Can I Really Afford To Go Organic?

Globe & Mail, March 25, 2011

Grocery shopping with children in mind can be complicated.

It’s not just, “This looks tasty, let’s get it.” First, it’s the question of what they should eat – food groups, vitamins and all that. Then, it’s what they will eat, which for some children, can be quite a narrow range of consumables. When you add an attempt to move to an organic diet (not to mention rising food prices across the board), grocery shopping for a growing family can be a frustrating and expensive endeavour.

Organic food costs more than regular food – there’s just no getting around that. My family of four definitely felt the pinch when we decided to move to a more organic diet. To keep things affordable, we go organic for some food items, but not others. For example, in our home, milk and yoghurt are always organic, but fruits and vegetables? Sometimes. Meat – yes, bread – no. (A caveat to that: Our kids get organic meat and poultry, but we don’t. I only eat fish, and my husband Sean says he figures he already has mad cow anyway, so he generally gets whatever is on sale.)

Do you really have to buy everything organic to be sure your children are growing up healthy?

I asked Adria Vasil for advice. She’s the author of green-living bible Ecoholic Home: The Greenest, Cleanest and Most Energy-Efficient Information Under One (Canadian) Roof. Ms. Vasil agrees that buying all organic is out of most people’s budgets, so you have to pick and choose. For example, when it comes to produce, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

“As a general rule, if a piece of produce has skin or husks you remove before eating, like onions, avocado, corn or pineapple, it’ll be pretty low on the pesticide-contamination index, so you’re OK to buy it non-organic. There are some surprises on the low pesticide list too, like asparagus and broccoli. They’re nice to buy organic to support greener agriculture, but not as necessary for your health.”

Ms. Vasil says fruits with the highest pesticide residues are the ones with thin, delicate skins like peaches, strawberries, apples and grapes, so it’s worth spending your money on them. And the top-three pesticide-tainted veggies? Celery, spinach and bell peppers.

“For any produce you just can’t afford to buy organic, and even the organic kind, wash it all in a solution of one part vinegar to three parts water. That helps get rid of some of the surface pesticides and 98 per cent of bacteria,” said Ms. Vasil.

But there are some areas where she feels it’s important to splurge on the clean stuff.

“Always buy certified organic chicken since conventional chicken has been shown to be floating in antibiotic-resistant bacteria – aka super bugs,” she said. “Even antibiotic-free chicken has been shown to be contaminated. None of them will make you sick if you cook your chicken thoroughly, but most people get sick from cross-contaminated surfaces.”

But what’s a cash-strapped family to do? Ms. Vasil has plenty of tips for trimming your food budget while still eating clean food. Firstly, eat less meat. “North Americans eat 50 pounds more meat, chicken and fish per person per year than we did 50 years ago, so we can certainly afford to shave some meat out of our diets,” she said.

Ms. Vasil also suggests saving on produce by signing up for a share in a local organic farm. The concept is called “community supported agriculture” – customers pay a flat fee for 14 to 18 weekly vegetable shares delivered to your neighbourhood or front door.

“You can get a bountiful share from, say, Plan B Organics in Ontario or the Organic Farm in Newfoundland starting at just $16 to $25 a week, depending on who you buy from,” she said.

As well, Ms. Vasil says you can save on organic items like flour, oats, nuts and beans by frequenting the bulk store or aisle, where items are much cheaper without the packaging. And she advocates the time-honoured tradition of coupon-clipping and flyer-scouting when it comes to sniffing out bargains.

“This week I noticed organic pears and cauliflower on sale at Sobey’s for the same price as the conventional versions. And remember that lot of discount stores like No Frills carry a few organic items these days, so scout them out for good deals.”

When it comes to pricey organic meat and fish, Ms. Vasil says you can save by buying discounted food that is close to the expiry date. And if you don’t think you’ll use it by then, pop it in the freezer and thaw it when you need it. And if there’s no “30 per cent off” sticker on nearly expired food, ask the department manager about getting a discount.

As for fish, Ms. Vasil says it’s not worth shelling out for European organic farmed salmon (something we’ve done to the tune of $30 for a couple fillets). Wild west coast salmon is the safest choice, she says, but it’s still expensive unless you get it canned (a surprising tip: all canned salmon is wild!). If you want fresh fish, Ms. Vasil says farmed rainbow trout is a great eco-friendly and health-conscious alternative to salmon.

Lastly, Ms. Vasil says we can save a lot by buying less than we think we need. And if my heaping compost bin is any indication, she’s right on the money.

“North Americans throw out 30 per cent of the food that we buy because it wilts, rots or goes stale. Write up a weekly meal plan so every organic red pepper and head of spinach is accounted for – that way you’re making the most of the organics you do buy.”