Organic on the cheap

Hands holding a piggy bankAs our economic troubles deepen, Americans all over are cutting back. Before leaving organic food on the cutting room floor, try these strategies for reducing the cost of organic food. If you have any additional ideas, let us know in the comments!

Grow your own

It’s a long-term strategy, but growing your own food can be a good way to turn time into money. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck for things like fruit trees and berry bushes that produce year after year. Highly producing plants like tomatoes, peppers, and zuchinni are also good. If you don’t have space for a garden outside, or you want to get started before it warms up, you can grow herbs in your kitchen.

Shop co-op

Although not available everywhere, co-ops can be great ways to get cheap organic food. The National Cooperative Grocers Association has a map of stores, but there are many co-ops that aren’t part of the organization. Some co-ops will give a rebate at the end of profitable years. Others will give a discount if you volunteer for an hour or two a week or for paying a one-time membership fee. It’s worth checking out!

Coupons and sales

Organic food tends not to be used as a loss leader at grocery stores, but you can sometimes find coupons anyway. Check the website of organic brands that you buy (like Organic Prairie or Kashi) and see if they have any coupons. Our local co-op even puts their sale prices online, so that you can check for bargains easily.

Buy bulk basics

Instead of getting packaged foods, buy the ingredients and make your own. Pizza, for example, can cost $6 for a small frozen, $8 at a local restaurant, and $3 if you make it yourself! Bread and pasta are similarly cheap. If you can find a local store with bulk bins, you can usually get good deals on beans and rice as well. Some co-ops, ours included, even have bulk containers for shampoo and soap!

Join a CSA

This is pretty similar to buying in bulk, but a CSA can give you additional savings. Basically, you pay up front (or agree in advance to pay through the season) and in return you get a discount. If you’re a picky eater or plan to be gone some weekends, get a friend to join with you and split your CSA. We did this with Maggie’s parents and it worked well. Some places even have dairy, bread, or meat CSAs!

Visit the farmer’s market

In some places, the farmer’s market is significantly cheaper. Around here, it’s about the same, since our co-op buys from the same people who show up at the farmer’s market. Even here, though, there are bargains to be had. If you show up towards the end of market, farmers are more willing to make a deal. Anything they don’t sell they have to get rid of (if it’s perishable) or lug back home (if it’s not), so they’re motivated. The drawback is that your selection is liable to be limited, although a CSA can generally fill in the gaps.

Pick and choose

If, in the end, you decide that you still can’t afford to eat organic, don’t quit entirely! Figure out what organic items matter most to you and splurge on those while cutting corners elsewhere. For example, Maggie has decided that organic butter is better, so it’s worth the premium. Other things, like beans, don’t matter as much to us. If health is your main concern, focus on organic goods that bioaccumulate (like dairy products). If environmental impact is what gets you to buy organic, then maybe you should get local, organic beef.

This is also a good time to be buying local, whether it’s organic or not. Money spent at local businesses is much more likely to stay within your community and might make the difference between a lean year and going out of business. this!

4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Andy said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    In the summer of 2007, we tried to eat as local and organic as possible. We joined a CSA, and always shopped at the Farmers’ Market first, the coops second, and the big grocery store last if needed. As a result of this challenge, I also started new challenges such as not buying packaged food, not buying anything with corn based ingredients other than on the cob or cornmeal, and eventually avoiding processed food. Our monthly food bill got down to $120 for a few months as a result. The CSA provided waaaay more veggies than 2 people would generally eat, so my diet became mostly veggies and much less carb based, which was great for my health since I’m diabetic. We made all of our own bread, crackers, granola bars, soups, salads, and desserts. The trick was buying food in large enough quantities to be cheap by the pound but not wasting it. The result was that over two thirds of the food was organic, and over two thirds was grown within 100 miles. It was an amazing summer! I’m not quite as extreme with food now, and we do buy a lot of nice things and our food spending is around $350/mo now. I’m not sure if that sounds expensive, but either way, it’s great food that’s often fresh, local, and organic.

    A few other ways I do organic on the cheap:
    I volunteered 60 hours last year on an organic farm, and in return got a CSA worth of food throughout the growing season, some friends, knowledge of how to farm, great conversations, and it didn’t cost $300+ like most CSAs.

    The city of Ithaca has a bunch of planted fruiting trees, and I created a map of all the ones I noticed. When the fruits came in season, I would ride my bike there and fill my panniers with 16 quarts worth. This got a lot of apples, pears, juneberries, cherries, raspberries and mulberries. I froze a lot of it, and make pies about once a month. I think the trees saved me over $200 this past year since we got soooo many apples and made apple/pear pies a bunch, and cherries are very expensive normally. The juneberries make great pies, but I have no idea if any stores sell these or what price they would go for.


  2. 2

    Will said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

    It’s hard to compare food prices because it varies so much across the country.

    Trading farm work for food is a great idea. I know that most famers who sell at market do a LOT of work the day and night before to get everything picked and packed. If you help out with that, they’d probably be pay in produce.

    Public fruit trees are cool too. For those of us who don’t have such an enlightened local government, it’s often easy to pick extras from people nearby. This summer, we got a ton of apples from Maggie’s aunt. And, of course, there’s always you-pick fruit in the summer!

  3. 3

    Andy said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 1:20 am

    You-pick is great. There’s a biiiig one about a mile from here where you can pick all sorts of things. I got peppers, peaches, and tomatoes, but I know they also do just about anything a CSA would have, plus a big apple and pear orchard and tons of tomatoes (and varieties). I dried all the peaches, but those went in a month, and the tomatoes are frozen and being used for soups. I still have some of the peppers dried that I use in soups and stews too.

  4. 4

    Quick Tips for Eating Organic ? Get Rich Slowly said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    […] For more tips and for more detail (including advice from Grist readers), check out Bendrick’s article on how to maintain a green, healthy diet on a budget. You might also be interested in’s recent post about buying organic on the cheap. […]

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