Mother Earth Living

Eating Organic on a Budget

A writer shares her wildly affordable cooking plans for eating organic on a budget, inspired by a national challenge to eat on a food-stamp budget.
By Linda Watson
March/April 2014
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Eating fresh, organic food for every meal is more affordable than you may think.
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I began my experiment in thrifty, delicious eating when the philosophy of food ran smack into the politics of food in the summer of 2007. On the philosophical side, Michael Pollan linked the supermarket’s middle aisles to the obesity epidemic, citing research that showed “the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly—and get fat.” On the political side, several politicians took the “Food-Stamp Challenge,” living on the average national food-stamp allowance of a dollar a meal. I was irritated by Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan’s slap-dash approach, with his aides throwing 2-ounce bags of coffee into his cart and the Congressman skipping meals. When airport security seized his stash of peanut butter and jelly, he was looking at 36 hours with nothing but cornmeal. He wound up cheating with Dunkin’ Donuts, peanuts and a pork chop, blogging “It is nearly impossible to make [do] on this amount of money.”

Affordable Organic Recipes

Cuban Black Beans Recipe and Black Bean Soup
Potato Peanut Curry Recipe
Parsley Pesto Recipe

Eating Organic on a Budget

Nonsense, I thought. A dollar a meal is tight, but it doesn’t mean we have to pick Cheetos over carrots. I found myself chuffing in the grocery store: “Look, this whole bag of dried beans is only 79 cents a pound. That’s about eight cents a serving.” I was garumphing at the farmers market, too: “Here’s a flat of delicious local strawberries for $15. That’s about 50 cents a serving. Why do people insist that people who don’t have much money can only drink soda and eat potato chips?”

That night at dinner, I broached an idea to my husband, Bruce. What if I tried the food-stamp diet for three weeks, eating on $1 a meal? But what if I moved the source of our food around to show the options? What if we did week one at Food Lion, week two at Whole Foods and week three at the farmers market? At the end of that time, we’d know a good deal more about eating organic on the budget our government allows.

My husband looked only mildly horrified. “You can eat extra if you want,” I said.

“No, I’ll do it with you. Might as well see just how hungry we get,” he said. You can see why I love him.

Getting Ready: The Rules

In the last few days before we started, we ate or froze the perishables we had on hand. I studied the supermarket’s flyer and drafted a menu for week one. I couldn’t know what we could afford until I checked prices at the store, so I set priorities: Core nutrition came first—enough protein and carbs to keep us going. Add vegetables and fruit to balance the meals and then bring in nutritious desserts to keep everyone happy. These rules came out of all that thinking:

Budget is king. Nothing can make us spend more than $1 a meal per person.

Nutrition is essential. The menus must provide balanced nutrition, including enough protein and five fruits or vegetables each day.

No crazy cooking. I’ll cook from scratch but not go overboard. Homemade ravioli may be inexpensive, but it fails the reality test.

Get some satisfaction. Meals must be tasty and satisfying enough to let us resist the siren call of chips and packaged cookies.

Be ourselves. I would only buy food we would ordinarily eat—no trans-fat–filled sausages, no matter the savings.

Be honest. Report our actual experiences, good or bad.

On the first day of our experiment, I worked an eight-hour day and went grocery shopping on the way home with $42 and a sketch of the week’s menus. I started in the center aisles, getting essential beans, rice and flour. My first surprise came right away. Even the cheapest white rice was 79 cents a pound. I was used to spending 10 bucks for 15 pounds of top-notch basmati at a buying club. Mediocre rice, bought a pound at a time, cost 18 percent more than excellent rice in bulk.

And on the surprises went, through beans, pasta and condiments. Yet I tallied my buys and saw that it was looking good. This is a snap, I thought. I might be able to afford the tea and ice cream at the bottom of the list.

But the dairy department slapped the smugness out of me. The smallest amount of butter I could buy was a half-pound, two sticks, for $1.99. Store-brand eggs were $1.79 a dozen.

Clang! I was over my limit and hadn’t even hit the produce section yet. I was tired and hungry after an hour of shopping. I returned food I couldn’t afford, reworked the menus, and headed for produce.

I’d reclaimed nearly six dollars of my budget, enough for a pound of carrots, cabbage, garlic and five onions. I checked the last item off my list and went to check out. I asked the cashier if food-stamp recipients had to pay taxes on food.

“Yeah,” she said, giving me the suspicious glance I would get with any inquiries about food stamps. “And we charge a 50-cent processing fee, too.”

“A fee? For taking food stamps?”

“That’s right. You got your card?”

