Going Green: Organic Food on a Budget

time-tested wisdom for shopping, cooking and saving
organic budget shopping groceries
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Favete

Imagine our lives told in food. My days would look like a series of eggs: dozens and dozens of ways to use and disguise eggs. In the summer my days would look like kale and beans and fish and bright, spicy nasturtium flowers. But my life-in-food didn’t always look this way. Many of my early years were spent on welfare subsidies and food stamps—I don’t remember having ever eaten kale before I was an adult. Those years looked like the contents of a weekly food box that contained a thin, low-fat milk, a block of bright orange cheese product, and a gloppy peanut butter with added hydrogenated oils and sugar.

We need neither words nor pictures to tell the food stories of our lives. We can tell just as much, or even more, about a family and their income levels by their food budget. North Americans are spending less and less on food, based on household income, with Americans spending the least—only 9.7 percent of their annual household income—and Canadians spending 13.4 percent. Even with these statistics in mind, I’m still continually surprised when many of the parents I interview say that food is one of the first things they scrimp on when money is tight. Indeed, many households don’t just trim their food budget when money is tight, but routinely forego higher quality or organic foods even when money isn’t an issue. The challenge is to reframe how we think about the food we’re paying for—what’s in it, what’s not in it, and what it’s truly worth—and how that money can be wisely redistributed.

Chemicals, pollution and food

In the last sixty years, farming has become very dependent on chemicals. According to The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, 10 of the 12 most dangerous chemicals in existence are pesticides yet we are still exposed to them on a daily basis. Even those deemed “safe for use” by both Health Canada and the EPA include “nearly 900 active ingredients, many of which are toxic,” according to the President’s Cancer Panel in a 2010 report. These include pesticides with known or suspected carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting properties. The report also warns that “many of the solvents, fillers, and other chemicals listed as inert ingredients on pesticide labels also are toxic, but are not required to be tested for their potential to cause chronic diseases such as cancer.”

These pollutants end up in the soil, the water, the air, and ultimately, our bodies. In Slow Death by Rubber Duck, authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie survey major international body burden studies, measuring the pollutant levels found in the blood, urine, and/or tissue of humans. The findings show that we’re all polluted: even newborns in North America who had, on average, 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in their umbilical cord blood. The good news is that many first-generation organochlorine pesticides that are now banned, like DDT, are finally starting to decrease in younger generations. The bad news is that many other pesticides, such as the popular organophosphate (OP) pesticides that make up 70 percent of current insecticide use, are found at very high levels in almost every person in North America.

10 of the 12 most dangerous chemicals in existence are pesticides, yet we are still exposed to them on a daily basis

Some are tempted to dismiss the evidence of human pollution by pesticides as being well within the safe limits set by the United States and Canada. But these safe limits aren’t as safe as they appear, according to experts like Eric Darier, an ecological farming senior campaigner for Greenpeace International, who warns that the maximum pesticide residue levels (MRL) allowed in foods are based on what industry is able to achieve, “not the science of what is healthy.”

Pesticides and the causes of ADHD

Children are the most vulnerable, as pound for pound they drink two and a half times more water and eat three to four times more food, absorbing higher concentrations of pesticides and excreting less than adults. Their developing brains and bodies can be irreversibly damaged by pesticide exposure and pesticides can also block the absorption of nutrients necessary for healthy growth. For instance, a Harvard study found kids who had high daily exposures to “safe” organophosphate pesticides were twice as likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There is also research linking pesticide exposure in children and fetuses to a slew of health effects including lower IQ, birth defects, neurological disorders, hormonal system disruptions, brain cancer, and leukemia.

organic produce
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Kolpakova

Organic groceries vs conventional

If organic food is a safer and healthier option, why aren’t we purchasing more of it? One mother I interviewed 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.’” The evidence is, in fact, quite clear on the harmful potential of pesticides on human health, as proven by numerous trustworthy nonprofit and consumer groups including the Environmental Working Group, Greenpeace, David Suzuki Foundation, Organic Consumers Associations, Environmental Defense Fund, Nourishing Traditions Foundation, and even Consumer Reports who are helping to disseminate the information to the public. Perhaps the problem is that nutritional advice can seem confusing and paradoxical. We are literally made up of the foods we eat, yet doctors in the U.S. and Canada get almost no nutritional training in school unless they seek it out on their own, leaving health-conscious individuals to do their own research that can easily lead to overwhelm in the food aisle.

