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.

| March/April 2014

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.”

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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.

12/30/2015 10:24:20 PM

I think this is a great article, but there's no meat...anywhere! Plus, beans and dairy upset my intestines (as do pork and beef, although that's clearly irrelevant here). Any suggestions for eating organic on a budget WITH meat and without beans? I'm completely fine with leaving out desserts, coffee and tea. Thanks! -Nicole

3/24/2015 2:02:36 PM

Organic here in Oregon means $2 for a medium apple, .75 for a turnip, $4lb+ for frozen peas. Organic strawberries at $15/flat? Try $32/flat. Organic dairy, meat & fish are unaffordable on $1 per meal. Organic eggs are $4 and up per dozen. What's left is the good old Donable Foods diet from before foodstamps: beans, rice, more beans, cornmeal, powdered unorganic milk and beans. The original food stamps diet: nutritionally inadequate long term, and never adequate for growing children, pregnant women,the eldery or ill. Families on food stamps can't make it through the month buying non-organic groceries and NO junk food. That's why we hand out boxes of non-organic food at the food banks. Organic at 2x, 3x, 4x the price of orfinary groceries? Impossible.

12/1/2014 2:33:12 PM

This summer I took the SNAP challenge and ate organic food for two weeks. Totally did it comfortably and it was satisfying. The biggest crucial factor is planning. Planning is a must. In the US there are still more libraries than McDonald's--learning how to cook is free. A trip to the thrift store and $5 will buy a person all he needs to use to cook. It's completely possible...but only if a person makes no excuses.

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