The Lowdown on Spending Less for Your Food but Getting More

Photo: Muffett

The last several years have brought wave after wave of new information about the food we put in our mouths and how it gets there. From Fast Food Nation to The Omnivore's Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, it can seem like there's more bad news every time we turn around. We eat too much. We eat the wrong things. Our food has additives we wouldn't recognize if they slapped us across the face in broad daylight.

It's a daunting prospect to plow through all of this material to figure out what's real, what's paranoid, and what choices we want to make for the future. Whether we do that hard work or listen to the voices of others who have done it, many of us have developed convictions about eating less, eating local, and eating organic.

These convictions about what we will and will not put in our mouths are all well and good when we're sitting at home making the grocery list, but what happens when we're standing in the grocery store debating between the conventional tomatoes, at .99 cents a pound, or the organic ones, which can run $2.49 and up? When our convictions about food clash with our convictions about money, who wins?

Luckily, it doesn't have to be a knock-down, drag-out battle, because it's not a win-or-lose situation. In fact, it's quite possible to find the best quality food for yourself and your family without violating either set of mores.

Don't Shop the Stores

While most grocery chains now carry organic products (and many are beginning to carry local ones, too!), the prices they sell these healthy foods for is much higher than the prices you'd find the same items selling for in other venues. Check out your local farmer's market (find one in your area at LocalHarvest). These venues usually don't have the same markup that the chain store has because you're buying directly from the farmers. Without the middleman, you get wholesale prices on the same high quality items.

Pick and Choose

If there's not a farmer's market available in your area, or you can't get there because of time, transportation, or other reasons, pick the items that you buy local and/or organic and purchase conventionally the rest of the time. The Environmental Working Group has tested most of the more common fruits and vegetables for all sorts of pesticide and soil contaminants and offers this handy buying guide that lists the 12 items most likely to be contaminated as well as the 12 least likely. If you take it with you when you shop, you can avoid pesticides and needlessly high prices, all in one swoop (They also offer the whole list of all the foods they tested and their relative pesticide load, if that's more your style).

Try a CSA

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) started in Japan and has spread across the world. When you participate, you pay a fee for a share of the farm. They are able to use this money as capital for their food production, and in turn you receive a box of locally grown, organic fruit and/or vegetables an a regular basis. CSA boxes are an adventure. You'll get to try all kinds of produce that you might not even see in a grocery store, let alone pick up, bag, and take home. With decent internet access, you can always find recipes, and you can even find photos to identify items you don't recognize. On top of the fun factor, most CSA's do their best to keep their prices competitive with those available at the farmer's market, and some make a point to price their boxes lower, to reward those who choose to invest in the farm that way. Find a CSA near you via LocalHarvest, once again.

Grow Your Own

If you pick the produce out of your own garden, you not only have the satisfaction of having participated in making something you can eat (which is a lot cooler to experience than it sounds), but you also know exactly how the pests were controlled and you can calculate how much you're spending. JD, over at GetRichSlowly, has done just this. You can read about his conclusions from his 2008 garden, or track his progress this year. As it turns out, many of the things you can grow yourself will turn out to be cheaper than the ones you can buy.

Do Your Best

Depending on where you live, finding easily accessible produce that makes you feel good about what you're eating and about your wallet may be easy, or it may be quite difficult. Whether you're as successful as you'd like to be or not, that thought counts for something. How you approach food is important, not only because the food itself is so important, but also because you'll be the first person to jump, vote, lobby, or whatever when opportunities to get the food you want do come to town. And they are coming. Slowly but surely, Americans are choosing to change the way they eat.

Have you found any stellar ways to save on high-quality food? Let us know in the comments!

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Guest's picture

Choosing good food is the most important thing for your body. Some recent science reports show that food is in the top 3 factors that directly impact human being's health.

But when you choose the healthy food like vegetable, then cost is another issue. Saving money on grocery is always we need.

