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Smart Organic Choices for Limited Budgets

There are many reasons why consumers choose organic over conventionally-grown food, but there’s usually one reason why they don’t—cost. Organics can run 10 to 100 percent higher than conventionally grown, throwing all health, taste, and environmental concerns out of the grocery basket. Although savvy farmers’ markets and comparison shopping can yield organics that are close in price to non-organics, a tight budget might still require selective purchases. So, if there are limited amount of organic dollars to spend at the store, where should they go?

First Off: What Is Organic?
We may be familiar with the small green and white “USDA Certified Organic” label, but do we really know what it means? According to the National Organic Program, organic producers cannot use synthetic chemicals (e.g. herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers), sewage sludge, bioengineered organisms, or radiation on their crops. No antibiotics or hormones are used in livestock production and animals are supposed to be given access to outdoor space and fed organic feed. Products that meet these requirement and have at least 95 percent organic ingredients can use the USDA green and white organic seal.

Organic agriculture also strives to promote and enhance biodiversity, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, and optimize the health of soil, plants, animals, and people. However, as organic becomes more widespread and industrialized, the last part of the equation has become increasingly distorted. While organic used to be produced by mainly small, local farms, it’s now part of the agro-industry. With places like Wal-Mart and large supermarket chains carrying organics, the low-impact, small-scale organic farming is increasingly becoming factory scale with products trucked thousands of miles to where we buy it.

This means that organics are bound to become cheaper, but until then, here’s where you should spend you money.

Meat, Milk, Poultry, Eggs
Mainstream livestock production uses a host of synthetic helpers to increase yield. Cows and chickens are treated with antibiotics to prevent infection arising from crowded conditions and to improve weight gain; hormones are used to increase growth and production rates.

Organic is beneficial in a variety of ways. Some studies have linked antibiotic use in animals to antibiotic-resistant pathogens in humans; no antibiotics are used in organically grown beef. Pesticides (from feed) can also accumulate in fat, so organic butter, cheeses, and high fat meats are a good choice. Consumer Reports also notes that because organic livestock can only be fed organic feed, we reduce the risk of getting mad-cow disease.

In terms of environmental issues, organic is a good option, but it doesn’t always ensure cows are munching on grass in a big pasture. The animals are not treated with hormones or antibiotics, but with the rise of organic agro-business, they are often confined to small spaces and eat grain, in addition to or replacement of, grass. If you can, look not only for organic, but grass-fed and sustainably raised, ideally by a small farm nearby.

The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit research organization, looked at USDA and FDA data and came up with a list of fruits and vegetables that contain the highest number and concentration of pesticide residues, taking into account eating and peeling habits. From this, they compiled a “dirty dozen.” These are the top offenders; in other words, fruits you should try to buy organic:

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Imported Grapes
  • Pears

Similarly, they found these vegetables ranking high in residues:

  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Celery
  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes

Don’t Fret on These
At the bottom of the EWG’s list are those fruits and vegetables that don’t have a lot of pesticide residue or are items we commonly peel, thereby reducing exposure. If price is an issue, don’t worry about buying these items organic:

  • Bananas
  • Kiwi
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet Peas (Frozen)
  • Mango
  • Pineapples
  • Sweet Corn (Frozen)
  • Avocado
  • Onions.  

According to Consumer Reports, there are no organic certification procedures in place for seafood. Many fish can contain high levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and mercury, so the organic label is moot. They also contend that buying organically-labeled cosmetics is a waste because almost all cosmetics are made primarily of chemicals, not plant products. 

Can You Do It Cheaply?
Though you may have to choose what organics to buy, there are ways to incorporate more sustainably grown and organic items into your diet:

  • Buy directly from the source—at farmers’ markets—is one way to increase the value of your dollar and sometimes get good deals. Check out Local Harvest to find farmers’ markets in your area.
  • An inexpensive, convenient way to get your organics is to join a Community Supported Agriculture service. A box of locally grown, seasonal, usually organic produce is delivered to your doorstep or ready for pickup and contains an array of fruit, vegetables, flowers, and sometimes eggs. CSAs support local farmers and help take the shopping indecision off you. You can also find a CSA in your area on Local Harvest.
  • Try to eat seasonally. Rather than buying organic peaches in January, which were most likely grown in another climate or with an extensive amount of energy, try looking for the foods that are meant to be around during that time of year. They are easier to grow and will most likely be less expensive.
  • Grow your own.

Another way to think about organic, locally-grown food is that (sometimes) you’re paying a premium for quality, environmental stewardship, taste, and reduced exposure to synthetic chemicals—and that might be worth it.