Here's the ultimate cheat sheet on affordable ways of obtaining organic and locally produced food:
- Farmers' Markets --Farmers' Markets are obviously an amazing option, both from nutritional and from frugal standpoints. Produce has the most nutritional value right after being picked, so food derived from local sources has the benefit of being much fresher then grocery store produce. If you're not sure whether the farmer uses organic agricultural methods, ask! That's the benefit of buying your produce straight from the source... if you are curious about where exactly it's coming from, it's very easy to strike up a conversation and find out. If you aren't sure where to find a Farmers' Market in your area, the website Local Harvest can be incredibly helpful to point you in the right direction.
- Buying direct from the farmer -- I'm listing this one separately from Farmers' Markets because Markets rarely seem to have meat available... and really, it might seem a little sketchy to be buying meat out of a cooler in the dead of summer anyway. You can find ranchers in your area on the Eat Wild farmers' directory, and buy antibiotic- and hormone-free meat in bulk directly from the source, either picking it up yourself or having it shipped to you. This is another option I haven't been able to try myself yet, but its from lack of storage space rather than lack of interest. Cheaper, local, and better-for-you... all around a great option.
- International markets -- If you live in Atlanta, you're in luck; our massive international market is well stocked with affordable organic options on pretty much every item in the place. I don't know if all international markets "do" organic, but I've heard that they're pretty consistently a great place for cheap spices as well. At ours, you can buy about three times the amount of grocery store spice for about $.5o, and with an amazing selection to choose from too... so its definitely something worth checking out! A google search by city should be sufficient if you don't know where to look for your local international markets.
- Dirty Dozen / Clean Fifteen -- It's very helpful to me to be able to know that I can buy certain non-organic produce with a fairly clear conscience -- I definitely stick to the "Dirty Dozen" / "Clean Fifteen" standards as much as possible to limit my expenditures. Initially I was gearing into buying even that much gradually, to ease the transition for my wallet, but as my enthusiasm for chemical and pesticide free produce has grown it's more or less just become habit.
- Eating seasonally -- Eating seasonally allows you to know ahead of time what will be available at the farmers' market so you can plan accordingly. What's even better, grocery stores will often switch to local (if not organic) options when the produce is in season. Currently the Krogers in my area are advertising Georgia-grown watermelon and corn; last month it was Georgia-grown blueberries. Being aware of what's in season makes for an easy way to limit your carbon footprint and ensure the freshness of what you're buying, while encouraging chain stores to support the local economy. This seasonal produce guide is a good place to start, and Real Simple magazine has a version too.
- Grow it yourself! -- The mixed results of my own on-the-job-learning experience with gardening has been well-documented already, but no one can deny that growing your own food is by far the most affordable source of organic produce! And fortunately for you, I can now point you in the right direction for a wealth of information on getting started with container and backyard gardening. I'll start with Trevor from the Simple Dollar and his advice on gardening even in an apartment, then send you over to Apartment Therapy for a deluge of archived articles there. We'll end with a huge index of resources at the Organic Gardening and Homesteading site to fill in any gaps. Keep in mind that urban gardening can look any way you like, from DIY upside down tomato planters to growing a crop of potatoes out of a trash can. The process is fun, creative, and not too overwhelming if you start small, and you'll find that it's surprisingly satisfying to eat food you've produced yourself.
- Watch for deals -- The idea of watching for deals probably would seem like a no-brainer, right? For most people, a tight budget will naturally translate into keeping an eye on what's for sale, and maybe checking some websites for coupons too. What I mean more precisely though, is watching for deals on organic items in places you wouldn't normally expect to find them. Just last week Publix had Ragu pasta sauce buy-one-get-one-free, and that included their organic pasta sauce as well. Add in a coupon from a booklet recently available for free in the store recently, and I was able to buy organic pasta sauce for a mere .35 each. Another example would be recently when Kroger had Seattle's Best coffee on sale for a flat $5... including the organic version. Throw in a printable $1.50-off coupon, and you have yourself a high-quality, affordable, pesticide-free caffeine buzz. More and more often these days, companies are offering organic options right alongside the original product. When those brands go on sale, capitalize on it!
- CSAs -- "Community Supported Agriculture," generally referred to as CSAs, are set up so that members of the local community pay a lump sum to buy shares of a farmer's harvest, receiving weekly boxes of a wide variety of produce. This is a great option for a large family, or to split with another family, but not one I have tried personally yet. If anyone has tried it I would be very curious to know whether the cost ends up being a better value than buying a la carte at a Farmer's Market or similar, so if you have experience here please pass it on! You can locate convenient CSAs in your own community on the Local Harvest website if you're intrigued.
- Freeze it! -- When you find organic produce on a good sale, consider whether you can freeze it. This tends to be easier for fruit then for vegetables, which usually have to be first blanched (dipped in boiling water and then rinsed in cold before they can begin to cook) to preserve the enzymes and prevent discoloration, and the loss of flavor and nutrition. Henry's Market has a good collection of tips regarding freezing produce, and a UK site on food gardening has great step-by-step instructions on blanching and storing vegetables by type. I can see this being a great option for surplus produce from a CSA or just stocking up on seasonal items, and I promise... it's actually pretty simple.