Was charging a fee even legal? (It’s not, I learned later. Was this clerk mistaken, trying to discourage customers from food stamps, or pocketing the fees? I’ll never know.)

I found I’d been holding my breath while the cashier rang up the last items. Phew! My total was $41.92. My stomach rumbled as I rolled the cart to the car, two hours after I’d entered. Clearly, shopping on a budget was harder than it seemed.

Home at Last

When I finally got home, I made our standard low-energy worknight dinner: rotini with bottled sauce and fresh-grated Parmesan, frozen peas with vinaigrette and garlic toast. I had the last two glasses in the last bottle of wine in the house. We split an apple and then polished off the last of a pint of yuppie ice cream—altogether a typical meal, but enriched by a certain nostalgic air. Ah, the last wine! The last ice cream!

While Bruce washed the dishes, I made split pea soup to cook overnight in the slow cooker. Then I set up the bread machine to make French bread. After setting the timer so the bread would be ready when we got up, I staggered upstairs to bed.

When the alarm went off at 7 a.m., I trotted happily back to the kitchen, looking forward to toast made with homemade bread. First thing: coffee. The store-brand grounds were chunkier than the drip-filter grind I was used to, but it smelled okay. While the coffee perked, I went to check on the bread.

Where was it? I looked across the kitchen through the domed glass lid of the machine, expecting to see a crusty dome of bread underneath. I lifted the lid and looked inside. Quelle horreur! The bread—she was flat! I twisted the cylindrical bread pan to release it and then tamped out the bread. Just at that moment, Bruce came in the kitchen.

“What’s that?” he asked, seeing me hold a cylinder of bread that was eight inches wide but only two inches tall, not the good foot-long loaf that I’d expected.

“Our bread.”

“We’re already doomed!”

Tasty Cabbage and High Hopes

After the bread disaster, the day continued badly—the toast was small and flat (though tasty), and there wasn’t enough to accompany lunch. Replacing my usual tea with water left me with a lack-of-caffeine headache all day at work. Dinner was the first bright spot in our diet experiment. My original menu had called for high-protein rotini with tomato sauce and whatever had been the cheapest dark-green vegetable at the store. But even a small bag of frozen spinach had been too costly. What to do with cabbage? I simplified a recipe for braised cabbage, which turned out to be surprisingly rich and sweet. After dinner I froze the remaining split pea soup into three double-serving packages for use later in the week and started a pound of pinto beans in the slow cooker. I felt full of hope about the rest of the week.

That dinner turned out to be the first of many good meals that week. I figured out how to make bread with the new type of yeast. We had what would become the basis for the menus: bean stews, fresh fruit and vegetables, and dessert every day.

On the last night of week one, when we were enjoying a ginger-glazed carrot cake, Bruce said the words dreaded in marriages everywhere: “Honey, we’ve got to talk.”

Oh no, I thought. He’s had too many carrots, too much cabbage and onions. He wants a woman who will give him cheesecake!

“I’m feeling really good. The food’s been great, of course. But I’m also sleeping less and more alert. I’m in a better mood. And I’ve even lost a couple of pounds without feeling hungry.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I’m feeling better, too—brighter, more energetic. And I’ve lost a couple of pounds, too.”

“I don’t think this should be a short experiment. This is how I want to live: on real food cooked from scratch. If our food can be this good for a dollar, what can it be like for a little more?”

We revised the experiment and tried variations for three more months. First, I raised the budget to $1.53 a meal, the actual amount of food stamps then allotted in North Carolina for a couple. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as rich as I did at the start of the second week, when I took my extra 53 cents a meal to the farmers market and loaded up on peaches, tomatoes and peppers. Because food stamps are allocated monthly, I managed our budget on a monthly rather than a weekly basis, making “bulk” purchases such as a pound of butter or a large bottle of mustard sensible again.

After that first terrible day, we never felt hungry or deprived. I learned which yeast to buy and began developing no-knead bread recipes that don’t require a bread machine. I learned where to scrimp and where to splurge. I scoured old cookbooks and interviewed older cooks, looking for easy, thrifty recipes made from basic ingredients. And I kept refining my cooking style to make the best use of everything: food, time, energy and other resources.

We weren’t stingy, either. I took cookies to book club, cupcakes to friends who’d had a death in the family, invited friends over for dinner, and brought a dish to community suppers. Best of all, the food was delicious: spicy beans and rice; fragrant tomato sauce on pasta; burritos; homemade pizza, bread and yogurt; and fruit and plenty of vegetables.

