Exposing organic foods pricing misconceptions
My Story: Affordable Organic Foods
contributed by Donna
I am concerned that a recent article would discourage people from buying healthier, organic foods. For years, I also believed that all organic foods and "healthy" meats/other natural fresh foods were still very expensive relative to non-organic or "conventional" items. In the last couple of years, though, prices have really changed, and if you actually go and price organic foods, you will be pleasantly surprised, though sometimes it takes some sleuthing to get the very best prices.
For instance, just yesterday at my local IGA, organic bananas were $.69/lb while conventional bananas were $.59. This increased my weekly banana purchase by all of $.22. Whole-wheat pasta was $1.38/lb and white pasta was $1.00/lb; the difference in price for a single meal would be only about 25¢ at my house. Organic Gala apples by the bag were exactly the same price as conventional Gala apples at $1.79/lb. Organic and conventional celery hearts were exactly the same price. Organic romaine lettuce hearts were on sale for $1.99/pound (down from $3.29/lb) while Dole romaine hearts were $2.99.
Walmart carries plenty of organic vegetables at good prices, but I found they were too tired-looking when I shopped there, until I finally asked what day they were stocked and started coming then.
Other big regional grocers within 15 minutes of my home or on my way to/from work also have good prices on organic foods. I have noticed that the grocers that stock the organic vegetables next to their conventional kin (all carrots together, all zucchini together, etc.) instead of in a separate "organic" section have better prices. I've also noticed that the grocers in the better neighborhoods have better organic prices (I think this is because they move more of the organic vegetables and have less spoilage).
My local grocer has those "artisan" whole grain breads for $5.29/lb, but I can get the same bread for $2.49/lb at the Panera bakery or $3.79/lb at Kroger on my way home from work, and it's not day-old either. For nutrition, the artisan breads at $2.49/lb are a much better value than cheap white bread.
The lean meats are another area where you can buy great food for less than you might think, though organic meat prices are still often 200% or more of conventional. Yes, extra lean ground turkey is $5.29/lb, but merely lean ground turkey (92% or 93% lean) is only $2.79/lb, which is the same price as the 85% lean ground beef a few feet further down the meat cooler. I once experimented with cooking down a pound of regular ground beef (I think it was 75% lean) and a pound of ground sirloin at 92% lean. I found that once I poured off all the grease, I had paid almost the same price per pound for the actual protein that was left. So, I buy ground sirloin in bulk when it is on sale, cook it the same day, and freeze it in one-pound bags for easy use in recipes.
Farmer's markets very often have great prices on fresh vegetables, especially if you want to take a lot off their hands at the end of the day. And our town even has a winter farmer's market, where you get many of the "staple" vegetables (carrots, cabbage, squash, onions, garlic, and apples for instance, which are staples precisely because they keep very well) for excellent prices plus a lot of fresh herbs, cheeses and meats. Meat is usually cheaper at our organic winter market than the summer one, but it's still expensive. Cheeses are usually pretty competitive around here though. Most organized farmer's market vendors can accept WIC coupons; they'll have signs posted if they do. To find a farmer's market near you, see apps.ams.usda.gov/FarmersMarkets/.
What if you are so hard against it that you can't even imagine spending $1.00 on romaine salad for two people when you could keep four people full for $1.00 worth of white pasta? Please go visit your local food pantry. They want you to eat better, and they have what you need to do it. Many grocers and bakeries donate their day-old breads and extra vegetables. You'd be surprised what you can find there above and beyond canned tuna and peanut butter.
We join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm share most summers. One year I calculated that the prices per pound for our share of those organic vegetables were even less than the conventional vegetables at the grocer. On the days I worked on the farm (that was part of the obligation to join, 10 hours of labor total over the course of the season), I usually got a whole extra bag of vegetables to take home. See LocalHarvest.org to find a CSA near you, including reviews of many of the farms. If you live in a city, you might be able to join a "distributed" CSA where the farmer uses part of your (and every other member's) yard for growing vegetables. Distributed CSAs are listed at
LocalHarvest.org as well. The downside to CSAs is that you usually have to pay your share fee up front (in central Ohio that's about $450-$500), but then you pay nothing more as the vegetables arrive at your table weekly from late May through early October. We found one share kept about four adults and two or three kids in vegetables all season. There are meat-buying clubs, too, and on the Maine coast (at least), there are Community Supported Fisheries where you get weekly shares of fresh fish or lobster harvests.
If you have a little more time and less money, you could join or form a yard-sharing group, in which everybody in the group actually farms some of their yard space. Members get together to plan what to plant and where and how to distribute the weekly harvest duties and bounty. Usually tools and skills are shared among members as well. See Hyperlocavore.org. If you have even more time, look for a community garden near you where you could sign up for space and do it all yourself. Often there are other members who would be happy to share their skills with you (see CommunityGarden.org, but you probably will need to have your own tools.
Take the time to actually price natural, fresh, and organic foods at several different kinds of outlets in your area (bakeries, independent markets, regional grocers, farm markets). When you go to price foods at the farmer's markets, ask the farmers about buying clubs, community gardens, and CSAs. I eat a lot better now than I did on the same budget two years ago, and I bet you can, too!
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