Shop Sustainable – Money, pt 2

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Co-op grocery store in Ypsilanti, Michigan

We’ve given you a few tips on how to stretch your food dollars (see Shop Sustainable – Money). This week, we’ll help you determine which local sustainable and/or organic foods you can incorporate into your food budget.

There’s no doubt about it – organic and sustainable food is often more expensive than , industrially raised and overly processed foods. And you are on a budget, so what can you do?

Shopping Choices
First, look at what you’re eating and consider cutting out some of the non-nutritious items you spend money on. No one is saying to cut out everything, but if you’re drinking soda, try tap water. Or try tap water in place of every other can of pop. You could also try cutting out meat one day a week, or be daring and go for two meatless days a week! Meat is usually the most expensive item you buy in the supermarket. Good food advocate Michael Pollan is now extolling the virtues of our sister program Meatless Monday, where you can find recipes for healthy, delicious and inexpensive meatless meals, along with information about the many benefits of reducing meat in your diet. Check out and download their Meatless Monday Recipe booklet.

Now that you’ve looked at your eating habits to see if you can cut back on some expensive items like meat, let’s look at shopping. You’ve decided you want to eat as much local, sustainable and/or organic food as you can, but you simply can’t afford it. We gave many suggestions in our previous post, but some other things you can do include:

Shop in season.

    I know I’ve mentioned this several times, but food is cheaper when it’s in season, so it’s a good thing to remember.

Stay unprocessed.

    The less food is processed, the more nutritious it is and it’s usually less expensive, unless you’re buying overly processed, really non-nutritious stuff. That kind of food might cost less, but it rarely has any significant nutritional value. In general, shop on the perimeter of the store, where you’ll find fruits, vegetables, and whole foods.

Make choices.

    This is a big one. Even I don’t eat 100 percent sustainable/organic all the time. I try to when cooking at home, but I still go out to restaurants that don’t serve sustainable or organic food. And when eating at home, I refuse to pay 6 dollars for 4.4 ounces of blueberries, so I usually go without until they come back into season. It can be hard if you really want the food, but it makes you enjoy it that much more when it’s finally available again in season and at a reasonable price!

Another choice you can make is with the fruits and vegetables you buy. I looked over three shoppers’ guides to pesticides on fruits and vegetables (Environmental Working Group – EWG, the Organic Center – OC and the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the Museum of Natural History – CfB) to find the best and worst choices you can make. The results:

Most Pesticides – buy these organic/sustainable if you can, because they tend to have the highest level of pesticide residues.

Grapes (Imported)

Bell pepper
Broccoli (imported)* (OC)
Green beans
Kale (EWG)
Spinach* (CfB)
Tomatoes* (OC)

Least pesticides – if you have to buy industrially-raised produce, these are your best choices because they have the lowest level of pesticide residues.


Broccoli (domestic)* (EWG, CfB)
Sweet corn
Sweet peas* (EWG)
Sweet Potato
Tomato* (EWG)

*There was a discrepancy with broccoli, peas and tomatoes among the various sources I checked. Broccoli came up low on 2 of the guides and imported broccoli came up as a risk on another. One could assume then that U.S.-grown broccoli is okay to eat – try to stay away from broccoli from other countries.

Peas and tomatoes came up as both good and bad, so I’m not sure what to say about them. If possible,buy organic and/or sustainable, just to be safe.

I have been told that spinach is not as risky as it used to be, but it came up on one list (created in 2004), so I would lean toward sustainable/organic if possible.

According to the Environmental Working Group, scientists agree that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can cause lasting health damage, especially when exposure is in the womb or early childhood. People who eat the most contaminated fruits and vegetables ingest about 10 pesticides each day, even after washing and peeling their produce. Consumers who eat the least contaminated food ingest, on average, fewer than 2 pesticides each day. These studies assume that people wash and peel their food.

If you’re wondering about other foods, try to watch your dairy intake. rBGH (which we talked about last week) is a controversial hormone given to cows to make them produce more milk. Sufficient studies have not been done to prove the drug’s safety on cows or humans. Also, cows raised on industrial farms are more prone to sickness than cows raised on pasture – this usually leads to more antibiotic use, which can create problems with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

If you want to stay away from rBGH, get to know your farmer, or call the dairy company you purchase products from and ask them if any of the cows are given rBGH or any other hormone. And dairy products from the European Union will be free of rBGH. That’s not local but, again, it’s a choice for you to make.

With regard to meat, you don’t have to eat meat at every meal, and you can learn to use the entire animal (such as a whole chicken), so it goes farther, costs less and creates less waste. Organic chickens are expensive, but can be less so when purchased directly from the farmer who raised them. Another alternative is to find a sustainable farmer in your area that raises chickens outdoors on pasture; the poultry will be less expensive than organic, and even though the chickens might not be fed 100 percent organic feed, they can be just as healthy. What you don’t want are chickens raised in factory farm conditions.

Another way to save money is to understand you don’t always have to buy organic. Sustainable can be equally as good, if not better, and can be cheaper. But, with sustainable there is no guarantee that certain production methods are used, so you’ll need to do a little more research to find out what you think is best for you. And, as mentioned above, some fruits and vegetables are safer than others if you continue to buy industrially-raised food.

Spring is here – and that means spring greens. Enjoy a salad today!

Next week, we’ll conclude our section on shopping sustainably and money by talking about our spending habits.

(Diane Hatz is the Founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide. This is the eleventh installment in her series Sustainable Table’s Guide to Good Food.)

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