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Organic Foods on a Limited Budget

Buying Organic Foods

Does anyone know how to save money on organic foods? I am very health conscious and have recently decided it was best for my two young daughters and me to make a real effort to eat foods without preservatives and hormones. Unfortunately, recent trips to local markets show how expensive it is to do just that. I had hoped Dollar Stretcher readers might have some advice on how to save money on organic/natural foods.
Jean K. in Boca Raton, FL

Grow Your Own Organic Produce

Try your local farmers' market, where you are likely to find organic items available for considerably less than what you pay in the grocery stores. Going to the farmers' market is a great habit to get into anyway, since you'll find wonderful fresh foods and you will help sustain local farmers.

In my area, the farmers' market is open year-round, and features many seasonal festivals spotlighting everything from strawberries to mudbugs (crawfish). Even when I lived in an area that required me to drive 25 minutes to the farmers' market, I found that the money I saved on the produce I bought to make my own salads (as opposed to spending $5.95 plus tax per salad per day at work) and the quality of the produce made the effort very cost-effective.

Farmers' markets are also a great way to teach kids about farming and what goes into producing the food they eat. You might also consider growing your own organic produce this spring. I once lived in a condo that had a balcony roughly the size of a refrigerator, yet I managed to grow cucumbers in hanging baskets, leaf lettuce in an old dishpan, loads of herbs, and cherry tomatoes and peppers in pots. Check your local library for books on container gardening, and ask friends if they might want to join in and split seed packages. This, too, is a great project in which to involve kids. My niece and nephew helped me plant all the seeds for my balcony garden, and then cheerfully raided the tomato and cucumber plants in our "air farm" (thus named because of the balcony location) at every visit.

Join (or Start) an Organic Produce Co-op

A friend and I run one out of her living room. We buy from a produce wholesaler (the same one that delivers to the local health food stores). Watch for the trucks and look them up online. We have semi-annual meetings to decide what kinds of produce to order and how often. We have about 15 members who give us a standing order for every two weeks. If we have enough membership interest, we order a case of that particular produce, and when the produce comes, we sort it out. We use last time's produce boxes, and write everyone's names on them and sort into them, using the standing order each member has placed. It helps to have your members' standing orders be a range (i.e. 6-10 apples), because the cases aren't always the same quantities from week to week.

I use Excel to fill in everyone's bill (because we don't know the exact price until the produce comes with an invoice). We mark each item up only 10% (as opposed to the store's 40-50%), and the extra money gets split between those who sort that week, as a credit off of their bill. I require that every member put in a deposit, which I keep in a separate checking account, just for this co-op. Then, I'm able to write a check when the produce is delivered each produce day, and the members pay for their produce upon pickup, which replenishes the bank account.

I found members using my son's school newsletter and bulletin boards in schools and public buildings. Fifteen to twenty members is a good sized group, as everyone's boxes fit in my friend's living room for sorting, and it seems to be enough people to get full cases of most items we want. It does take a good bit of time organizing, but I think it's well worth it. Every once in a while, I check at the grocery store to compare to their organic prices, and I've saved about 30%. I'm getting organic produce and paying conventional prices, though I admit that for a sale-watcher, conventional produce would likely be cheaper. But the long-term benefits to my family's health make organics worth it to me. And we eat more fruits and veggies this way, because they are delivered on a regular basis, and I can do my meal planning around what's coming on produce day. And, I've gotten to meet some wonderful people that I otherwise wouldn't know.
Abbie in Michigan

Talk to the Farmers

If you go to green markets where you can actually discuss with farmers, try to find small farmers whose agricultural practices you agree with, but who may not have an organic certification and the price premium that goes with it. Certification is long and expensive, and many small producers won't take the trouble of getting certified, even if they use ecological farming practices.
Catherine in Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Stick to Whole Foods

My husband and I eat only organic food and these are the tips that help us save money:

· Stick primarily to unprocessed foods. The price of prepared organic food (dry cereals, frozen meals, crackers, etc.) is steep, but if you eat mostly whole foods (veggies, fruits, grains, beans, meats, etc.), you will save money. You may invest a little more in prep and cooking, but you will save money and be serving healthy foods to your family. And cook simply. If you are serving the best and freshest foods, they often don't need much adornment.

· Shop for fruits and veggies at you local farmers' market and strive to eat only in-season produce. You will get superior produce, support your local farmers and save money. You could also look into buying a share from a local farm. How this works is for a small fee per week you receive a box of fresh produce and, depending on the farm, fruit. You must usually commit to a season (typically March through October here) and pick up your box each week from a pick up location. You don't get to choose what you get though so you must learn how to be adventurous in the kitchen. For more information, Google "CSA farms." Some farms are organic and some are not, so make sure you know what you are getting.

