Whenever people find out that I studied organic farming and food production, they invariably respond with, “I wish I could eat organic. I know I should eat organic, but it’s just soooooo expensive.”
Confession: I don’t eat all organic food. I don’t even eat mostly organic food.
But Jess! You studied organic farming! You work for an organic certification agency! You LOVE organic food!
It’s true. I do love it. I did study it. I do think it’s the best way to protect our resources and feed the world’s growing population. (And yes, organic can feed the world—but that’s a post for another day.) I would love to get to the point where most—if not all—of my diet is organic.
But I ain’t made of money.
So here are some tricks I’ve learned to help make eating organic a little more feasible, no matter how much money you don’t have.
1. Don’t eat the elephant all at once.
You don’t have to eat 100% organic to make a positive difference in your life, the economy, and the environment. Start small: choose one or two items, and consistently buy only the organic varieties of those items. (For me, that’s milk and eggs.) Your budget will eventually adjust itself, and when you get used to paying a bit more for those ingredients, you can add a few more organic items to your shopping list.
The truth is, we spend less money on food in proportion to our income than our grandparents did, and Americans spend less on food than the rest of the world does. The onset of industrial agriculture flooded the market with cheap food, and despite the fact that it’s usually not very healthy for us or the environment, we’re more inclined to reach for the cheapest items on the shelf. Spending less on food means we have more money to spend on Netflix and books and other fun things. And sometimes, spending less on food means you can afford to buy more food for your family.
Of course, the more money you make, the more total dollars you’ll have available to spend on food. But that expenditure will be a smaller share of your total income…. Likewise, the less you make, the bigger your food spending will be relative to your income — and the more costly food may seem.
In 2013, the lowest income bracket spent on average $3,655 annually on food, or 36 percent of total income. People in the highest income bracket, meanwhile, spent about $11,000 annually on food, which was only about 8 percent of their earnings.
So yes, I recognize that not everyone will be able to afford buying organic, even in small doses. But most of us should be able to adjust our budgets to allow us to purchase a few more organic things every time we go to the grocery store.
2. Set a threshold.
I’m borderline obsessive when it comes to calculating unit prices on my food, and I’ve learned to set a threshold for when to opt for organic. For example, if the organic cucumbers are only a few cents more per ounce or a certain percentage more than the conventional ones, I’ll buy the organic. That threshold varies depending on the type of product, how much wiggle room my budget has that month, and how many other things I have to buy. But it’s nice to have a bit of a system set so that I don’t have to make the decision when I’m standing there staring at delicious veggies. It’s like learning to say no to drugs—if you make up your mind beforehand, you’ll know what to do when you get there.
3. Buy organic when it’s cheapest and save it for later.
Take advantage of sales and coupons for value added products (like dairy products), and buy more organic fruits and veggies when they’re in season and therefore (usually) cheaper. Perishables can be canned, frozen, dehydrated, or freeze dried to save them for later. My mom is the queen of frugal, and some of my fondest memories are of helping her can peaches and applesauce in the fall.
This trick has the added bonus of providing you with emergency food storage. When a disaster strikes and the grocery stores are cleaned out, you’ll have plenty of food to tide you over—and it’ll be organic, too.
4. Avoid commercially processed foods.
While organic standards for processing will protect you from many of the negative things the anti-processed food movement takes issue with, the fact remains that you’re still paying for processing, which is technically a luxury. Raw ingredients are usually cheaper than their processed and packaged counterparts. The more you learn to do yourself—such as making cheese, making bread, making pasta, grinding your own flour, etc.—the less you’ll pay for processing. (That also means more of your dollar is going to the farmers that grew your food in the first place!)
5. Join an organic CSA.
CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture”. CSA groups are also called “box schemes” or food networks. Not all of these are organic, so make sure that you subscribe to one that is. While you usually don’t get to choose what produce you get, some CSAs will let you state your preferences or mix and match. Not only will this provide you with fresh, in-season produce during the growing season (and sometimes year-round, depending on where you live), but it can also be cheaper than buying organic at the grocery store. After we visited Riverford Organics on a field trip last year, I compared the price of their veggie boxes to what I was paying for mostly conventional produce at the grocery store, and it was about 23% cheaper to buy the CSA.
Don’t know where to find a local CSA? Check out Local Harvest.
5. Grow your own.
Technically, food isn’t classified as organic unless it follows the regulations outlined by the National Organic Program (NOP). However, you can reap the same health and ecological benefits if you grow your own food. If you want to do so, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Make sure your seeds and/or seedlings are non-GMO and not treated with fungicides or other chemicals. It can be tricky to find reputable sources, but heirloom seed producers are a good place to start. Johnny’s Selected Seeds also has a great selection of organic seeds.
- Don’t use chemical fertilizer or pesticides. That’s one of the main differences between organic and conventional farms, so you don’t want to use the same prohibited substances on your own garden. There are natural options to use instead, including some you can make at home.
- The NOP has strict rules concerning the use of animal manure and compost. If you are producing food for yourself, you aren’t required to be as strict, but you should still be careful. Raw animal manure can carry bacteria, and certain manures are very high in nitrogen. While nitrogen is essential for plant growth, excess nitrogen actually contributes to water quality issues and acid rain. Composting manure and plant waste takes time, but when done correctly, it can improve your soil by increasing organic matter, improving water holding capacity, and providing plant-available nitrogen.
- It’s a lot of work. Growing produce at home will require planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting. You’ll also want to monitor your garden for bugs and diseases, which means you’ll need to be familiar enough to identify them.
Even if it is a lot of work, growing your own food is incredibly rewarding and economical. You can also experiment with new varieties that you can’t find at the store. My parents grew some black cherry tomatoes one year, and they changed our lives. I’ve never seen them in the store, and we wouldn’t know about them if we hadn’t grown them in our garden.
But Jeeessssssss, I live in an apartment. I can’t grow my own food!
False. I lived in an apartment in Colorado, and I had a little garden on my balcony. I grew tomatoes (those upside down tomato growers are great!), lettuce, peppers, and herbs in containers. If you don’t have a balcony, you can still grow lettuce, herbs, and spring onions in a windowsill planter. Where there is a will, there is a way.
In short, it is possible to start eating organic even when you’re on a tight budget. It takes a little extra work and fair bit of fortitude, but that never hurt nobody.
What tricks have you found for making organic more affordable?
 Not all seed treatments are dangerous. Do your research if you want to use treated seeds.