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

Open coin purse

Eating fresh, organic food for every meal is more affordable than you may think.

Photo by Veer

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
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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.

11/29/2014 10:03:47 AM

AgathaX "The problem is that many people on food stamps lack life skills, including planning, problem solving, self-directed learning, cooking, or even just basic understanding of food" Wow what a statement! Sounds like you're profiling. My family receives food stamps and I'm absolutely nothing like you've described, quite the opposite in fact. I budget, cook from scratch, garden etc. and have a very hard time making our food stamps last a month. The problem is that healthy foods cost more than junk that's why some not most purchase processed junk food. Everything you said in your statement was very insulting! The only thing you left out was those people. You make people receiving food stamps sound like mentally challenging people. If this was not your intention then you need to choose better words. Thank you...................

11/28/2014 11:16:54 AM

I liked the article very much. I live on snap benifits in Louisiana. I can't afford organic. I buy in bulk, cook from scratch, have a garden, raise laying hens yada yada yada. I'm always looking for ways to stretch my families food budget, but it's hard. There is no way I can shop at Whole Foods (whole paycheck), I tried it already and it just does not work. This is why I was attracted to your article. We are a family of 3. My husband and I are at retirement age. I'm raising my grandaughter, my husband is disabled and I'm his primary caretaker, always trying to feed him a good diabetic diet to prevent a second stroke. I look forward to reading your book to get more tips on stretching our food budget. I just don't see how much further I can stretch it without it snapping (hey maybe that's why it's called snap benifits). Anyway, I enjoyed your article as one of the many articles and books I've read on eating healthy on a tight budget. Thanks......................

11/28/2014 9:48:11 AM

AgathaX - you're making a whole lot of assumptions about those who receive food stamps. As a group they are not monolithic - not everyone has the exact same skill set. The same holds true for every person on earth. As to this article, it would have been more honest had the author (or the magazine's editors) titled this HOW TO BE A VEGETARIAN ON A FOOD STAMP BUDGET. I find it annoying that you (the editors of this magazine) don't address the 90+% of us who eat some meat, fish and fowl and come up with a realistic budget for the rest of us!

11/22/2014 7:56:26 AM

As everyone discovers, it is entirely possible to eat well on this budget. The problem is that many people on food stamps lack life skills, including planning, problem solving, self-directed learning, cooking, or even just basic understanding of food. Corporate America has taught people that cooking is hard and complicated, requires meat, and that food only tastes good if it is processed with lots of sugar, fat, salt and chemicals. And the absurd efforts of some politicians to eat on a food stamp budget demonstrated that they too have learned Corporate America's lessons. We need to put Home Economics back in schools and teach everyone to cook and eat well, without processed foods, and on a small budget.

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

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?

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.

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!

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

elderberry, echinacea, bee hive


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