I will make my plan before the month and then start to hunt the good deals online or locally. Sometimes I would like to buy some from due to its coupon codes, also prefer to CVS because of their promotions.

Coupons and promotions are everywhere, depends on how deeply you can do hunting.

Member of Amazon Coupons

Guest's picture

The list that you provide from the Environmental Working Group is really a great resource! I am going to start taking this with me to the grocery store.

There are sometimes programs like CSA through universities that also provide this. I know around where I live, the university has an organic farm that they work and offer shares in. The veggies are just delicious! So much better than store-bought!

Guest's picture

Join a food coop.

Guest's picture

The farmer's markets in Philly are prohibitively expensive, even moreso than Whole Foods. It's really a shame that people overcharge so that only well-to-do yuppies can afford this wholesome, local food.

Guest's picture

Before making blanket statements about Farmer's Markets - our farmers market has prices equal to or more than Whole Foods here. I wish I could shop more there, but if I can get organic foods elsewhere in season I will. A CSA took care of this by in large for me!

Sarah Winfrey's picture

What a bummer that some of your Farmer's Markets charge so much! I've never encountered that, in all the places I've lived. How frustrating!

A food co-op sounds fascinating, but I've never actually seen one in action. Does anyone have more details to share on how it works, one a practical level?

Guest's picture
Jessica H

If you're looking for a deal on fresh produce, try volunteering at a farmers market. Many times, farmers will give out free (or cheap) produce to volunteers at the end of the market.

And it doesn't do any good to accuse local farmers of overcharging. It simply costs more to raise produce in a sustainable manner, especially when you don't grow in huge volume like a large-scale commercial farm. The transportation costs to get that produce into the city is also considerable. Believe me, the farmers you see at your local farmers markets aren't getting rich off of this business.

Guest's picture

I have to agree that farmer's markets are not always cheaper and, in some cases, are considerably more expensive. My wife and I just moved from the Canadian prairies to the west coast. Prior to the move, shopping at farmer's markets was an indulgence; now, shopping smaller markets, farmer's markets, fruit stands, etc. is a real money saver. We can buy two giant bags of produce for less than the cost of one bag back home.

I guess the lesson here is that no piece of advice is universal.

Guest's picture
Mary Ann Baclawski

One way to eat cheaper wasn't yet mentioned in the article or previous comments. Cook from scratch, as much as possible. Last week I bought an organic chicken at our expensive health food store. It cost me $7.66 on sale. My family got two whole main meals and one lunch sandwich from this chicken. With better planning, I could have made both those meals cheaper- made stuffing from home-made bread instead of store-bought (my husband finished up the bread a few hours earlier), used dried beans instead of canned, etc. I was lazy and didn't make soup for a third meal this time. I still feel that I got good value for my money. Obviously not all people have kitchens, time, etc. But always eat as close to scratch as possible and eat better.

Guest's picture
Amy K.

I went to the farmer's market in Holland, Michigan last weekend and the prices were good. We got a heaping pint of Stanley plums for $3 and 5 large Ginger Gold apples for $3. Conventionally grown Ginger Golds are 88cents/pound here in Massachusetts this week, so the price is comparable. The Stanleys (prune plums) are only occasionally available and even then almost never on sale in the grocery store, the usual price I see is $3/pound.

We have been in to the Cambridge farmer's market, where I bought a heaping pint of "italian plums" - they looked like Stanleys, but smaller and green inside. That was $5. The produce at the Cambridge and my hometown of Chelmsford, Massachsuetts farmer's markets are above the cost at the grocery store while Michigan is below. This may be because there are just more farmer's in Michigan, I'm not sure.

Guest's picture

I miss the farmer's market(s) we had in Madison, WI. Where I currently live, I have yet to find one that is decent. A few of the best ones only have hours in the middle of the week in the middle of the day. (And I can't sneak out to one on my lunch hour, unfortunately). That is something I don't get-why would you alienate a huge portion of your market by having such limited hours? The nearest farmer's market on a Saturday is a 40 minute drive-kind of defeats the eating local thing.

