There’s been a lot of hype about organic food recently. So much so, in fact, that your head may be swimming with information, yet you have no idea where to turn or what to do about it. It’s easy enough to pinpoint the organic tomatoes at the grocery store, but is springing for the organic dog food worth the price? How about the organic mattress? And even if the No. 1 expert in the food world was on your local news station tonight saying, “You absolutely must buy organic produce, or else,” could you afford it? Organic foods can cost up to twice as much as their nonorganic counterparts.
Let’s get realistic about organic food. Eating organic on a budget is possible with a little know-how. Here are seven things you should know about eating organic foods and saving money.
1. All Organic Foods Are Not Created Equal
There’s organic in the sense that something is labeled “USDA Organic,” and then there’s organic in the sense that Uncle Allen down the road sold it to you off his tractor. Whenever possible, fall on the side of the latter. Local organic produce doesn’t have to travel far, so it’s better for the planet. It also doesn’t hurt that you get to support Uncle Allen and your own community. Organic foods can still be mass-produced, but I’m betting neighbor Al does things the old-fashioned way.
2. Attempt to Buy Local First
There are a couple of great ways to find local organic produce. First, visit your local farmers market. Lots of times they have great deals on organic produce, and everything is in season so it should be especially delicious.
Get involved in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program as well. You can pre-purchase a share of a farmer’s crops for a season by paying per week, month or season depending on the CSA. Then you’ll receive crops as they’re ready with pick-ups or drop-offs. Organic, affordable, local and handy.
Local Harvest has great information on CSAs, and a page for finding CSAs near you.
3. Buy in Season and Learn to Cook in Season
Crops are often cheapest during the times in which they are most abundant. If tomatoes are in season between April and October in your area, stock up during those months. Not only will the quality of your organic fruits and vegetables be better, the cost is likely to be lower. If you run out of tomatoes and they won’t be in season again for four months, try your hand at cooking with other produce. Cauliflower, for instance, is often in season during winter months.
Take a look at Epicurious' Seasonal Ingredient Map to find out what’s in season right now in your area.
4. Buy in Bulk, Then Can, Dry and Pickle
Not willing to give up tomatoes or apricots when the weather gets cold? No problem. Buy your favorite organic produce when it’s cheapest (typically when it’s in season). Then can, dry or pickle your fruits and veggies so you have them at hand during the bleaker months.
5. Join or Create an Organic Food Buying Club
Buying in large amounts almost always saves on costs. Gather some of your friends, pool your resources and buy directly from wholesalers. Then split up the goods when they arrive. Your group (which can be as small or as large as you’d like) can create a membership at a cooperative warehouse or work with a retail distributor. This group buying is a great way to afford more pricey items such as organic produce, and it’s also a fun way to make like-minded friends.
VegFamily.com has a great article about how to start or join a food buying club.
6. Pick and Choose Your Organics
If you can’t afford to buy organic across the board, make your organic decisions wisely. The Environmental Working Group recently released an updated 2010 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides, including the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide contact and the “clean 15” fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide contact. Try buying only the “dirty dozen” (celery, peaches and strawberries, to name a few) organic, and give yourself more leeway with the others.
7. Grow Your Own
There’s one easy way to save money and eat organically forever: Grow your own food. You have complete control over what you create, so you won’t have to play the blame game anymore. Plant a garden or even just a windowsill herb garden. Every step you take toward sustainability with food is one step farther away from nasty chemicals and flavorless imported produce.
Lindsey Siegele is the Senior Web Editor at Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Find her on Google+.
Photo by iStockPhoto/James Tutor.