Depending on where you live and how you shop, “frugal organic” may seem either a dilemma or an oxymoron—it’s either frugal or it’s organic, but it cannot be both.
“Organic” remains an anathema at most supermarkets. Artificial and synthetic ingredients, chemical fertilizers and preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and agricultural by-products have made processed, frozen, and packaged foods less expensive and more convenient than all-natural, organically grown raw ingredients. Consider just one symbolic example—macaroni and cheese. The generic box of mac-and-cheese mix sells for about $0.35. Organic pasta, organic butter and cheese, and purified water for boiling the pasta will push the price of your side dish to nearly $7.00. If you have the luxury of splitting the difference, shopping at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Markets, you still pay three times more for organic pasta and cheese than you pay for the low-cost stuff.
Frugalistos, however, have perfected a few strategies and tactics for evening the playing field. They point out that labor and packaging drive costs at super-markets, so that you can bring the cost of organics almost to par with the cost of processed and packaged foods if you buy raw ingredients in bulk and do the processing and cooking yourself. At the bottom line, you trade your time for far better nutrition at competitive cost.
Consumer advocate Aeryn MacNeil explains, “Dishes made from organic ingredients taste better, provide more nutrition, and are more satisfying than junk. In fact, my family eats less and gets more vitamins and minerals from my organic cooking than they would if I served the artificial stuff. The biggest difference is my time. Using all organic ingredients and preparing dishes from scratch, I do end-up spending a couple of hours in the kitchen each day.”
Support your local farmer
Commercial growers and national supermarket chains naturally collude to keep factory-farmed produce considerably less expensive than the organic versions. Commercial growers, of course, enjoy technological advantages and economies of scale: Genetic engineering and relentless use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides increases corporate farms’ yields and their products’ longevity. Mechanization and use of migrant farm-workers keeps harvesting costs low, and many have their own packing sheds and logistics networks that link directly to supermarkets’ supply chains. At the bottom line, a factory-farmed item almost always will cost about half of its organic equivalent.
Of course, the factory-farmed stuff does have a couple of drawbacks—most notably far less taste and far less nutrient value. Until you have tasted “the real” deal, you may not realize just how bland your factory-farmed produce really is. More importantly, nearly three thousand American cities and towns now support farmers’ markets, where you will find farm-fresh organic produce at dirt-cheap prices. Family farmers bring their crops to market on weekends, often selling them directly from their trucks. Nowhere will you find fresher, tastier, more nutritious fruits and vegetables. Many of the farmers’ markets feature other organic products, too: find organic whole-grain bakery goods, organic honey, soaps and shampoos made with organic herbs, and sometimes even organic clothing.
CNN’s new food-oriented site—eatocracy.com—lists more than 1500 farmers’ markets all around the United States, and all of them link to Foursquare—the app for your cell phone, where you can earn a badge that gives you either free products or deep discounts on fruits and vegetables at the peak of their seasons.
Woe unto Detroit. A cautionary tale
When the bottom fell out of the auto industry and huge sections of Detroit went from thriving middle class neighborhoods to ghost towns, all of the big grocery chains closed their stores. Not one national supermarket company has a store in Detroit or its closest suburbs. Because people in the city get most of their food from convenience stores, and because convenience stores do not stock fresh produce, “organic” is not even an idea let alone an option. Although Detroit shows the most extreme example, almost all depressed urban areas share Detroit’s problem.
In order to go green and organic, though, several urban coalitions are collaborating to raze vacant houses, recover the land, and turn it to community gardens. They already have set aside 320 square acres near the city’s center, and the ground will be ready for planting in the spring. Clearly, the initiative solves at least three problems: (1)It reclaims valuable land for public use, improving the urban environment and protecting the value of occupied homes in the surrounding areas. (2)It reduces public health costs by getting people outdoors and active in addition to substantially improving their nutrition. And (3)at the end of next summer when families bring in their harvests, the gardens will reduce their food costs between 30% and 40%. In the next eighteen months, at least a dozen other cities plan to replicate Detroit’s model.
Fertile fields within arms’ reach
The quickest, simplest, healthiest, and most rewarding way to get frugal organics is to grow your own. “Family farming” has taken-on a new definition as thousands of American homeowners have recognized the worthlessness of their backyard lawns, ploughing them under and converting them to orchards and vegetable gardens. Aggressively composting and following other time-honored natural practices, these families produce spectacular fruits and vegetables, and they dramatically reduce their food costs. Just as importantly, real estate agents recently have discovered that productive backyard gardens add substantial value to a home.