· Check out your local natural food store. In the past, I have avoided shopping at mine because I figured that it would be more expensive than buying from the big supermarket down the street (economies of scale and all), but I was wrong. Their prices are cheaper and they carry a much larger selection of organic and natural foods than the big supermarkets.

· Try the bulk bins. Many regular supermarkets have started carrying bulk organic items and your natural food store will probably have an even better selection. Rice, pasta, oatmeal, nuts, etc. are all there and at rock bottom prices.

· Check out Trader Joes. If you can find what you are looking for, you will almost always get the best price here. Go with a list and stick to it. Trader Joes is temptation city and it is easy to pick a few extra items that look good and end up spending more than you budgeted for.

· Another place to get rock bottom prices is your local Costco or Sams Club. The big warehouse stores are carrying more and more organic products and you can often get a great deal. In our area, eggs, canned tomatoes, milk, dog food (yes, our dog even eats organic food!) and environmentally friendly laundry soap are cheaper here than anywhere else.

· If you have the time, space, and desire, grow your own. Even a row of green beans or a couple of cherry tomato plants on your balcony can provide a lot of food for just a few dollar investment in a packet of seeds. If you can't find organic seed in your area, just look on the Internet and you will find plenty of companies who sell at least some organic seed. You can also check out many great organic gardening books at your local library or check the Internet of organic growing tips.

· Look into joining a natural food co-op in your area. Members take advantage of the idea of bulk buying to get better prices on items. Google "food co-ops" for more information.


Go Direct

Try to link up with local farmers who grow organic food and buy directly from them. They are often families who are trying to get by just like you are and would be happy to help out like-minded folks, maybe even bartering for your purchases. The organic items you buy in the store cost more because of the packaging, shipping and so on. If you can buy local, you avoid all that unnecessary cost.

Find a Local CSA

Try to join a food co-operative or buy a "share" of a farm through community supported agriculture (CSA). You get delicious, healthy, organic food at a reasonable cost and help local farmers as well! Find a local CSA at

Shop Online

eBay has many sellers who offer organic. is another invaluable source. I suggest Googling whatever product you're searching for (no dairy or perishable products of course) to find your best price. Also if you have a Whole Foods store nearby, I can't recommend them too highly. My youngest daughter lives near one (about two hours from me) and when I visit her, I buy milk. A gallon of organic milk often costs less than a gallon of hormone-laced milk does at Wal-Mart!


Make Wise Choices

Sprouting seeds is a fun and economical way to stretch your organic budget. Seed sprouting kits range widely in price or you can make one from easily available items. There are wonderful websites devoted to the subject. Children love this do-it-yourself project. Begin with good, organic seed. A little seed goes a long way!

When you cannot afford organic, it is important to make wise choices when purchasing produce. For a list of the worst and best choices for non-organic foods, visit
R. S. in Valdez, Alaska

Florida Organics

I live in Royal Palm Beach (not to far from Boca) and almost exclusively buy organic foods for a family of three for about $150 to $200 every two weeks. Here is how I do it:

· I live within a five-mile radius of a Wal-Mart superstore, Target superstore, Publix, Winn-Dixie, Albertson's, BJ's wholesale club, and a Costco wholesale club. All of these stores sell organic foods. I look in the sales flyers for any organics on sale, write up a two-week menu, gather coupons, and head out. I first start at Wal-Mart. They are almost always the cheapest though Target often matches or comes close to their prices. Then I go to Target for anything I couldn't get at Wal-Mart. I usually finish up at Publix for a few things. I rarely go to the other stores unless they are having a great sale on something or I can only get it there. When cruising the aisles at Wal-Mart, I keep an eye out for clearance foods in the aisles. I have gotten many good buys this way. At Target, I make sure to always go by the endcaps to see if there is anything worth getting. Also, I have a price list for all three stores for the items I buy regularly so if a price goes up I can see if it's cheaper at one of the other stores.

· Publix every so often puts out a flyer with their name brand of organic foods. This is a great time to stock up, especially on the canned goods.

· When buying certain brands of organic foods, there are often coupons on the box, etc. Cut them out and use them.

· Start eating more beans and less meat. Beans are a lot cheaper! I make at least two bean dinners a week, double the recipe, and freeze half for another time. Beans are also a great way to stretch recipes to get more from them. We've gotten to the point where we only eat meat once or twice a week, which is healthier for you anyway.

· Vegetables are also cheaper than meat. Look for recipes that have a lot of vegetables in them.

· Milk and bread freezes very well, so stock up when they go on sale.

· I bake a lot of my own breads and muffins and then freeze them for later use.

· Stick strictly to your shopping list and don't fall for impulse buys unless, of course, they are on clearance or unadvertised sale and you will use them soon. Remember to buy only what you really need or can use and then use it! It's no deal if it's sitting on the shelf for six months or you end up throwing it out because it went bad.

