offer cooking classes, gardening lessons, monthly grocery baskets, and other community benefits to their members.
Some co-ops even let you pay your annual fees in volunteer hours instead of cash – can’t beat that for a bargain!
8. Plant Your Own Garden
There are so many novel ways to grow your own organic food now, it is simply mind-numbing. You can use a pyramid garden, grow in containers (herbs are the easiest to start with if you don’t have a green thumb), or even throw some cancer-fighting mung bean seeds out by a fence, and watch them grow easily.
Just be sure to use heirloom, non-GMO seeds when you plant. The Council for Responsible Genetics has a safe seed pledge that lists non-GMO seed retailers, and many other online seed sellers offer a similar promise. You can also try seed-swapping for a really cheap way to get your own garden growing for next to nothing.
To get you started, here are 5 foods you can grow from store-bought produce.
9. Source Free Organic Fertilizer, Compost, and Wood Chips for Your Garden
My local tree-trimming service offers tons of free wood mulch every year. I just have to bring my own bags and shovel it into my trunk. You can also compost your own grass clippings and all those fall leaves you rake up every year to have a nitrogen-rich amendment for your garden. If your neighbors have tons of trees or a big lawn, ask them if you can take ‘grass trash’ off their hands – most are happy to oblige. Just a half-inch of grass clippings (on grass that hasn’t been sprayed with RoundUp) is as good as most retail fertilizers.
10. Drive By a Friendly Organic Garden
Many organic gardeners will put out fruit, vegetables, and other items straight from their property on an ‘honor’ system, either offering the food for free or posting signs on their food-scaped lawns for people to take whatever they want, or to leave a small donation in their mailboxes. The last time I visited the Big Island, Hawaii, there were bananas, papayas, mountain apples, and ginger flowers for a 20-cent donation on the roadsides up the mountains, and all the items were straight from the local’s organic gardens.
11. Visit a Nearby Farm
Many organic farmers welcome visits from complete strangers, especially if it means you will possibly purchase vegetables, fruits, dairy and/or even free-range chicken eggs from their small farms.
Just call up a farm you’ve driven by, or look for a listing of local farms in your area. If you bring a few friends, you could even start your own food co-op with your buddies and the farmer.
12. Swap Food with a Neighbor
Do you have a peach tree growing on your lawn that produces more peaches than you could ever eat, even if you made cobbler for three days straight? Did you reap a huge harvest of winter squash, or summer lettuces? Share with your gardening neighbors. You can even put ‘harvest’ lists on Craigslist and offer your swaps with other local gardeners in your area.