I’m thrilled to be talking about organic food today! Be warned, this post is super long, and comes with a huge disclaimer about how I want this discussion to be framed. Even though Amanda and I eat a mostly organic diet, we’re very aware that this lifestyle choice is not possible for many people. Hands down, our privilege allows to eat an organic diet. Our privilege also allows us to live in an area where we have so many grocery shopping options. I would be irresponsible if I pretended otherwise.
Organic food is not cheap. A barrier exists between those of us who can afford to eat this food, who drive conversations around organic living, and everyone else. That barrier is class-based, racialized, and driven by the privilege to be able to choose organic food over conventional food and then pass judgments on to others.
In no way do I want to suggest that you “should” eat organic food and that if you don’t you’re killing the environment or yourself. People have to make the choices that are right for them, their budget, and their economic reality every day and I offer no judgment toward anyone. The ability to eat organic food is so incredibly linked to the ability to afford it and to have access to it.
That said, eating pesticide-free food is an important part of living an eco-friendly lifestyle. At various times in my life, I’ve found organic food expensive and I wanted to write a post that specifically shows how I’ve been able to eat organic for four years using the resources available to me. I hope that sharing how I’ve been able to eat organic food will inspire people to find their own ways to eat organic, even if it’s a little at a time.
Eating organic food offers tremendous benefits for your body and the environment. Pesticides are poison. The pesticides that farmers use on conventional crops have been linked to various cancers, birth defects, and other long-term ailments such as asthma. These pesticides are killing the bees and making it difficult for other insects to live in their natural ecosystems.
When pesticides are sprayed on crops, the wind and rain carry the chemicals to places where people and animals live, impacting the health of local communities close to farmlands. Pesticides adversely affect low-income communities, especially communities where people commonly pick produce for a living. While the agricultural industry plays a huge part in promoting these pesticides, consumers also increase the demand for affordable, attractive, produce that glistens under grocery store lighting.
When I was in 6th grade, I sat at a lunch table with my friends and for some reason, we started comparing apples. One girl had a bright green apple so shiny you could practically reflect things off it. Another girl had an elongated, waxy red apple. One girl said my gala apple looked, “gross” because it had spots on it.
“It’s organic,” I said, “organic apples always look a little funny.”
She rolled her eyes and said, in her most snotty pre-teen voice, “Elana, all fruits and vegetables are organic because they were once alive.”
Of course, I knew this. We had science together so whatever basic knowledge she had about organic matter, I did too. Obviously, I was referring to the fact that the apple was grown without pesticides, and therefore had a few imperfections. As an adult, what strikes me about our conversation was that these girls thought what many people think about organic produce in the United States. That it’s just ugly produce with a fancy sticker and a marked up price.
Organic food is much more complicated than the fancy sticker, though. It’s food grown and raised with very specific guidelines and requirements by mostly small farms attempting to save the Earth from Monsanto. Not to mention, it requires an expensive licensing fee. When people say that organic produce is expensive, they often don’t realize that it’s expensive because not enough people buy it. Because not enough people buy organic produce, the demand for it is still relatively small, making it more expensive.
Conventional food is often cheaper because it’s being sold at a lower price than it should be. Purveyors of conventional agricultural methods can afford to undercut organic farms because they’re bigger, can grow more food faster, and have far more subsidies. They do this while polluting the soil, the water (oceans, rivers, groundwater), and the air. Not to mention, selling the general public produce laced with toxic chemicals that could lead to health problems that will cost way more down the line.
But a few other aspects of organic food production also make shopping organic more expensive: Acquiring organic certification costs a lot of money for farmers, it takes more labor and more effort to grow organic produce, and organic farmers receive far fewer subsidies than conventional farmers. In addition, products labeled as “organic” must meet far stricter requirements in terms of additives than conventional food. While conventional food products are allowed to use cheap artificial additives, organic food products must be natural.
If you can afford organic food, please buy it. We have a responsibility to our planet to nurture it in the best ways we possibly can, and pesticides should not be part of that plan. Plus, the more we buy it, the more likely that it will eventually become affordable for people who currently can’t afford it.
This list includes ways that I currently shop for organic produce and ways that I’ve shopped for organic produce in the past. As I stated earlier, I’m very fortunate to be able to make this choice, one that not everyone has the opportunity to make.
For the past four years, I’ve deliberately bought mostly organic food. Four years ago I worked in the non-profit industry and was broke all the time. Non-profit work doesn’t pay very well, but I knew that buying organic was important for my health and the environment. I found tons of ways to save money when shopping for organic food, and now I’m going to share them with you. Again, they aren’t guaranteed methods, but they can help a little bit.
