I wish there was a store where everything stocked was organic, local, non-GMO, truly healthy (as opposed to so much of the not-really-that-healthy “health food” available), and fairly priced. In my fantasy store it would be so easy to shop economically–instead of scrutinizing labels and trying to determine the greenest and healthiest choice, you could really just focus on the cost of things.
Alas, I haven’t found that store yet, and shopping sometimes feels like a final exam where I’m called on to balance out the benefits of an item’s ingredients, green integrity, and production method–and then compare those factors with the other similar items, and then compute the best choice for the cost. (And of course, I’m doing this as my 7-year-old is attempting to sneak the four-pack of strawberry milk boxes in the cart and my 5-year-old is asking for the 18th time, with increasing volume, “Can we go home now?”)
So I guess my goal is how to buy the healthiest and greenest food for the least amount of money. At this point I don’t know if I know how to meet this objective with seamless simplicity, but I have collected some tips to make healthy shopping more economical. In these times of leaping food prices and tightening belts, it seems like the right time to share. Some of these tips have come in through the comments on other Care2 articles (thanks, commenters!), some have come from other Web sites, and some are just tricks I have learned along the way. I’d love to hear other tips you may have.
1. Shop at a Farmers Market or Farmstand
Get local, seasonal food that is fresher than anything you can get at a store. by cutting out the middleman you generally get a much better price, you support the community, and you can find out about how the food was grown.
2. Join a Food Co-op
When you join you become a shareholder, which means you get cheaper prices and you also get to participate in how it’s run. You will have to put in some hours, but that can be fun and is well worth it. Our local food co-op has a playroom and babysitting, which is great.
3. Join a CSA
At a Community Supported Agriculture program at a local farm, you pay for a share at the beginning of the season and get a box of produce fresh from the farm weekly throughout the growing season. If you live in the city, the boxes will be brought to a distribution point in your neighborhood. You have to pay up front, but the long-term saving is significant, and you get to try things you may not have thought of before.
4. Grow Your Own
Do you know how cheap seeds are? You don’t necessarily even need a garden or a warm climate. Even a windowsill herb garden will save you money when all you want is a snip of bright flavor in a dish.
5. Try Chain Stores
Private label organic brands from chain stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and even conventional supermarkets can be as cheap as brand name non-organic products. Because they manufacture in bulk to stock all their stores, the pricing for their own organic products is cheaper than brand names. For example, Whole Foods has their 365 brand and many of those products are either the same price or only pennies more expensive than a name brand.
6. Warehouse Stores, Yikes!
I might not be a huge fan of warehouse stores, but you know what? In a real penny crunch I’d far rather buy organic milk from Costco than non-organic milk from someplace else. I realize that big-box organics may not be the greenest choice, but if you can only afford the must-be-organic items from a big box store, it’s a trade-off to consider.
7. Shop for Non-Certified Organic “Organic”
Many small farms use organic methods, but do not go through the organic certification process because of the extra cost and excessive paperwork. If you can shop at a farmer’s market, farm stand, or join a CSA, you can ask about what kind of farming methods are used and purchase non-organic food that is essentially organic.
If you can’t afford to buy everything organic, determine what’s important. For some rGBH-free milk is a priority, while for others humanely raised meat might be imperative.
9. Know Produce Pesticide Loads
If you haven’t seen the produce pesticide ranking provided by the Environmental Working Group, it is a great tool for saving money at the market. Based on the results of nearly 43,000 tests for pesticides on produce collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the ranking lists the produce which has the highest pesticide loads as well as those with the lowest. With this ranking in hand, you can know, for example, to always buy organic peaches and apples (which have the highest pesticide loads) but you if you need to save money you can buy conventional onions and avocados (which have the lowest pesticide loads). Of course always buy organic when you can for the sake of the environment, but when pinching pennies, you can at least prioritize and buy those which are the best for your health.