Nearly all frugal cooks struggle with the "organic foods" question. We all want to eat healthy, environmentally friendly food, but is the significant extra cost of organic food really worth it?
I've got good new for you. You can capture almost all of the benefits of going organic without paying up for inflated organic food prices. All you have to do is make a few minor changes in how you purchase and handle the produce you already buy.
1) Don't think organic, think local.
When we think about the benefits of organic food, the environmental impact of pesticides usually comes to mind first. However, there is an even bigger negative environmental impact embedded in your produce that most shoppers don't even consider: transport costs. Transport costs drive up the both the price and the carbon footprint of your food. If you can source a meaningful portion of your food from farms within 100-200 miles of your home, you will save money and have a positive impact on the environment.
2) Don't assume that food lacking an organic label is grown unethically or unhealthily.
Many farmers find it extremely burdensome to meet all the government requirements to qualify for organic labeling. If you take a bit of time to visit with the growers and vendors at local farmer's markets in your area, you may find they grow their food more sustainably and responsibly than the letter of the law.
On the other hand, if you insist on having an official-looking little "organic" sticker on your produce, you'll quite often pay a 50-100% premium, and yet your food may still be trucked in from thousands of miles away with a significant carbon footprint. Don't fixate on a little magic sticker. Instead, find opportunities to buy local and support responsible food growers in your region.
3) Local means in season and cheap.
Everybody knows that in-season produce is the cheapest produce. Which brings us to an enormous and underappreciated advantage of going local: when you buy your produce locally, you're guaranteed that all your fruits and veggies will be in season--because that's the only time they grow! Your produce will always be at its cheapest and most plentiful.
Unfortunately, consumers increasingly expect to see tomatoes, apples, citrus and many other fruits and vegetables available year round in their grocery stores. And those consumers who fixate on magic organic stickers and who want to buy out-of-season produce are simply asking to be separated from their money.
Don't get fooled by the phony reality of your grocery store. It's not normal, quite frankly, for a North American shopper to buy apples in the spring and citrus fruit in the late summer (and vice versa for my readers Down Under). Instead, take advantage of seasonal foods as they appear in your grocery store over the course of the year. You'll pay significantly less and you'll enjoy higher quality food.
4) For many fruits and vegetables, the benefits of going organic are negligible.
Many fruits and vegetables, because of their fundamental structure, are equally healthy whether they're grown organically or not. Fruits and vegetables with thick rinds or peels (melons, grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, etc.) will be well-protected from any pesticides because you remove the rind before eating. Likewise, fruits and veggies that you peel or husk (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, corn, onions, garlic, etc.) will have several layers of protection between the food and any pesticides.
Furthermore, many sturdy vegetables (turnips, beets, collards, kale, parsley, etc.) don't require much in the way of pesticides, simply because they are already bug resistant and extremely hardy.
Finally, with fruits or vegetables where you eat the skin (apples or green bell peppers, etc.), just take care to wash the produce carefully with a scratchy sponge and warm soapy water. This will eliminate any potential pesticides from the food, allowing you to eat it entirely safely.
Don't buy organic just to buy organic! You can get most of the benefits--and avoid all of the extra costs--by following these four simple tips.
Readers, what solutions would you add to the conversation? Do you pay extra for organic produce? Why or why not?
A different version of this post ran several months ago in the Tech Savvy Mama blog.
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