Adapted from an article by Kathryn Benedicto, online activist, and thrifty consumer.
It is no secret that organic products have a reputation for being more costly. In fact, some people use the price premium to justify branding organic consumers as elitist, a charge that's even been leveled in the pages of the Sierra Club magazine. To those of us who are simply trying to make healthier choices about what goes into our bodies, our air, our soil, and our water, that's a real shame. What we should all realize is that there are ways for everyday people to trim their organic grocery bill and rein it in from being a budget-buster to something that's more within reach.
One useful piece of advice I've heard is to "buy bulk." Visit the bulk bin section of the grocery store - the bins with loose flour, rice, etc. that you scoop into a bag and pay for by the pound. Not all grocery stores have a bulk bin area or carry organic items in it, so you may need to shop around. At my local store, I've realized big savings by purchasing staples like organic flour, dried beans, pasta, cereal, peanut butter, and cooking oil from the bulk bin section. An eco-friendly bonus is that less packaging is used for foods sold in the bulk bin section. I sometimes go the extra mile and bring my own clean, reused plastic bags to the store so that no new packaging is required.
When it comes to choosing between organic and conventionally grown foods, one budgeting tip I recently learned is to buy organic when it counts the most. Some foods have higher pesticide contamination rates, and for those, the organic version gets a higher priority in my grocery budget. For low-pesticide foods, the conventional version may be an acceptable, and perhaps less expensive, choice. Washing conventional foods thoroughly and peeling them may further reduce pesticide intake, although peeling also removes some nutrients and does not eliminate pesticides absorbed internally by the plant. The Environmental Working Group has compiled a list of the "Dirty Dozen" fruits and vegetables with the highest risk of pesticide exposure: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. (Soft fruits in particular receive multiple cosmetic fungicide treatments to preserve their appearance during shipping.) EWG's list of least contaminated fruits and vegetables includes asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwis, mangos, onions, papaya, pineapples, and sweet peas. (You can download EWG's handy wallet card as a reminder while shopping.)
Processed foods can have different levels of contamination, too. According to this article, beer and chocolate are more likely to be contaminated (oh, the tragedy!), but the likelihood for orange juice is lower, since juice oranges don't need to be treated to look perfect. So conventional orange juice may be a reasonable and economical choice for your breakfast table.
Consider a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription from an organic farm
Subscribers receive a weekly box of produce directly from the farm, cutting out the distribution costs. Smaller households may have the option of buying a half-share subscription, or they can split the cost with another family by sharing each week's box or taking turns picking it up every other week.
Eat locally and in-season
Produce is cheaper and tastier during the peak of the growing season when it's abundant and doesn't have to be shipped from the other side of the country (or planet, as happens during the northern hemisphere's winter). Outside of the growing season, canned, frozen, or dried foods may be more economical than fresh.
Prepare organic meals from scratch
This is much more economical than organic processed foods and convenience foods. Some people even go to the lengths of making their own organic soy milk and tofu and grinding their own flour from organic grains. But if you're pressed for time like the other 99% of us, consider cooking with simple recipes that don't require a lot of ingredients or prep/cooking time.
Join or form a food co-op or buying club
They frequently carry organic goods at lower prices, and some co-ops give an additional discount if you volunteer to work there an hour or two per month. A buying club is a smaller-scale arrangement where you band together with friends and neighbors and order in quantity directly from an organic distributor or grocer. Search for food co-ops near you, or learn how to start your own.
Base your meals on cheaper staples that are lower on the food chain
Use organic beans, rice, and other grains. They cost less and also have health and environmental benefits over meals centered on ingredients like meat and cheese.
Organic food packages, newspapers, store flyers, and websites of organic products that you use. Another trick is to type the brand or product name, together with the word "coupon", into your favorite search engine and see what comes up.
Weigh the short-term costs of organic food against other long-term costs
Many aficionados of organic food view it as an investment that will save them a lot of money down the road on health care. From a broader perspective, the environmental degradations caused by conventional agriculture, such as pesticide exposure and water supply contamination, incur real, dollars-and-cents costs in areas like infrastructure and public health. These costs are eventually borne by society (i.e., taxpayers like you and me).