· In Boynton Beach, there is a farm called Green Cay Produce. They are a CSA farm (Community Supported Agriculture) where the produce is grown locally and can be delivered to your door or you can pick it up. There is a charge for delivery. You can get a large box or small box of produce. I get the large box and we were constantly overwhelmed by how much we get. I often share with neighbors. If you decide to go this route, make sure you get the right size box for your family. This is not an organic farm, but they use environmentally friendly growing practices that are often recommended for organic farms. I will tell you some of the best tasting produce I've ever had has come from this farm. For more information, visit their web site at

· Another way to get organic produce is through the South Florida Organic Produce Buying Club. Members of the club have the produce delivered in bulk. It is about 20 percent below retail. The club has 15 members to a group. There is a host who divides each members share and you pick it up in a designated spot. There is already a group in Boca. For more information, visit their website at

· You can also have organic food delivered to your door from Delicious Organics based in Miami. They have wild fish, chicken, meats, dairy, snacks, juice, nuts, chocolate, coffee and tea. There is a $50 minimum order with a $5 surcharge or $100 with no surcharge, plus a $9.95 delivery fee. They generally run about 20 percent lower than retail. For more information, visit their website at

Ruth in Royal Palm Beach

First, Simplify Your Menu

The key to organic is to simplify your menu first. Figure out what your family likes, or can live without, and go from there. Consider a garden to get the much needed tomatoes, green peppers, spinach, etc. in order to make the favorites for the family. Then learn to can and freeze your food properly. Consider canning the best recycling ever! Get canning equipment for next to nothing by just asking around, and maybe can with a friend to make it "less painful."

I gave up "convenience" foods, especially in the organic health food section. I can't rationalize mac and cheese el natural, when making it from scratch is way better and just as easy. Invest in simplified cookbooks that break it down to the basics, such as Moosewood Classics, Cheap, Fast, Good, Miserly Meals, and the indispensable Less is More Cookbook. These are the most used books in my cupboard because of the wide range of menus and simple ingredients.

Do some research online for local co-ops. I found a co-op 30 minutes away that delivers once every month, so I order flour, rice, oats, herbs, and dried fruit in bulk and it gets delivered to my door. If I don't think I'll use everything, I call some friends to split the food. It's a lot of fun and saves money buying bulk organics.

The biggest challenge I've found in organics is dairy. I have a hard time buying $4 gallons of milk or $6 chunk of cheese. Therefore, I analyzed my use of these ingredients and decided to add water to my whole milk, make my own yogurt, and change my attitude on good cheese (it's worth it to spend the $6). In the end, I'm no longer spending money on cereal (I make my own fabulous granola), junk food, or convenience food, so then I can afford a good, better tasting chunk of cheese

Consider the Long-Term Benefits

I really struggle with this too! We want to serve our family the highest quality foods, but we also do not want to pay and arm and a leg for them. Here are some suggestions that I have used.

· First, recognize that buying high quality and/or organic products are better choices in the long run. Dr. Sears points out in his book The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood that in"the long run children who eat better are healthier and thus save money on healthcare costs.

· Research which foods are the highest in pesticides and other chemical additives. For instance, apples and peaches are always important to buy organically, while bananas are not as high in pesticides. You can also research which areas are ones to stay away from (buy grapes grown in the U.S. instead of Chile due to higher amounts of pesticides used there).

· Come up with a general list of products you want to buy organically and look around at your local groceries. Find out which ones tend to have those products cheaper more regularly. Also, those tend to be the stores that have higher turnover rates for these products, which means that they are usually fresher.

· Conduct an Internet search for "organic coupons." You'll be surprised at how many you might find that way. If this does not yield you what you want, then go to each company's website. I wanted a coupon for Laura's Lean Beef, but there was not one on the website to print. I e-mailed them asking for one and they sent me some in the mail. I now am on their mailing list so that I continue to get deals. Also look in your Sunday Circulars for coupons. More and more companies are getting on the bandwagon and adding organic products to their lines.

· This spring start a home garden. Even a sunny spot on a terrace or deck can support a potted garden. Freeze or can what you have in excess. Also reap the bounty from friends and family's gardens. Offer to water while they are away on vacation in turn for being able to pick the garden during that time.

· In the appropriate seasons, visit farms that are organic where you can pick your own. We froze an abundance of raspberries this last season and are still enjoying them.

· Visit your local farmer's market or food co-op. Usually they are the cheapest places to buy produce. Remember that the fruits and veggies that have to travel across country to reach you have had many of their vitamins lost through oxidation. Locally grown produce is usually the best way to go. Plus, you are supporting the people of your area.

Gabrielle in Knoxville, TN