I shopped for a month at chain supermarkets and the state farmers market, improved the list, and did it again. Then I took my improved and tested list to Whole Foods and the Durham Farmers Market, buying organic and sustainably raised ingredients. Even this “yuppie” diet was less than two dollars a meal. After three years of refinement, the result is my book, Wildly Affordable Organic.

Easy to Do, Hard to Figure Out

The results of these experiments were so good they permanently changed the way we cook and eat. I pay the “green” prices shown in the Sample Spring Menu (later in this article) to get mostly organic, kindly raised and local food. I feel more connected with my community and the seasons. I’ve reached my ideal weight and am full of energy.

After years of working in politics, voting with my fork seems direct and effective. We still need laws to ensure people, animals and the planet are treated right, but knowing our shopping habits are not funding brutal factory farms or pesticides that harm workers and the environment feels good. We support farmers who enhance their land and are buying time for society to cope with global warming.

Cooking on a tight budget was hard at first. Cooking from scratch takes time and so does cleaning up. Some nights I stayed up well past bedtime waiting for the bread to cool because I had started baking it too late. I ruined several loaves of bread and many batches of yogurt. But I got the hang of it and you can, too. I was raised in a canned-soup and bagged-bread house where we always had plenty to eat. Cooking from scratch with the seasons and making the best use of every bite was new to me. If this is new territory for you, too, I invite you to use my book (available in the Mother Earth Living store: Wildly Affordable Organicas a guide to help get it right the first time.


Sample Spring Menu

In this sample one-week spring menu, seasonal foods such as parsley and asparagus meet make-ahead staples such as beans and homemade bread. The prices on the left are the organic/sustainably raised prices. The prices on the right are the non-organic/conventional prices.

Breakfast every day, unless mentioned otherwise ($0.46 / $0.28): Two slices of toasted homemade bread with peanut butter, tea

Sunday

($5.13 / $3.18)

Breakfast ($0.67 / $0.46): sweet raisin flatbread toast with peanut butter, tea

Lunch ($1.27 / $0.76): Cuban black beans, rice, carrots, banana

Snack ($0.69 / $0.39): walnuts

Dinner ($2.50 / $1.58): pizza with mustard greens and spring onions (two slices), green salad with vinaigrette, strawberry ice cream

Monday

($5.86 / $3.92)

Lunch ($1.66 / $1.12): Cuban black beans, rice, carrots, chocolate pudding

Snack ($0.41 / $0.39): apple

Dinner ($3.33 / $2.13): pasta with parsley pesto, skillet asparagus, strawberry ice cream

Tuesday

($4.79 / $3.03)

Lunch ($1.93 / $1.03): pizza with mustard greens and spring onions (one slice), broccoli, banana

Snack ($0.27 / $0.17): oatmeal-raisin cookies

Dinner ($2.13 / $1.56): bean burritos, green salad with vinaigrette, orange, vanilla yogurt

Wednesday

($5.11/$3.45)

Lunch ($1.96 / $1.45): bean burritos, sugar snap peas, orange

Snack ($0.27 / $0.17): oatmeal-raisin cookies

Dinner ($2.43 / $1.56): potato peanut curry, rice, broccoli, vanilla yogurt, strawberries

Thursday

($5.21 / $3.02)

Lunch ($1.46 / $1.28): rotini with tomato sauce and spring onions, carrots, strawberries

Snack ($0.27 / $0.17): oatmeal-raisin cookies

Dinner ($3.02 / $1.29): green egg scramble, baked sweet potato, banana

Friday

($4.81 / $3.79)

Breakfast ($0.30 / $0.26): oatmeal with peanut butter, tea

Lunch ($1.90 / $1.33): pasta with parsley pesto, carrots

Snack ($0.51 / $0.33): strawberries

Dinner ($2.10 / $1.87): bean and tomato stew with black beans, rice, green salad with vinaigrette, apple, popcorn

Saturday

($3.95 / $3.09)

Lunch ($1.35 / $0.99): soup with black beans, garlic toast, banana

Snack ($0.36 / $0.29): popcorn

Dinner ($1.76 / $1.53): rotini with tomato sauce and spring onions, sugar snap peas, chocolate pudding


Linda Watson is the author of Wildly Affordable Organic, available at the Mother Earth Living store, and founder of Cook for Good, a website that helps people save money and eat well. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband.


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Post a comment below.

