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Smart shopping habits for buying organic foods on a budget 

Food Bank

Buying organic foods on a tight budget is doable—it just calls for a little creative thinking and some smart shopping habits.

Creating healthy, balanced and affordable meals for your family can be a challenge, especially when organic foods can cost as much as 50 to 100 percent more than conventional foods. But with a little imagination and a bit of legwork, it is possible to buy organic on a budget.

Before making any purchases, know what you are buying as labels can be misleading and easily misinterpreted. Products marked as “free-range,” “hormone free” or “natural” are not necessarily organic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) labels food “organic” when 95 percent of its ingredients are organic; that is, free of synthetics, pesticide residues, hormones and antibiotics.

Once clear about labels, head first to the produce department—fresh fruits and veggies are an excellent place to spend your “organic dollars,” as they provide the most nutritional value. If you can’t afford to buy everything organic, the Environmental Working Group has a list of 12 fruits and vegetables likely to have the fewest pesticide residues—those foods may not be worth the added cost of buying organic. The so-called “dirty dozen” list—12 fruits and veggies that, when conventionally grown, are loaded with chemical residues—can help inform your choices, too. In other words, limit your organic produce purchases to the items with the highest potential for pesticides.

Better still, stop shopping for organics at conventional grocery stores—you will pay top dollar there. Instead, go to farmers’ markets, health food stores, specialty stores, co-ops or gourmet delis where there is more of a selection and price range. Also, determine the distance you are willing to travel and compare prices at different vendors. A little research can go a long way toward savings over time.

Probably of greatest importance is eating foods when they are in season and, therefore, plentiful. Where there is abundance, there is market competition, which brings prices down. Shopping at farmers’ markets ensures in-season selections and sometimes farmers will give discounts for buying in bulk—a good plan when on a strict budget. Additionally, go for the misshapen, oddball or slightly bruised produce that, when trimmed, is just as good—don’t pay more for “perfect.”

Buying dry goods in bulk is an especially good idea, as they keep for months on end and, in most cases, are a much better deal. Be sure to compare packaged counterparts and do the math.

Consider joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, many of which accept weekly or monthly payments; you may even be able to buy a half-share, which will add to your cost savings. Alternatively, join an organic food cooperative or a community garden in your neighborhood—the Field to Fork Network is an excellent resource for locating gardens. Buying clubs are another option—you may be able to get 30 to 40 percent off retail prices. Buying-club members purchase food and other organic products in bulk and then split the order.

If possible, grow your own organic produce. Start with easy-to-grow sure bets like carrots, radishes and beets. (Seeds are very inexpensive.)

Some organic foods can even be ordered over the Internet. The GreenPeople directory from the Organic Consumer Association is a good place to begin your online search for affordable organic foods.

A few super simple tips include: freezing surplus goods (this is wise if you are part of a crop-share program and have a hard time keeping up with your share); planning your menus in accordance with either specially advertised, discounted items from your local grocery or with the week’s CSA bounty (many times farmers are happy to provide recipe ideas); eating more vegetarian meals—organic meat can be expensive; and comparing prices between fresh and frozen, dried and canned varieties of organic foods—though fresh is best, the idea is to get away from pesticides, however your budget allows.

Finally, keep in mind not all items need to be 100 percent organic to be safe, environmentally friendly and affordable. Buying locally grown, in-season food is your best bet in assuring all three bases are covered.

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