Healthy Eating: The Sequel

By Sarah Baughman on 2 April 2008 11 comments

A while back, I wrote about the conundrum of wanting to eat healthy but finding that most healthy choices cost more than less healthy choices. My post, entitled “Healthy Eating: It’ll Cost You!” was based on a New York Times article and on my personal experiences trying to shop wisely in rural America. I received a range of responses—many people seemed to agree that the American poor face a true dilemma when it comes to eating wisely. Some pointed out that I should just head to Trader Joe’s or a local ethnic market to save money. I don’t blame those people for not realizing that we don’t have Trade Joe’s or a local ethnic market. Sometimes when you’re used to living with those things, you forget they’re not everywhere.

My friends in more metropolitan regions of the state have Trader Joe’s, as well as a nifty place called Plum’s that seems based on the same idea as Trader Joe’s, and a smattering of other small, reasonably priced “healthy-and-organic-on-the-cheap” options around town. Here, in sum, are my grocery options within thirty miles of my small town, whose economy, for what it’s worth, is largely stimulated by tourism and whose local residents are rarely as wealthy as the vacationers who flood the place in summer and winter. I’ve listed the stores in ascending order according to price:

• WAL-MART—you all know this one. Rock-bottom prices and questionable company policies all around. I know people who drive 20 miles to shop here.
• THE REGULAR GROCERY STORE—a regional grocery chain with decent food selection, where you’ll pay more for the same items you get at Wal-Mart.
• THE FAMILY-OWNED GROCERY STORE—a small family-owned grocery with locations in four small towns. Decidedly more expensive than Wal-Mart.
• THE FOOD CO-OP—a well-stocked food co-op with plenty of healthy, but inevitably premium-priced, organic and local options.

Come summer, of course, all of this changes; I live in a beautiful, agriculturally rich area, and the farmer’s markets are unmatched. But from November to May, you’ve got those four choices. I'm sure the choices are similar throughout much of small-town America.

I think it’s really all about short-term versus long-term thinking. Am I willing to pay one-and-a-half times as much, or even over twice as much, for groceries in short-term, if I know that by doing so I can support local businesses in the long-term? For those living close to or below the poverty line, short-term thinking is sometimes the only option, which is why these corporate giants can be so detrimental to our communities. When given the choice to pay $3 or $1.75 for a loaf of bread, there are plenty of people who simply have to pay $1.75.

If you’re somewhere in the middle, check out my…

• If you have a food co-op in your area, ask them for a coupon book. Most co-ops put one out monthly, and clipping coupons can offer amazing savings on regular grocery items. Most co-ops will also trade volunteer hours for discounts: volunteering just four hours a month at my co-op will earn you 10% off your total purchase every day of that month.
• Call your Chamber of Commerce to see if there are any incentive programs available for shopping at local businesses. In my town, anybody who works for a local business can get a Chamber Discount Card, giving them deals when they shop locally. It’s meant to encourage local businesses to support one another.
• Start small. Choose one or two items you want to buy organically or from a locally owned store each week. Maybe you’ll decide to buy organic milk, or local apples, or maybe you’ll just get a cup of coffee at the local shop instead of Starbuck’s (which we don’t have either, by the way…and I don’t miss it. Our little coffee shop is just what I need!). A friend of mine recently said she started out just buying one item a week, as well as whatever was on sale, at our food co-op. “Then, I just started buying more items there each week, and now that’s pretty much the only place I shop for my family,” she said. “I’ve made it work.” This might not be within economic reach for everyone, but you never know.
• Check your budget and weigh your priorities. Are there places where you could adjust in order to allow you to shop locally for a few items? I rarely buy a $3 latte anymore, and I rent movies rather than going to the theater, and the extra money in my pocket gives me a little extra to cover, say, the difference between shopping at a local grocery versus Wal-Mart. 

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Philip Brewer's picture

Food is too important to outsource it all to the lowest bidder.

Good thoughts on finding the balance between that and paying yuppy specialty-item prices for your whole diet.

Guest's picture

I just finished Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, and realized that I can save so much more money by buying "real food." By buying fresh, real veggies/fruits and avoiding the center of the store, I am eating healthier and saving a lot of money, too! I could just as easily go to Whole Foods or TJ's and get organic, and maybe I should, but for now I am relishing in not eating chemicals, substitutes and refined grains. It's definitely more effort to make a fresh meal every day, but so rewarding. Try shopping the perimeter of the store, get the real stuff, and cut out the processed, packaged and unhealthy food in the middle. I am saving about $100 every two weeks because of it!

Guest's picture

I too live in a rural area with limited grocery options. We don't even have the local food co-op. One option you don't mention is buying lots of local produce at the farmer's market when things are in season and preserving it for later. Even if you don't want to try canning, freezing is fairly simple and a great way to put away a lot of veggies and fruits to use later in the year. Most counties have an Extension Agent who is happy to provide information on food preserving.

Guest's picture

I want to also suggest the option of joining your local CSA - Community Sponsired Agriculture - subscitption service for seasonal, local produce. You can go here: to find out more about the programs and where a local one is for you.


