They buy rice at a co-op, fruit at farm stands and organic beef on Sundays, when supermarkets cut prices to clear the shelves.
Janelle Fletcher and her husband adopted those strategies to achieve two goals that can seem incompatible: Feeding their family of five organic food and staying within a middle-class budget.
Even as organics move from its health food niche into the mainstream, premium prices remain in many cases. Health-conscious families are left to find creative solutions to eat naturally on a budget. It can involve a bit of hunting and gathering, bulk-buying, and thinking outside the grocery cart.
“We do eat well despite not being wealthy,” Fletcher said. “That’s one thing I don’t quibble about.”
Organic food — produced without pesticides, growth hormones or other additives — accounts for slightly less than 2 percent of U.S. food sales. But the market has been on a healthy growth spurt. Organic food sales almost tripled from 1997 through 2003 to $10.38 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Industry officials expect the double-digit annual growth to continue.
More consumers getting savvy
Mad cow disease scares and concerns about pesticide-laden produce are among the factors cited for organic’s popularity. But an overarching reason appears to be that consumers are more interested about what is in their food, whether it’s carbs, fat, hydrogenated oils or chemicals. Organic advocates offer one more reason: flavor.
“Anybody who tries the organic stuff, you don’t go back,” said Fletcher, whose family lives near Albany, N.Y. “My chicken soup with organic chickens is so much better. The fat is better. It has a better quality.”
Organic food can be costlier for a number of reasons, including higher labor costs and economies of scale. A recent trip to the supermarket showed organic broccoli selling for a dollar more a head than conventional broccoli and organic carrots costing a third more. Organic ribeye steaks were priced for two dollars more a pound.
How to eat organic affordably
Ronnie Cummins of the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association said people always ask him how to eat organic affordably. He points them beyond the supermarket.
Cummins suggests food buying clubs, which allow a bunch of people to pool their purchasing power and buy straight from wholesalers. Liz Welch, Cummins’ sister-in-law, said her family teams up with four others in their Minneapolis neighborhood to order — then split up — cases of organic macaroni & cheese, tomatoes and natural sodas.
Cummins also advocates Community Supported Agriculture, in which people agree to pay a “share” of a farm’s operating expenses. In return they get regular deliveries of whatever crop is coming in, be it peas, patty pan squash or rhubarb.
Alice Waters, the Berkeley, Calif., restaurateur and sustainable agriculture guru, advises people to go straight to the source and buy food at farmers’ markets. She also says people should grow their own, noting that even city dwellers have access to community gardens.
A keystone of many organic strategies is buying grains and other dry goods in bulk. Local food cooperatives are stocked with bins of brown rice, quinoa, cayenne, raisins and nuts. The cooperatives shave costs by having shoppers provide their own packages. Shoppers also can get discounts in return for working a set number of hours each month.
Not an easy lifestyle
While buying in quantity makes economic sense, it requires planning. What can a family cook do with a mound of bulgur? Fletcher made organic meatballs. Waters suggests preserving and pickling when possible, like canning tomatoes when the harvest bounty makes them dirt cheap.
Waters admits the organic lifestyle can be time-consuming but said the canning, pickling and preparation can be an enjoyable activity shared by the family.
And yes, getting kids to eat their grains can be a challenge. But parents report success.
“I’ve convinced my 6-year-old to eat oatmeal and raisins in the morning instead of what he’d like to eat, which would be a breakfast cereal with a lot of sugar in it,” Cummins said.
The good news, in Cummins’ view, is that it’s getting easier to root out organic bargains. He said the organic market is getting big enough so that sales are more common. Holly Givens of the Organic Trade Association said the margin between organic and conventional products has been closing.
Higher prices linger, though. Fletcher recalls passing over tempting organic strawberries for $3.50 a pint after seeing non-organic berries at half the price.
“I could get two of them for the same price, so I didn’t buy (organic),” she said.