Developing brains and bodies can be irreversibly damaged by pesticide exposure

In both Canada and the U.S., the most popular consumer segments of the organic food market are fresh fruits and vegetables, and many shoppers have heard of the Dirty Dozen list of the most contaminated plant foods to stay away from when choosing non-organic. Yet, what’s missing from that information are all the other food categories that are also contaminated, including meats, dairy, eggs, oils, and even grains. Beef can contain the pesticide residue of a cow’s lifetime of food consumption as well as growth hormones and antibiotics, and chicken is a large contributor of antibiotics in the diet, second only to certain farmed fishes. 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.

For more on the Dirty Dozen check out Reading and Understanding Food Labels.

How much more are health-conscious North Americans willing to spend to eat organic? Consumers routinely say they will buy organic food over conventional when the price differential isn’t great. And while people are slowly beginning to understand that they can expect to pay more for quality food, there is still a steep learning curve. The reality is, real food has a real price.

Consumer Reports did a 2015 cost comparison of organic and conventional foods at several grocery chains and found on average, organic food was 47 percent more expensive. Yet, they also found that prices varied greatly and it was possible to find organic products that were less expensive than conventional products.

Organic meal planning on a budget

Outside of North America, food is a major household expense, surpassing the cost of shelter in some countries. Once upon a time, North American families were the same. Back in 1900, families spent about 40 percent of their income on food. By 1950, it was just under 30 percent. The relatively modern habit of misguidedly saving on food prioritizes cheap—and often empty—calories over actual nutrients. Nutritionists such as Kelly Dorfman, author of Cure Your Child with Food, says she sees middle-class children in her practice who are malnourished because of a lack of understanding of this fundamental point.

And although cheap, we aren’t necessarily frugal: recent findings suggest that Americans now spend nearly half (about 42 percent) of their total food budget eating out. The biggest single expenditure of the at-home food budget falls into the “miscellaneous” category, according to Business Insider, which includes pre-made meals, snacks, and condiments. In 2016, the average American family spent $7,203 on total food eaten, both at home and out of the home, while Canadians fared slightly better, spending more on overall food, at $8,784 per family, but with only 30 percent going to eating out.

The relatively modern habit of misguidedly saving on food prioritizes cheap—and often empty—calories over actual nutrients

Time and again, consumers prove themselves to be susceptible to the adage, “penny wise, pound foolish.” In both Canada and the U.S., people are regularly encouraged to cut their food budget to save money. Every budgeting website I visited when writing this article encouraged just that. Most point out the obvious: eating out less will have the most immediate and dramatic effect on the food budget. Not one pointed out that it perhaps isn't so wise for families to try and spend less on their food, but rather to learn how to spend and consume more sensibly.

The USDA reports that the average American is not eating the recommended three servings of fruit and four servings of vegetables daily. One reason is based on the perception that fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive for some to afford. Indeed, per calorie, produce is relatively expensive, but per nutrient, they are one of the most affordable and most important food sources. Americans spend over $530 a year buying fresh fruits and vegetables, yet they throw out an estimated one-quarter of the produce they buy, which adds up to about $133 a year. Imagine if all of it got used. Or better yet, imagine the same budget of $530 was used to purchase strictly organic produce! The Organic Center determined that 11 surveyed nutrients in organic foods were 25 percent higher compared to their conventional counterpart, which means, theoretically, a family could buy half as many fruits and vegetables, choosing fresher, organic varieties, and get the same nutritional benefit!

Need some more tips on reducing food waste? Head over to Reduce Food Waste and Save Money and 6 Totally Manageable Ideas for Zero Waste Parenting.

cauliflower
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Melpomene

Going Green

There are numerous ways to adjust your expenditures, increase the quality of your food, and still enjoy the lifestyle to which you’re currently accustomed!

Priority-based budget

If your primary goal is to save money, instead of curbing your spending on food, consider making changes to other household expenses. This may include instituting basic energy-saving techniques to save on utility bills or reducing other expenditures. Entertainment costs are another major spending area: television, cellphone, and internet charges can easily outweigh food spending in some households, but adjusting your family’s priorities can help make healthy eating habits more affordable.

Eat out less

Most households spend between one-third and one-half of their food budget eating out (on average, this accounts for four to five meals a week). If you simply dine out half as often, you will save enough to eat entirely organic, continue enjoying some of your fave eateries, and still break even.