 

betsy
4/23/2014 1:37:36 PM
Ms. Watson, this article is the most sensible that I've read in a long time, regarding "Food Stamps" (in Pennsylvania, called the SNAP program). I took this "challenge", not for just a week or a month, but for an entire year. Very enlightening. And, since I, like you, can cook, I ate very well. I am unfamiliar with your State's rules, but in PA, one cannot use this program with anything taxable. When you asked the cashier re: paying sales tax, the person was probably uninformed. The cash register should have sorted it out. I no longer live in the US, yet my report is still in the works. Keep up the good work! And healthy eating to you! -betsy

Sandra
4/22/2014 3:42:53 PM
We live on a budget like this. The years we did a CSA (at $35 per week, or alternating weekly pickups with another family) we felt really stretched, because we like our meat and eggs. The time we bought a side of free range bull (which lasted 3 of us 15 months) we ate much better, but it took 1-1/2 years of skimming $10/week to save up for it (plus an extra $15 per month electricity). We can't do the homemade bread thing because most of us are gluten intolerant (casein too, altho I LOVE 24 hour full fat "Greek" yogurt--worth the earache later!). The big difference between "us" and "them" is that we have a car and know where the sales are. We get the sales flyers and plan the week's shopping, sometimes hitting all 5 stores nearby if the price is worth our time. We also signed up for email alerts to get the flyers and e-coupons online, but there are those who have to ride a bus or endure a dangerous walk to get to a public library to plan their food. Then they have to lug their bulk purchases back on the bus, and drag them home if the bus stop isn't where they live. That's why some families only shop once a month, with a borrowed car and driver, because they don't live near easy shopping. Too bad that many seem to buy premade frozen food; it doesn't stretch nearly as far as the real thing. So: the unstated problem in the SNAP conundrum is; how do we get inexpensive but nutritious food, like the foods WIC subsidizes, to people without transportation or the wherewithall to find good sales?

PatD
4/3/2014 10:50:16 AM
I enjoyed the article, did note the vegetarian aspect, but also noted that availability in my(frozen!) northern area can be spotty, depending on where you live. The law of supply and demand still reigns, and prices here in northern Vermont can be higher than in more clement climes with a greater population. That said, I look forward to trying many of the ideas and recipes in WAO.

Camille
3/31/2014 8:40:35 PM
I'm impressed by the depth of research involved in creating these menus at food stamp rates. Consider the myth that you cannot eat well without spending an arm and a leg busted!

CookforGood
3/29/2014 11:31:43 AM
Thanks to everyone who reads Mother Earth Living and who read and commented on my article. Such food for thought! I'm really surprised to be cast as a self-satisfied sneak who embraces corporate agriculture by foisting empty calories on the poor. If I am, please stop me before I cook again! My intention with the Cook for Good project is to support local farms, empower families with core skills, and to help people live lightly and joyfully on our planet. Here are some specific replies, with details on my blog at cookforgood.com/blog. Kelly, the carbs aren't "empty," except for small amount of sugar and other sweeteners (just 28 pounds a year per person, 20% of the U.S. average). The pasta I recommend is a good source of protein and fiber. Crushed tomatoes are rich in lycopene and Vitamin A and are a good source of calcium, iron, and Vitamin C. Adding real vegetables to the sauce adds more nutrients. Peanut butter on toast can be part of a healthy diet, with 15 grams of protein, lots of filling fiber, and nutrients such as Vitamin E, niacin, magnesium, and copper. Eric, I shudder at the thought of embracing corporate agriculture. In fact, my newest book Fifty Weeks of Green is a romance with recipes set at a farmers' market and on a farm. The WAO menus start with local produce from the farmers' market, then add staple ingredients for cooking from scratch. The staples mostly come from the bulk bins without a label. The winter menu could be 31% local. Danielle, I do have a bread machine, but knew that couldn't be part of my solution. I spent over three months developing bread and pizza dough recipes for WAO that don't rely on a bread machine, mixer, or kneading. Janis, I do eat beans nearly every day, but different types cooked in different ways. The menu in the Mother Earth Living includes Cuban, Mexican, and Italian bean dishes plus an Indian potato curry and an all-American scramble. Yum! Several of you felt misled by the vegetarian aspect. I'm sorry about that! It may be more obvious if you have the whole book in your hand, but it's true that I talk more about what I do eat rather than what I don't.I don't know how to buy kindly raised, organic meat on a food-stamp budget. It takes time, food, space, and care to raise animals in a humane and environmentally sound way. I hope my book helps people who do eat meat save enough so they can buy from sustainable local farmers who treat their animals well. It's easy to mix a little meat in with my recipes or mix my recipes in with your other favorites. The meat of industrially raised animals fits within the WAO budget although I don't recommend supporting factory farming or fishing. See the details on my blog. Thanks again for thinking about the book and commenting. I try to control my inner bossy big sister, but sometimes my enthusiasm for eating this way lets her out. I hope you can found some tips and recipes that work with however you choose to eat.