There are a few other options that I kept out of this list, such as dumpster diving, CSA boxes, and gardening. I kept these options out of this post for the following reasons:
- I don’t think that having a large garden is accessible to most people living in urban areas.
- Dumpster diving is illegal in many places,
- I’ve never actually subscribed to a CSA box.
Full disclosure, I have gardened and dumpster dived (don’t tell the authorities!).
How I Afford Organic Food
1. I Shop What’s In Season
Sometimes I buy zucchini year round, but mostly I stick with what I know to be in season. If it’s winter, I buy kale and citrus, if it’s summer I buy tomatoes and strawberries, and if it’s fall, delicata squash will likely be on the menu. Shopping seasonally not only boosts the nutritional value of your food but also saves money. Grocery stores tend to price items that are in season lower. That’s why it’s almost ridiculous to make a fresh tomato dish in the winter when tomatoes are $4 per pound. It’s best to wait until summer when tomatoes are $2.50 per pound.
I know this might sound a little restrictive, but trust me, you will save a lot of money doing this. Your food will also have more vitamins and nutrients because you’ll be eating it at its prime time. Here’s a great seasonal produce guide to help you figure out what’s in season.
2. I Buy In Bulk
There was a time not so many years ago when I didn’t know how to cook dried beans from scratch. Actually, I was terrified to cook dried beans. I’d never even made lentils. I thought there was some secret magic to cooking dried beans that only professional cooks knew. Then, I met Amanda. She was shocked that I’d never cooked dried beans and set out to remedy this problem immediately. I was equally shocked that all I had to do what soak the beans overnight before cooking them.
The ability to cook dried beans opened me up to the bulk section at my local grocery store! As it turns out, the bulk section was way more affordable than buying brand name rice, nuts, and beans. Bulk food is way cheaper than packaged food. You’re literally buying food that the grocery store purchased wholesale and made available to you in whatever quantity you want. I buy the following items in bulk: rice, lentils, beans, pasta, nuts, dried fruit, granola, oats, flours (of all kinds), spices, herbs, every grain you could imagine, quinoa, etc.
3. I Shop Sales
If there’s a sale on a particular organic item at my local grocery store, I’ll make a meal out of it. If swiss chard is half off, we’re having swiss chard pasta. I almost always go to the grocery store with the intent of seeing what’s on sale. My local grocery store also bags produce up that’s starting to go bad and sells it for 99 cents per bag. It’s definitely not a zero-waste approach to getting inexpensive produce, but I’ve definitely bought those 99 cent bags when times were hard. Mostly, I find what’s in season and what’s half off and I purchase those produce items. I do the same for organic non-produce as well.
4. I Eat Less Dairy
Organic dairy products are expensive. Because I’m lactose intolerant, eating less dairy is easy for me. Here are the things I still eat:
I still eat eggs, but I bake only vegan baked goods, which means my eggs go way farther. I typically eat two organic, free range, humanely raised, local eggs per day. They’re my luxury item. A dozen of these eggs costs anywhere between $5 and $9, and I buy them once per week. Considering your average, conventional eggs cost $1.50 per dozen, I spend a lot of money on eggs. That said, I recognize that an industry that makes chickens live in tiny cages, pumps them full of hormones, and forces them to lay a certain number of eggs per day before butchering them at a young age is problematic, so if I’m going to eat eggs, I’m going to be choosy. I know where my eggs come from, I’ve researched the farm.
I eat small amounts of aged cheese, but a small block of sharp cheddar cheese can last me an entire month. The cheese costs me $9 per block on average. It’s expensive, so I make it last. I still eat butter in small quantities, a four pack of organic butter costs me about $5-6 and takes me 2-3 months to get through and I typically freeze it. Milk, cream, half-and-half, or yogurt make me sick, so I obviously don’t buy those things.
5. I Also Eat Less Meat
Speaking from experience, it’s way more affordable to be a vegetarian when eating organic food. Organic meat is expensive. I still eat meat occasionally as a medicinal supplement to my diet. Occasionally, however, means anywhere between once per month and every four months. I only buy organic, sustainable, and humanely raised chicken and (grass-fed) beef, or sustainably caught wild fish. I’m very picky about what I do with it and only by small quantities at a time. I tend to eat the most meat in the winter.
I get that removing entire food groups from your diet might not work for you. If you plan to continue to eat meat and dairy as part of your diet, shopping sales can be a great way to get markdowns on organic products. Another option is to buy your meat wholesale, more on that below.