Drink water

Just water, please. Skip both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, including the fancy coffee drinks, when dining out.

Leftover meals

When organizing your kids’ lunches, pack one for yourself instead of grabbing a $12 sammie at the local deli. Make extra at dinner and bring home a doggie bag when you do eat out. Leftovers are your friend!

Organize organics

When shopping, a good rule of thumb is to always choose the organic versions of the most commonly contaminated foods first, then upgrade your remaining staples to organic if you can afford it.

Food hierarchy

Make buying organic meat, dairy, and eggs a priority. Then choose organic oils and high-fat products. Next choose foods your family eats a lot of, like apples. Prioritize grains, breads, and things that can’t be rinsed or peeled and which make up the staples of your diet. Finally, rely on the Dirty Dozen to dictate which produce you’ll only purchase if it’s organic.

Brew your own brew

Your household may be spending more than you think on alcohol. Save some serious money by joining a u-brew, where you can make your own beer and wine and hard ciders at a fraction of the price. Some locations even buy local fruits and turn them into small-batch ciders and sparkling wines!

Boozy bonus

Some farmers’ markets now have small wine, beer, and liquor makers selling products all created locally and often for many dollars less than you would normally spend. It’s local, sometimes organic, and you may save money. Or ask for wine or beer or small-batch liquor subscriptions as gifts for holidays.

Eat less meat

Organic dairy and meat can be twice as expensive, or more, than their conventional counterparts, but Consumer Reports counts them among the essentials to buy organic. 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 health and environmental punch, but without needing to spend more.

Best practices

Save big by buying in bulk and freezing (see below). Purchase whole chickens, be a part of a meat or dairy CSA, or even buy a quarter cow or pig that comes butchered and packaged, directly from your local farmer. Be aware that the best meats and dairy from health, nutritional, and environmental perspectives are organic and pastured with access to sunshine and traditional diets. Opt for free-range chicken and eggs, wild-caught fish, and organic grass-fed meats and dairy. Look for the USDA/Canada organic label to ensure your beef is truly being raised with the best practices, including some access to pasture and grass. To ensure the meat is exclusively grass-fed or pasture finished you probably need to know your farmer, as the grass-fed label isn't as well regulated yet. (Grass-feed means fewer pesticide residues, hormones, and antibiotics. It is also considered to be more nutritious and higher in the good fats needed to build healthy brains and bodies.)

Deep freeze discounts

The deeper you go into learning to provide healthier food for your family while spending less, the more obvious the need for a small (or large) deep freeze. Rural foodies that I know will routinely have up to five freezers! For $100 to $300 you can buy a small one.

Freezer frugality

Frozen fruits and vegetables are more nutritious and usually more affordable than their canned alternatives. When you find sales on whole organic chicken, organic frozen spinach, or even organic butter, milk, or cheese, stock up!

Make bone broth

Once you get into making bone broths, soups, or soaking and cooking beans, you can make extra and save. Make ice cubes of broth to enrichen any meal. Or if you have a baby, smash up that night’s dinner and save it in ice cube trays for future meals.

Seasonal storage

Whether it is canning your own tomatoes or making jam to enjoy all winter long, taking advantage of seasonal, local harvests is a delicious and inexpensive way to ensure your family gets all the benefits of the fresh, healthy produce growing nearby.

Preserving food at home

Canning is making a comeback and is a fun way to get friends and neighbours involved. Host a canned goods exchange or have a canning party! Start with recipes that are hard to mess up like tomatoes or applesauce (both also freeze well too!).

Bounteous burden

Too many beans? You can also flash freeze a number of tasty fruits and veggies so their flavour is better preserved. Simply lay washed and dried produce on a baking sheet, pop in the freezer until frozen, then transfer the produce to a freezer-safe container. Treat them the same way you would any bagged frozen veg!

Buy in bulk

Save money by buying your organic staples like oatmeal, rice, beans, and sugar in bulk. Buying a larger size also typically means that less packaging is used than would be involved in purchasing the same amount in conventionally sized packages, therefore less in our landfills. It’s not just whole foods like rice and lentils that you can buy in bulk! Consider buying your favourite frozen foods or packaged staples, like ramen or pasta, in bulk as well.

Jars over cans

Canned goods are full of plasticizers, with fatty and acidic foods leaching the most from the cans, so skip the canned tomatoes and condensed milk and choose the jars.

