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Making "Cents" of Organics

When I asked the parents in my workshop: “When money is tight, do you stop buying organic foods?” they looked around guiltily. Then, the lightbulb went off in my head: “How many of you prioritize organic food even when money isn’t tight?”  Only a few hands shot up.

“Why don’t more Americans eat organic?”

Of course, the why is obvious.  Organic food is expensive.  Or at least Americans think it is. The other issue, however, is lack of information. One woman put it quite succinctly: “I asked my doctor how important organic is for my baby and he said, ‘The evidence still isn’t clear.’  What I realize now is that he meant, ‘I haven’t read the evidence, so I don’t know.’”

This woman has it right.  The evidence is all too clear: pesticides in foods have been linked by many, many credible scientific studies and extensive research to obesity, autism, cancer, birth defects and neurological problems in children. Why don’t people in America know this? Well, some do: organics is a large and growing industry (growing about 20% a year before recession and 5% after).  Others still see organic as too expensive, not for them, or as not really worth it.  Some of this comes from within the organic industry where the language of local and organic can get confusing and conflated and some from the government and industry groups that are trying to protect American farmers but often at the expensive of American consumer health.

Consumer Reports, the bastion of conservative (and I mean that literally, not politically) advice on how to get the most value for your money, helps us to understand does it really cost more to buy organic. They say that organic produce can cost up to 50% more than conventional and meat and dairy 100% more HOWEVER they also say it is WORTH IT to pay more for the organic option whenever buying meat and dairy, the most contaminated fruits and vegetables, and ALL baby food.

Is organic food really more expensive?

Understanding the American base-line on food spending
The amount a family spends on food varies significantly from family to family. In the U.S. we have a hard time just knowing what is the average. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that a family spends about 12.5% of total expenditures on food, while the Department of Agriculture put the figure at under 10%. Online budgeting sources suggest that it is far more likely that a family puts closer to 15% (or more)  of overall spending toward food.

At any of these amounts, food is cheap in America. We spend less on food than our counterparts anywhere in the world.

Though cheap, we aren’t necessarily frugal: recent findings suggest that Americans now spend half of their total grocery budget eating out.  The average person eats out 4 times a week.  In 2004 (when food prices were less than now) that accounted to about 1,000 per person.

The USDA also tells us that the average American is NOT eating the recommending 3 servings of fruit and 4 servings of vegetables daily.  One reason they assume this is true is because of the perception that fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive. Indeed, per calorie they are relatively expensive, but per nutrient they are one of the most affordable and most important sources.  As well, the average US household throws out nearly ¼ of the fruits and vegetables they buy. That adds up to about $500/year.

What does this mean about the costs of organic?
If Americans spend 50% of their food budget eating out and waste $500 worth of fruits and vegetables a year, there is a lot of room to SAVE even in the very SMALL American food budget.

Produce purchased locally is likely to last much longer than store bought AND local, organic produce has higher nutrients. Thus, buying organic and local has the potential to be both the healthy option and the best value option. (The Organic Center reviewed 236 studies to determine that for 11 surveyed nutrients organic foods were 25% higher compared to conventional.)  There are ways to prioritize organic and a budget. It will save you money on your health and it might even be able to save you money on your budget.

Ways to eat organic and STILL save on the food budget

1. Eat out less. Eating out once LESS a week, will save the average American 1/8 of their food budget.  That can be more than $4,000 a year for your family. (My calculations actually put the number much  higher based on what Chicagoans pay on average to eat in a restaurant.)

2. Don’t over-buy. It would stand to reason that if organics foods are 25% more nutritious that could dovetail nicely with our optimistic over-buying of fruits and vegetables (throwing out 25% each week), to suggest we can rationalize eating fewer by eating better.

3. Buy seasonally and locally (join a CSA or shop the farmer’s market). Consume Reports has a caveat to their information about the cost of organic produce. They say that if bought locally and in season, that organic fruits and vegetables might not be any more expensive at all.  Indeed, a person can save $528 a season by joining a CSA and break even with an organic delivery box over the price of conventional produce.  So, that means getting farm-fresh, organic produce for less than the conventional would cost.