6. I’ve Shopped The Closing Times At Farmer’s Markets
When do organic apples go from $3 per pound to $1 per pound? The end of the farmer’s market when farm stands are desperate to get rid of their wilting produce and go home. I don’t actually do this anymore now that I can afford to spend the full amount of money on organic produce as I want to support my local farms. When I was younger, broker, and in need of wholesome food, however, I totally found going to the farmer’s market close to closing time to be a viable solution for getting inexpensive organic produce.
Amanda and I would plan our entire day around it. We’d get up, eat breakfast, probably lounge around together, and then trek to the farmer’s market on foot to get there no earlier than 12:30 pm when many of the stands were closing down. We made friends with the people who worked at these stands and we almost always got deals. Again, if you can afford to support your local farms at full price, please do. But if you’re strapped for cash, this is a great option.
7. I Buy Fewer Premade Snacks
Overall, I don’t purchase a lot of things like chips, packaged cookies, flavored nuts, crackers, or snack mixes. They really add to the budget in a way I don’t like, and now that I don’t buy them I don’t even miss them. When I want a snack, I typically gravitate toward fruit, toast, or a slice of cheese. Sometimes I still buy ultra-healthy crackers that come in a plastic bag inside of a cardboard box, but a bag can last me months because I’m just not really a cracker person. Also, making your own premade snacks saves a lot of money as well. For example, making your own granola is way cheaper than buying those bags of it for $9, plus, you can add less sugar as well.
8. Shopping Wholesale
As I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog, I lived in a vegan co-op for 3 years. Even though only five people lived in the co-op, we operated collectively. Food was a huge part of this. We all contributed $105 per month for a food-share. With that $105 each person cooked once per week for the entire house and so you can see that we were really budget conscious. We still ate almost all organic food. To save money, eat organic food, and save time going to the store, we shopped through a wholesale distributor.
Wholesale distributors typically have minimum purchase guidelines that are too high for single people, or even 5 people in our case, to buy into. Luckily, we knew people at other co-ops and we’d typically ask those people if they wanted to buy into our purchase. No one ever said no. Community wholesale food buying was where we saved money, forged relationships, and still got to eat organic food. If you don’t live in a co-op, it’s totally possible to get a few families together to do the same thing. Buying wholesale isn’t a tactic I currently use, but if I were strapped for cash it’s definitely one I’d revisit.
Costco is another wholesale option. I know Costco, with all its packaging, isn’t the most eco-friendly place to shop, but it is one of the most affordable places to shop for organic staples. Cases of organic canned tomatoes and canned beans are really inexpensive. Organic coconut oil is $7 for a giant tub. If you can’t afford the membership fee, find a friend who is a member and tag along.
9. Buying Pesticide Free vs. Organic
As I mentioned before, it costs farmers a lot of money to register as an organic farm and have the right to label all their produce organic. Many small farms that use farming practices without pesticides can’t afford the organic licensing, but their produce is still a huge step up from conventional produce. Because lack organic certification, they typically sell their produce for cheaper at farmer’s markets. You have to ask directly if the produce has been grown without pesticides, though some stands will advertise this way as well.
10. I Buy Certain Things At Other Stores
I buy organic coconut milk from Trader Joe’s. It’s the only place that I’ve found that sells organic coconut milk with no additives for a good price. I don’t buy anything else there, so sometimes I plan my errands around how I can get to a Trader Joes to buy coconut milk- and a lot of it. Comparison shopping for organic food makes it possible for me buy the food that I want at the prices that I need. It does take a little bit more time because it requires going to multiple stores. I almost never do this in one day, instead, I stock up on items that I know require a special trip, like the coconut milk. That way, I’m spending less on transportation costs as well.
11. When All Else Fails, Understand What Conventional Produce You Can Eat
It turns out, some conventional produce scores higher than others. Some conventional crops are more genetically modified and contain more pesticides than others. If you really can’t afford the organic produce available to you, you can always go by the handy rule of the clean 15 and the dirty dozen. The clean 15 are fifteen conventional fruits and vegetables that are typically safer to eat than most. The dirty dozen is twelve conventional produce items you should probably avoid altogether because they are grown with the most pesticides.
Here are the 2017 results:
Clean 15: Sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, honeydew, kiwi, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit (Amanda swears that sweet potatoes were part of this list once, but do your research).
Dirty Dozen: Strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes
If you must eat conventional produce, wash it very thoroughly, using a mild vegetable soap if you have to, to eliminate pesticide residue.
So, those are the ways that I’ve managed to eat organic for four years, it’s been quite a journey! What are ways that you’ve found to afford organic food?