It supports local agriculture and is a great way to eat locally and truly fresh from the field produce.  Prices vary and so does selection from farm to farm but it is pretty reasonable.

Guest's picture

Interesting, even though I pay more per item at the local grocery and local organic store, my bill has dropped overall. Why? Because when I'm not shopping at a mega-store (Wal-Mart), I don't get all the impulse buys and my family isn't tempted by the "good deals." Plus we buy much less junk food, and that helps lower our overall grocery bill as well.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I am so with you on the rural thing. While it is a blessing to live where we live, it can also be a burden when it comes to issues like this. Linsey Knerl turned me on to the Amazon option where you can get some organic items. After using the free super saver option a few times and waiting for a hellishly long time for our agave nectar, we finally dished out the 80 bucks for the Amazon prime. Twice as much (about) as our Sam's Club membership, but that is four hours away and would involve an overnight hotel stay unless we happen to going through anyway (which we did recently for the first time in months). Now stuff comes in two days and we have ordered things like dried cranberries / cherries / blueberries, agave nectar, flax seed, quinoa and more. We never would have found these within even a three hour drive. So it's worth it to us. However, I'm with you that you have to make precision choices and build up with a few items here and there. We'd go broke doing it all at once. Thanks for pointing out that many of us don't have what other well meaning people mistakenly consider standard.

Guest's picture

We have it better than some since were in the largest "metro" in the middle of nowhere. But we still don't have a Trader Joes or a Costco. What seems to work is splitting where we get some things, the food coop is the place to get certain things like specialty flours but we buy other organic items at the grocery chain. We do have a Sam's Club and that can be a big saving grace for some things we use lots of like organic coffee and lettuce.
What we found helped reduce costs on some of those natural or organic items was to buy the components and make them. A bag of Bear Naked Granola is between $6-$8 and they are not very big bags. We buy the components, oats, honey, almonds, peanuts, pecans, brown sugar, canola oil and make it in large batches. Having a garden and buying local produce when it is in season also helps keep prices down.

We do try to stop at Trader Joes about once or twice a year when we are in the city. We stock up on a few things that have long shelf lives. Their natural peanut butter, their boxed granola etc.

Guest's picture

Eating healthily in small town is easy and cheap, despite the lack of ethnic markets, TJs, or Whole Foods. Every full-sized grocery store has frozen vegetables (which often retain their nutritional value better than fresh), canned or dried beans and lentils, rice, nuts, whole wheat flour, basic spices, and other staples. It's not the most exciting diet, but it's dirt cheap and nutritious.

You're also choosing to live in a very rural area. You have more space and cheaper housing than those of us in urban areas, and a tradeoff is lack of exciting food options.

Guest's picture
Hannah Smith

After working at a coop for 4 years I've definitely begun to buy all my food there. I have switched to ethically raised/non hormone injected meat for the inproved flavor and basic ethics. I buy a few pounds of it when it's on sale, freeze it and use it later. I also 'dumpster dive' for veggies outside the back of the produce section, siting my rabbits' voracious appetites as the reason. I do give them a lot but almost ALL the stuff tossed is totally edible. Also, eating 'real' foods is a real way to cut down costs, as noted before. It's all the extra stuff that costs. Thanks for a great article!

Guest's picture

Most of the co-ops I have encountered allow you to pre-order large quantities of bulk bin items at wholesale or just above wholesale price. Granted, this means you may end up buying a 50lb sack of flour or couscous at any one time, so this isn't viable for those who live within a small household community. However, if you have a large family and go through tons (literally) of dry goods each year, this could be big savings. If you combine this with the member discount (hours of work in exchange for a discount), it's even better.

Also, something I don't read about very often is eating common plants that are indeed edible, just not commonly eaten in our society. I'm not sure you would save much money doing this, but it might make for a fun experiment in frugality. Some examples are rose petals / rose hips (organic/untreated only!), acorns, young dandelion leaves/flowers, miner's lettuce or sea vegetables. I definitely wouldn't do this without some sort of guidance- get a book or a knowledgable friend- but its really most often the herbicides and pesticides used commercially that are most dentrimental, and not the plants themselves.

Guest's picture

I haven't switched to all organics yet, but I did notice a huge difference in my grocery bill when I switched from boxes of stuff on sale to real food (what I call "one-ingredient" items). My bill is about 1/7th of what I used to spend because I switched from "convenience" foods to mainly big bags of beans, peas, lentils, rice, couscous, oat meal, etc. in combination with whatever the produce of the season is (plus occasionally whatever meat my husband puts in the slow cooker). I have never eaten better and I haven't felt better in a long time.

While I occasionally do splurge on exotic fruits or expensive seasonings, my bill is still way lower than it used to be. And amazingly, buying one-ingredient items take up less space in my experience than boxes of combination stuff. Plus, I haven't had any issues despite being more interested in eating than cooking (raw fruits and veggies are the ultimate convenience foods).

I look forward to the months ahead, though, because we've got a garden started along with some fruit trees and the frame of a chicken coop.