I keep a garden, so that helps significantly for my household of 2. I'm not sure we have enough of us and enough time to process a box of CSA foods every week, although we might consider it next summer.

Guest's picture

Perhaps someone can describe how to start a coop, as I only participated in an already established one. The bunch of us ordered in advance from a list and paid upfront. (This gave us a chance to split bulk things with a friend.) Some items were regulars, some seasonal.

We'd meet the truck upon arrival. It was on a Saturday, once a month. Our town was one of several drops that particular truck had that day so times were approximate. Some of us checked off delivered items, some unloaded, some set up individual orders, some checked off and verified pick ups, some cleaned up afterwards. (These jobs rotated among members, working was part of the deal, everyone had a job.) If you couldn't make it you'd send in a sub. We'd use a local Masonic lodge in town as it had large open rooms, and a place for the truck to drop off.

The finished orders were arranged around the perimeter of the room in last name alphabetical order and items to be drawn from sat in the center by type. Large letters were taped on the wall around the room to facilitate organization. Order forms were stapled to the bag. I don't recall how extra bags for the same individual were handled. The whole process took several hours. Certain bulk items were extremely good values (oatmeal and flour). Other speciality items seemed pricey. I don't recall how frozen goods were handled. I think people brought their own coolers early but I'm not sure when. All in all it was great fun.

Guest's picture

I am a member of a food co-op. Maybe I can help describe how it works.

A cooperative ("co-op") is a group of people bound together as a business entity for a specific purpose and using specific rules of operation.

These people contribute money for capital and on-going operations as members through the purchase of a "share" (the share I purchased to join my co-op was a one-time $90 charge). Some co-ops require members to work; at least in this geographic area, it is getting harder to schedule people during the day, make sure they are covered against workplace injuries, etc., so our co-op has a paid staff (though they also are members of the co-op).

Every member has a vote in how the operation works. Members elect a Board of Directors (made up of co-op members) to guide the co-op's broader business activity. We also have a professional Manager in charge of running the day-to-day business activity of the co-op ("Will we carry this specific brand of flour? How many people do we need to staff Produce?"). We meet annually to elect a Board and discuss co-op business (much like a corporate annual meeting).

In return for their money/time, members typically are offered discounts on groceries. If the debt condition allows it, members earn a dividend based on their purchases; at our co-op, some of the divident is returned to the member as cash and some is use to purchase additional (non-voting) shares in the co-op (again, based on purchases).

Successful co-ops reach out beyond their members by opening their stores to non-members, by offering educational opportunities, and by sponsoring local events. Our co-op has two stores, both of which offer classes in cooking, using natural health-and-beauty products, addressing food/ingredient illnesses (allergies, celiac disease, etc.). Our co-op also organizes member visits to local growers and has fostered additional community by promoting opportunities for like-minded members to gather on their own around a particular interest (political activity, reading books, crafts, etc.).

I'm sure I'm forgetting things, but this is a good start. Use your favorite Web search engine with the terms food co-op structure and you'll find specific examples of how other co-ops choose to model themselves.

I've been a member of my co-op for almost ten years now. I love the co-op model and, short of visits to the local farmer's market, really don't care to shop anyplace else. Co-ops can be hard to find outside larger metropolitan areas and/or large-college towns, but look around. It's well worth the effort.

Guest's picture

1) Ethnic grocery stores often are great sources of good food at great prices. You cannot buy cheaper and fresher dried beans and flour products than at the local Mexican market. The Asian grocers in town are great sources of vegetables and noodles; some also sell fish and different meats quite cheaply.

2) Larger metropolitan areas often have companies which wholesale produce to smaller groceries or who purchase odd lots of food from here and there to sell for less. Many of these companies have "company stores" at which the public can buy smaller quantities of these products.

Guest's picture

I struggle with this issue so I'm so glad you wrote about it. I joined a CSA this week because there is now one with a pick up near enough to my home to make sense. There is also a great farmers market that is expensive but not prohibitively so if I watch how much I am eating. I guess that is the bottom line: I want to eat good,local,organic food and I am willing to eat less if necessary.