Part with plastic

Plastic water bottles aren’t just expensive, costing a family of four well over $1,200 a year, they’re also an ecological nightmare, polluting our oceans, and responsible for 1.5 million barrels of oil a year in order to be produced. In contrast, a home water purifier system costs closer to $200. Put the money into a good filter for your home and carry a stainless-steel bottle for drinking.

Look for water quality

Tap water is held to more stringent standards than bottled water, and while you may not require a fancy water system for your home, you may benefit from something more than a filtration pitcher. You can find info on your local tap water quality online or by consulting a local water expert and then customize a system that removes chlorinated organics, fluoride, and other toxins as needed.

Soak up fermentation

Fermentation is an ancient art that both keeps food from going bad and introduces beneficial bacteria to the gut. Buying commercial kombucha, sauerkrauts, and yogurts can get pretty costly, and it’s really easy to learn to make your own. Often recipes will use inexpensive ingredients like cabbage, salt, sugar, water, and leftover fruit scraps.

Simple starters

Tackle easy ferments like sauerkraut, kimchi, ginger “beer”, fruit scrap and apple cider vinegars, and yogurt. They require very few ingredients and don’t need special equipment. Grab a great beginner’s guide like Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. It’ll cost less than a bottle of probiotics and may be even more effective since you’ll be consuming other nutrients that come along for the ride.

Appliance assistance

I cook 21 meals at home most weeks, here on my little island. This means I spend a lot of time cooking, and cleaning up after cooking, while trying to convince little hands to help! There are a lot of appliances that are a waste of money (just go into a thrift store to see which ones are most likely donated shortly after the holidays—quesadilla maker, anyone?), but there are others that I would consider to be essential, especially if you’re looking to make most of your meals from scratch. I would be lost without my dishwasher, electric kettle, and electric pressure cooker—in fact, I use them more than my stove! Others swear by their blenders, food processors, or slow cookers. Investing in good quality appliances that you know you will use and will help make the daily grind of cooking more efficient will save you money in the long run!

Cookbooks and cooking classes

You don’t have to be a natural-born culinary artist or a lifelong foodie—use the myriad of resources available to pick up ideas and tips! A couple of great cookbooks you can thumb through in a pinch are worth their weight in gold: Joy of Cooking, Moosewood, and Nourishing Traditions are all time-honoured classics, full of easy-to-follow, healthy recipes. Or take a cooking class and get inspired!

Quality Over Quantity

When I lived in the city, most of the parents I interacted with found healthy eating overwhelming. There was so much conflicting advice and no one felt confident about figuring out what was truly healthy or how to cook it! Now that I live rurally where there are few restaurants, and groceries carry a whopping “three-ferries-from-the-mainland” surcharge, I find that most people here find healthy eating less daunting. Almost everyone prioritizes fresh, local, and organic, and nobody seems particularly confused about what healthy eating looks like. Most homes have invested in the infrastructure of gardens for food, own the necessary kitchen appliances, and have learned the basics of preservation and fermentation. It reminds me of what food author and thought leader Michael Pollan says: "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."

Perhaps this good advice can be applied to how we budget for our food as well. Our great-grandparents spent nearly 40% of their income on food and savings were found in homemade, local, and fresh. While we’ve made it possible to fill our grocery carts with cheap foods, they come at a high cost to our family’s health and our environment, riddled with pesticides, additives, and preservatives. Foods that are truly healthy for you—the organic apple, pasture-raised cow butter, and kale from your garden—don’t have big marketing budgets designed to persuade consumers with bold new packaging at the expense of the actual nutrition within. I encourage families to defy the cultural pressure to further cheapen the eating experience and instead consider the benefits of strategizing to consume more nutrition and less contaminated food by shopping local, investing in the infrastructure for home cooking, and prioritizing quality over quantity.

And when I start to feel overwhelmed by all the diet fads and new nutrition advice, I think back to my own great-grandmother. She never worried about what was healthy or not, she just made food from scratch and her kids ate it or went hungry. Eating well is not as complicated, or as expensive, as we have been made to believe. It’s simply a matter of making it a priority and making simple choices that allow you to succeed.

For further reading visit ecoparent.ca/extras/SPR20.

You may also enjoy: 8 Healthy, Easy Meal Planning TipsThe Benefits Of Buying Organic and What To Do When You Can't and How to Choose Produce with Fewer Pesticides and Chemicals.