mm1970
3/29/2014 10:26:47 AM
Hmm... as far as getting things at a local farmer's market, it depends on the market. When you are eating on a budget, it's important to eat what you can get locally. In So Cal, that means lots of produce. Eggs, meat, chickens - are available too but not on a budget! (For example, I have friends who buy nearly all of their meat and vegetables locally, and their food bill is $1800 a month for 5). The way to eat healthfully on a budget is buy what grows near you and use cheaper staples. There is no implication here that you should go without meat, just that if you want to eat organic on a budget, meat isn't on the menu. Eating beans every day is good for you (recommendations are to eat 1/2 to 1 cup per day). And whole grain pasta is hardly "empty calories". Certainly some people need to watch their carb intake (women approaching middle age with sedentary jobs...hey wait, I resemble that), not everyone should. Plenty of people with kids under 16 eat like this.

Danielle
3/19/2014 7:19:14 PM
I would have appreciated this article a lot more if it left out the politics. I appreciate the eating for barely anything, but the author's pat on her own back is a little premature. For one, she has access to a bread machine. I don't know any poor folks who own one of those. Second, produce doesn't last a whole month and if a hourly-wage worker who has a couple kids and no support can get to the grocery store once, it's going to be for food that will last on a shelf all month. Third, she implies that the poor should go without meat, which if they choose to do is great! I'm all for being veg! I just would prefer my tax money meet the needs of the poor, not push my diet on them. Don't get me wrong. If this article was about eating for a $3.00 a day, I would have loved it! The privileged undertone of the author who doesn't even mention having to feed children pea soup (not fun) just rubbed me the wrong way.

Sisyrinchium
3/19/2014 11:12:20 AM
I agree with the author. We lived this lifestyle for a number of years as our family grew from two to six people. Making only two to four thousand dollars over the poverty level we lived without any assistance. That meant no WIC or food stamps or heat or phone assistance. We left that for those who truly needed it. We bought in bulk when things were on sale. More than once we bought 25# of granola from the local buying club and many other things like rice, beans, and oatmeal. The buying club sold wholesome food. We did buy meat - on sale and then in bulk. It went mostly in casseroles or sauces. We planted a garden and froze vegetables. Purchasing food this way, it takes awhile to have a selection of foods, but over time patiently buying most of your food on sale and in bulk, you will have a selection. Our children grew up healthy and athletic participating on the local school's cross country ski team. None of them had issues with obesity. Surprisingly, they even ate the free granola bars that were offered to the skiers.

eric
3/8/2014 6:51:30 PM
peanut butter, dry beans, rice, bananas, chocolate pudding, oatmeal, rotini... when's the last time you saw any of these things at a local farmers' market or bought them from a local farmer? This looks like a diet tailored to embracing corporate-industrial agriculture.

Mara
3/1/2014 12:21:53 PM
I was excited to read this article, but halfway in, I realized that the author is following a vegetarian diet. This bothers me for a few reasons. First of all, most of MEL's readership isn't vegetarian, so this limits the article's applicability. Tips on getting quality meats on the cheap would be more helpful for most of us. Second, it makes the article's main argument-- that you can eat an organic diet on food-stamp budget-- practically moot, because of the unspoken "...IF you don't eat meat, chicken, pork, or fish." That's a huge "if", and essentially proves the opposite point: that you CAN'T eat a good (non-vegetarian) diet at that price point. Third, the article really seems to dance around this fact. It never uses the words "vegetarian" or "meat-free", almost as if the author hopes we won't notice. If she had been more upfront, and admitted that this piece is about eating vegetarian (maybe in the first paragraph or the subheading), I would still have read it, but felt a lot less irritated than I do right now. I also agree with the previous comments about the over-reliance on bread and pasta. Not the foundation of a healthy diet, regardless of how cheap they might be.

Janis
2/28/2014 5:57:36 PM
SIX DAYS OF BEANS?? No wonder they lost weight! This sample plan lacks variety and is very carb heavy. Two adults may be able to live like this if stranded in a cabin in the snow for a week, I'd love to see them try it with a few kids under 16...

Kelly Beaudoin
2/28/2014 11:31:11 AM
Interesting, but this menu contains no meat, lots of empty carbs (pasta and tomato sauce, for example), and two slices of toast w/ peanut butter do not a healthy breakfast make.








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