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Ten Tips to Make Organic Work for You

Farmers markets are just one place to buy local, in-season, freshly-picked organic produce. (Patrick A. Riggs)

As a nation, we have become accustomed to paying relatively little for our food as a percentage of overall income. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service, people in the United States spent only 6.6 percent of their income on food at home in 2012 – less than almost any country on Earth! By way of comparison, consider that the average expenditure on food in Brazil is 15.9 percent of a household's income, 24.9 percent in Mexico, and in Vietnam, 35.95 percent of income is spent on food. 

While this cheap food may on the face of it seem like a good thing, it actually comes at an alarming and astronomical cost. This is due to the fact that whenever you buy non-organic food, the price you pay doesn’t actually reflect the true cost of production. The costs of chemical, industrial agriculture are externalized, and society is stuck footing a hefty and unacceptable bill. These include the sky-rocketing costs of health care associated with diet-related illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, compromised immune systems, and learning disabilities; the widespread poisoning of groundwater; the dramatic loss of species, including song birds and butterflies – not to mention more hidden costs, like steady soil erosion. Buying organic food is really an excellent alternative and a sound investment in public health. Organic food doesn’t contribute to these health and environmental burdens, and therefore doesn’t simply shift these costs to other parts of your budget like chemically-grown foods do.

More and more of us are learning that organic is a bargain relative to the unsustainable costs of conventional food, and that’s why demand for organic goods has shown double-digit growth for well over a decade. The Cool Foods Campaign believes that everyone should have access to wholesome, nourishing, organic food. To contribute to that effort, we’ve compiled ten tips to help make buying organic more affordable upfront:

1) Eat in season 

Foods that are in season tend to have more flavor (because they are ripe), more nutrients (because they are freshly picked), and be more affordable (because there’s plenty). It’s a classic case of supply and demand! When things are out of season, scarcity causes prices to go up, even for conventional produce. Of course, what is in season will vary widely, depending on where you happen to live. Nowadays, our food is more well-travelled than most of us, and to quote Farmer Joel Salatin, “Folks, that just ain’t normal.” So let’s cut the jet-setting of table grapes and try to re-learn eating according to the season. (Don’t worry if you don’t remember anything besides the fact that pumpkins are ripe in October – you can pick this stuff up pretty quickly.)

2) Shop at your local farmer’s market and You-Pick 

If you aren’t attending your weekly farmers market, you may be missing one of the best parties in town! We’ve yet to visit a farmer’s market that wasn’t fun, festive, and kid-friendly. Be sure to walk about, sampling the wares to make sure you go home with the yummiest fresh produce. Look for the Certified Organic seal and talk to the farmers about what varieties they grow and how they grow it. Many farmers markets across the country now accept SNAP and WIC benefits, and some even have “double-value” coupon programs.  

You-Pick spots are also worth a time investment, and while they won’t meet your every need, they are great if you need quantity. Their attraction is that you pay a bit less because you are doing some of the work yourself. You-Pick farms are another great family activity. Pull your helpers away from their screens and remind them that apples grow on trees, not in the supermarket. 

3) Join a Co-op or a CSA 

Co-ops are worker- or customer-owned businesses that support their local communities by selling family farm products. (Local Harvest is a great resource to locate the best organic food that is grown closest to you.) 

Alternatively, CSAs (which stands for Community Supported Agriculture) are a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal, organic food directly from a farmer. Typically, joining a CSA means you’ll subscribe to a weekly box of seasonal produce. There are also eggs, meat, and even fish CSAs in coastal communities. CSA boxes have been known to get kids (and grown-ups) excited about trying new veggies! 

4) Buy in Bulk

For those of us mesmerized by colorful labels and pretty pictures that advertise the fountain of youth in every bite, those great big no-frills bins of unpackaged food can be daunting. But there are savings to be had in those bins. Do a little simple math and you’ll soon discover that buying staples like rice, beans, pastas, and oatmeal from the bulk bins is going to save you a pretty penny! All this means you’ll soon be swishing right by the sugar-coated, cartoon-cute boxes of instant oats to the wholesome stuff. Don’t worry, with all that money you save buying in bulk, you’ll be able to afford organic toppings like berries – and who doesn’t love berries?

5) Buying Big In Season and Canning or Freezing for Year Round Eating

That abundant produce you bought in season can be preserved for the lean months (old-fashioned speak for winter). Surely you’ve met people who say things like, “My grandma canned everything: tomatoes, carrots, squash. She made pickles, jams and relish.” Sadly, most of us never learned these skills. Fortunately, do-it-yourself (DIY) projects like canning are experiencing a resurgence of popularity (the upside of the recession!) that community organizations now offer classes so you can learn the basics. You can find canning supplies at hardware stores and supermarkets. 

6) Reduce Your Consumption of Meat & Dairy  

Not only are these expensive, but remember how conventional farming methods take their toll on the environment, the climate, and your health? Well, confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are without question some of the biggest offenders. Replace those animal proteins with legumes (like beans and lentils) and nuts (like sunflower seeds and almonds). If you do buy animal products, be sure to spend the extra money on organic, pasture-raised products that don’t externalize those costs. Some, like grass-fed beef, can be found on the internet.

7) Food Swap or Barter 

Now that you are busy building those relationships at the farmers market, you can try your hand at bartering. Of course, the easiest way to barter is to trade food for food, i.e. “I’ll trade you a pound of my to-die-for heirloom tomatoes for a pound of your to-die-for peaches," or, "I’ll trade you a pie for some of your peaches.” Don’t despair if you don’t have food or cooking skills to trade. You likely have other tricks up your sleeve! Are you a photographer, an electrician, a hairdresser? Do you babysit? Consider trading your useful services for fresh, fabulous, organic food. 

8) Glean 

What is gleaning, you ask? Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after they have been commercially harvested, or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. Thanks to new initiatives like Crop Mobster, this practice is experiencing a resurgence. The internet is your go-to spot for finding a gleaning program near you. We’ve taken middle-schoolers out to glean fields of romaine lettuce with Marin Organic. “Food Forward” in Los Angeles has turned gleaning into a rock-star activity where everybody comes out ahead. Check out their site for inspiration.

9) Instead of Eating out, Host an Organic Potluck 

Eating out may be a nice treat – but it should be a treat, not a way of life, as it gets pricey fast. Throwing potlucks can be just as much fun, and no one hands you a bill at the end of the evening! Regular potlucks can inspire your friends to eat healthy, delicious, organic food too, making it easier for you and your family to stay the course. 

10) Grow Your Own Food!

Have you heard the saying, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money?” It’s true! The key to gardening success is good soil. Once you’ve got that, your plants will do their thing. Don’t have a yard or a patio? Put your name on a waitlist at your local community garden. Meanwhile, the Cool Foods Pinterest boards are full of clever ideas for growing things on decks, roofs, in apartments, even in shopping bags. After all, what could be better for your health, your wallet, and the planet than growing food yourself?

Diana Donlon is the director of the Center for Food Safety's Cool Foods Campaign in San Francisco. Cool Foods is harnessing the energy of the Food Movement to bring new voices and fresh solutions to the table to help stabilize the climate. Diana is a regular blogger for MomsRising, Civil Eats, and the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Spanish-language site, La Onda Verde. Take a bite out of climate change climate by joining Cool Foods on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.

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