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Naturally Frugal: Buying Organic Without Busting Your Budget

In store: Naturally frugal
Cutting costs when shopping for organic foods
By Lynn Welch
The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin), January 21, 2006

For the frugal, or those who aspire to frugality, the seminar title was more
than compelling.

Organic Eating on a Dime.

How small are those portions, I wondered.

More and more, people choose organic foods for a variety of reasons. None of
them involve the cost. In fact, price has been cited as a barrier for
low-income earners who would buy organic goods.

Buy organic peppers to avoid pesticides. Buy them directly from the farm
when they are in season to significally reduce the price you pay.
The topic is hot. Consumer Reports this month published a story on its
investigation targeting which organic items you should buy and which are OK
to skip. On the buy list: fruits and vegetables including apples, peppers, celery,
cherries, spinach and strawberries. Also, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy.
Skip cosmetics and seafood. See the full report at

To learn more, I joined the capacity crowd for the seminar at the Willy
Street Co-op this week to find out how to buy organic food on a budget.
Like Elizabeth Ekola of Madison, I can do a better job cutting food costs.
"I shop here a lot, but I think our food costs are pretty high," Ekola said.
"I thought I could use some help on how to better shop."

Author and sustainable living advocate Lisa Kivirist presented not 10, but
12 ideas to help get the most out of your organic food dollar. She developed
these practical tips over the last 10 years, after she and her husband
chucked it all and moved from Chicago to a rural Green County farm.
The couple's income dropped by more than half. But, they sought ways to
provide organic food for themselves, their son and guests at their Inn
Serendipity Bed & Breakfast near Monroe.

How do they do it?

"It's not a matter of paying less, but paying better," she said, noting that
frugality is key, not cheapness.

Some of these tips are wise, no matter what kind of groceries you choose to
buy. Eat at home more, at restaurants less. Use a meal plan rather than
flying by the seat of your pants daily. Stock up and buy in bulk when

Other ideas require more creativity.

By building your meals around lower-cost items, or eating low on the food
chain, you can really save. Use more grains and beans and less high-cost
foods like meat and cheese.

For must-have commodities that will always cost more - think coffee and
chocolate - look for ways to buy in bulk. Check producer Web sites or
factory outlets to buy direct in addition to stores to get the best value.
Speaking of bulk buying, Kivirist advises buying a year's worth of some
things you use often and storing them in air-tight containers. It can keep
costs in line with conventional groceries.

Some grocers, like Willy Street, will allow customers to order bulk items,
like a 50-pound bag of flour for $26. If a bulk purchase is too much for
your family, consider splitting it, and the cost, with someone.

Buying and cooking with the seasons is a cornerstone for frugal, organic
living, Kivirist explained. By buying and using produce when it's available,
and cheap, you can realize substantial cost savings.

She also recommended growing something, even if it's just herbs and a couple
tomato plants in containers. Great seasonal produce also can be had at a
variety of farmers' markets and by joining a community supported agriculture

Seasonal buying, or growing, means managing bulk zucchini and tomato
harvests, among others. Here's where a chest freezer in your basement can
help preserve those cheap, good eats for leaner winter months.

It's all about self sufficiency.

Creating a self sufficient pantry can cut costs, too. It can also create
organic options. Make certain foods instead of buying prepared items and use
substitutes for higher-priced goods you favor.

Kivirist makes her own sweetened condensed milk using organic powdered milk,
sugar and butter or margarine. She substitutes a cocoa oil combo for
chocolate chips. She also saves by making her own pita chips from homemade
pita bread, to dip in humus made in her kitchen. Information on substituting
and recipes for convenience items abounds online.

Like Consumer Reports' investigation, Kivirist also advised prioritizing
purchases. Save your organic dollars for the freshest foods. For things that
you don't use that much or for refined foods, buy the less expensive
conventional product.

There are all sorts of ways to prioritize.

"This can't be isolated," she said of organic food choices and frugal
living. To stretch their budget, Kivirist's family switched to compact
fluorescent bulbs over time. Most recently, they converted a vehicle to run
on biodiesel fuel obtained from their local fish fry.

As demand for organic food grows and more producers jump into the fray, the
USDA has predicted that supply could begin growing to keep up or exceed
demand and bring down prices. The May 2005 report said that would likely
lead to affordability and a further increase in demand.

In the meantime, organic buyers pay more at the store. Factors like health,
nutrition, and support for the environment and small, local farmers outweigh
the added costs, which average 50 percent more according to Consumer

To cut costs, the publication recommends comparison shopping the organic
sections of a number of stores, joining a community supported agriculture
farm, and ordering by mail. It also recommends buying locally produced
goods, citing a 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture study that found 40
percent of those farmers don't charge a premium.

Copyright 2006 The Capital Times