Guest's picture

I struggle with this issue so I'm so glad you wrote about it. I joined a CSA this week because there is now one with a pick up near enough to my home to make sense. There is also a great farmers market that is expensive but not prohibitively so if I watch how much I am eating. I guess that is the bottom line: I want to eat good,local,organic food and I am willing to eat less if necessary.

Guest's picture
Mike Zukas

Ok, we can all save a bunch of money by shopping at the farmers market and growing our own, kinda. Anyone that has been to the farmers market knows, you are your own market manager. Where the produce managers has last say as to what he will or will not offer his customers to keep them coming back. At the market, you have to use double observation to keep from buying poor produce. Then you have the issue of buying quantity, preparation and storage. Does this out weigh the prospect of timely shopping at the local store? I guess what is best for you works. I can feed a lot of people on a few bags of store brand frozen veggies.

On the other hand, have you ever wondered where that food that your local restaurant and grocer doesn't use goes? No, I don't mean the leftovers! I'm talking about boxes that were dropped, wasn't ordered, over ordered, etc. A lot of people don't realize that such products exist or that there may be an outlet for them. Here, we have a little known shopping place called 'Dickies' that specializes in these products. Everything from Steaks, Ribs, Fish, Shrimp, Ham, Lamb, etc. is there in the Frozen section. Also, can goods, boxed items, seasoning, etc. Some of the products are uncooked, some precooked heat and serve. Like anything, when you shop plays a part, find out when is truck day and more selections are available the next day. How much have I saved shopping like this in addition to my regular shopping to fill in the blanks. Well, how about a commercial size box of fish-sticks for $5, a pork-butt that literally filled my 22 pint cooker for $20, precooked ham that are 2 to 3 times the size of the ones in your local store for $10 to $15. Case of 6oz Rib-eye Steak 28 or so to a box $30. Case of precooked pork racks of ribs $30. Salmon fillets (entire sides of salmon about 2 1/2 feet long and 10 or 12 inches wide) for $7, Even hamburger helper, boxes of cake mix, condensed milk, veggies, etc. You never know what to expect to find when you go but you can bet you'll save 30% to 50% of WHOLESALE prices. That's about 50% to 75% off of retail. It may take some research to find somewhere in your area but is well worth it. We have 3 of these places, each is it's own little world. One will have more of this and less of that, compared to the other locations. I have filled my upright freezer for about $100 to $140 and put the overflow in my side by side. I take a day off once a month to go shopping as a primary source of food and fill in with a trip to the grocer weekly about 10:30AM on Saturday and Sunday morning, that's when they mark down for date, usually the day before the sell by date. Just check for color and smell (should do that anyway) and freeze until your ready to cook. Then check for fresh produce sales and other stuff.
Hope this helps & happy saving,

Guest's picture

Great tip for those who work from home, have a flexible work schedule or stay home with their children: ask your CSA about taking an active volunteer position in exchange for reduced prices. I am part of a core group of people who volunteer 3-5 hours every two weeks to meet the delivery, then sort the fruits/veggies into boxed "shares" ready to be picked up by members. I am able to bring my kids along, and there are usually other kids for them to play with. Built in playdate, AND great exercise for me.

In exchange, I pay nothing for my share, valued at $50. NOTHING. I know it's a money-time tradeoff, but I figure that's an hourly rate of $10, at least. Not too bad for local and organic food that I can build a meal plan around!

Sarah Winfrey's picture

Thanks for all the great ideas. And a co-op sounds great, sd! I wonder why there aren't more of them...

Guest's picture

community supported agriculture sounds really good. Japanese ususally have healthy eating hatbits, vegetables, fish, seldom eat greasy food,such as Chinese food. thus there are many old people over 100 years old. i like korea food too, not greasy, and kimqi really tastes good.[img][/img]