THE GREEN MAMA’s NUMBERS:  CSAs typically cost from $200 (half share) to $500 (for a large, super deluxe share with perks like flowers, eggs, or other extras) for about 22 weeks.   Organic delivery boxes tend to range from $15 (small) to $40 (large)/week.
The USDA calculates that it costs about $2.50 for an adult to get 3 servings of fruit and 4 of vegetables/day.  Thus about $40 for a family of 4/week.  A CSA delivers higher quality and better food for an est. savings of $24/week($528/season). Organic delivery boxes will give you better quality for about the same price as the grocery store.

4. Eat less meat, drink less milk, buy better, use all
. Dairy and meat can be even more expensive when purchased organic, but Consumer Reports counts it among the essentials to buy organic.  Part of the reason is that conventional meat can
be irradiated, fed artificial growth hormones, and given regular antibiotics (and probably is) but doesn’t need to be labeled. Soon, the same will likely be true for cloned meats as well.  Many pesticides accumulate in the fat content of animals so when you consume conventional meat and dairy, you get a concentrated source of those chemicals.

The BEST meats and dairy from a health and nutrition and environmental perspective are organic and come from grass-fed cows. The organic label does not guarantee grassfed (look for beef labeled grass fed).  You will pay more for products from organic, grass-fed cows (Consumer Reports says about twice as much).  You can save by finding a meat or dairy cooperative like a CSA or buying direct from a local farmer at your farm market.  You can also save by buying in bulk.  Get a whole chicken, cut off the parts to use for different meals and use the carcass for broth.  Eating less meat is a great way to save planetary resources. Combine that with eating only local and organic, and you will pack a major helath and environmental punch, but without needing to spend more.

5. Know the most important foods to buy organic. Always buy the most contaminated foods organic and the rest get organic if you can afford it. Know the better alternatives for when you can’t find an affordable organic option. The Environmental Working Group’s top most contaminated fruits and vegetables are:  apples, bell peppers, carrots, celery, collard greens, cherries, grapes, lettuce, kale, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, spinach, and strawberries. And when buying meat, dairy, and all baby food.

6. Save money on baby food by making your own or shopping outside the baby food aisle. Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of pesticides. They eat and drink more per body weight than adults and are less able to detoxify so even small concentrations of chemicals can have major impacts.  Organic is essential for children, but you can save ALOT of money by buying less packaged baby food.  Make your own from fresh fruits and vegetables when in season or organic frozen when not.  Bulk can also save: regular organic apple sauce will cost less than individually packaged apple sauce marketed for baby.

7. Buy in season, on sale, or from the farmer and freeze or can. Whether it is canning your own tomatoes or simply getting a great sale on organic milk, you can put both by. We freeze our milk regularly (just remember to pour some off so you don’t burst the container) and freezing or canning tomatoes is having a come-back.  Both can save you big money!

8. Buy in bulk. Buying oatmeal, rice, beans, and other staples organic and in bulk can save you money over smaller packaged amounts of the  conventional product.

9. Give up the bottled water habit!
Tap water is held to more stringent standards than bottled water. Plastic from bottled water is responsible for 1.5 million barrels of oil a year.  Buying bottled water for a year would cost the family of 4 well over $1200.  A home water purifier system would cost less than $200.  Even occasional water bottle use  can add up. Put the money into a good filter for your home and carry a stainless steel bottle for drinking.

2 responses to “Making "Cents" of Organics”

  1. […] organic. When making trade-offs between your budget and organic, prioritize meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, soy, grains, oils, all the […]

  2. Linda McGurk says:

    Lots of great advice here, Manda! It’s also really interesting to compare the price of organic whole foods with processed foods, which are a staple of the standard American diet. For example, when you compare the price of Lunchables with a homemade, organic lunch, the homemade option comes out on top.