What is the deal with shopping affordably at my co-op?

It is not infrequent for me to hear people remark that they see the cost of organic foods as being too expensive or unaffordable. It is true in some cases that this is unavoidable, but it is also true that there are ways to reduce costs for organic foods just as there are ways to reduce costs to non-organic foods. This is article is not a list of the only ways to do so, but it hopefully will help you to get started in thinking about connecting your values to what you eat through how you spend money on food.

I will not get into the marketing of food in this article, but it is worth noting that sometimes purchasing foods that are labeled as organic adds great value and nutrition, while other times the added nutrition, environmental benefit, or health benefit is minimal when compared to the extra cost. This is a decision you will have to make on your own, but it is a topic perhaps worth researching.

I will start out by sharing a somewhat surprising statistic. In 2012 the National Resources Defense Council reported that the average American family throws away nearly half their food every year. This was estimated to be an equivalent of $2,275 a year per family!

Perhaps the most sound recommendation in light of this startling statistic is to practice consuming the food we buy. Perhaps just buying foods in quantities that will not go bad before they are used will save you money. I don’t know about you, but I could explain a small fraction of that waste in cooking gone bad. Burnt food or misread recipes has disappointed me on more than one occasion, but improving cooking skills is enough of a topic that it deserves its own essay.

Before I get to actual cost saving techniques for shopping organic foods and high value foods, it is also worth noting that costs associated with eating outside of the home are considerably more than those associated with eating at home. For example at this time a 12 ounce glass of orange juice can cost $3 at a breakfast restaurant in our city. Even very expensive organic juice can be found for 32 ounces for $5. Per 12 ounce glass of juice you are saving a $1.12 just by drinking that expensive organic juice at home rather than buying a non-organic glass of juice at a restaurant.
This example is a useful one in helping to connect values of dollars spent on food to what it is that you want to be purchasing. If you are buying the experience of dining out with friends and enjoying that experience, then it is something you might not be able to recreate at home. If you are simply getting your favorite breakfast or grabbing a quick lunch you can purchase a significant amount of healthy and high quality food for less cost than a fast food lunch.

When evaluating the value of food I suggest you also consider that many people find it takes smaller amounts of more nutritious food in order to be well fed, gain nourishment, and satiate hunger. Thus, cost per item of food may not be a useful comparison if the food varies in nutritional value.

So how can one find affordable prices for high nutrition foods that ounce per ounce are more expensive than their counterparts? For those that are struggling to meet the costs of the weekly grocery bill or pay electric bills, it is important to realize that food assistance is one way that many communities across the country have banded together to help put healthy food on the table. Here in Minnesota you can connect to a variety of food assistance programs through www.hungersolutions.org  Nationwide similar programs exist with local, state, and federal assistance. It is not uncommon for retired seniors to struggle in this regard and thus food assistance is available to this population amongst others. Many organic cooperative stores are working with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by having items that qualify for use with an Electronic Benefit Transfer card. Even farmer’s markets are starting to accept this method of payment more widely nationwide helping make high quality food more within reach of everyone.

Perhaps one of the most effective methods of purchasing food more affordably at a co-op is by joining and becoming a member. This typically involves a purchase of ownership, stock, or membership. Typical costs to do so vary between $50 and $100. It is a one time purchase and in some cases can be refunded to you if you move to another town. By becoming a member you often receive member discount pricing which is like sale pricing on select items. This pricing is often not available to those that are not members of the co-op. Additionally, coops that are well established and financially stable often return a portion of profits each year to their members. It may be in the range of $10-$50 and varies each year based on the financial status of the co-op as well as how much you spent that year in the store. It may not seem like much, but it all adds up.

Once a member, you have gained access to discounts. It is not a novel concept to consider shopping with coupons. Perhaps just a bit more novel is to consider how to shop with coupons or discounts. I would suggest that there are two ways to shop wisely with coupons. One is to buy items that you normally buy as part of your pantry, but buy them when on discount with a coupon or membership sale. Another approach is to use coupons to buy items that you typically would not buy, but you have been curious about. They might be items that add a bit of special flavor to your pantry. This can help you create a tasty meal from items already in your home when you are in a pinch. A quick meal from your pantry can save you valuable time and money by avoiding the temptation of eating out or ordering takeout when the pantry seems low on food or you are short on time. Maybe this is a good time to explain a pantry as an approach to reducing your overall food costs.

Think of your pantry as a way to reduce food costs. What I mean by pantry is a list of items that you generally keep on hand. These items often have the quality of having a relatively long shelf life before they spoil. They also are items that are commonly used. Flour, sugar, noodles, rice, and grains are very common pantry items. Canned and frozen items can be part of a pantry concept. You might even extend the idea of the pantry to include items that add flavor to food while preferably being relatively inexpensive. By keeping fresh garlic, fresh ginger root, lemons, parsley, onions, soy sauce, fruit preserves, olives, capers or other flavors that you enjoy around the kitchen you open up a broad array of options for making fast and tasty last minute meals. Stocking a pantry with items that are discounted is thus a way to combine two approaches at shopping more affordably. Add a bit of flexibility to your cooking and eating style and you can let discounted items dictate your shopping list.

Another approach is to eat seasonal foods. As a doctor, I encourage you to spend the majority of your time shopping in the produce section. This is where a lot of nutrition can be found. Learning about when during the year fruits and vegetables can grow locally in your region can help you eat foods that are local, fresh, and cost less. Vegetables that are grown locally cost substantially less when they are in abundance during the harvest time. You may find that certain vegetables you only buy frozen or canned during certain times of the year and you buy them fresh at other times for similar prices.

As I write this we are ending the time of year when apples are readily available in Minnesota. I was surprised to see wide variety of cost in local organic apples. Braeburn apples were priced at more than $9 for a 3 pound bag while Fuji apples were priced at $6 for a 3 pound bag.

Sharing foods and sharing cooking is an approach that some people take to reducing costs at the grocery store. There are a variety of approaches to this technique and a variety of ways that it can result in reducing your overall food expenses at the grocery store. One example is buying a 3 lb bag of apples at the grocery store, but splitting them between two households. This way you eat all of the apples, none get spoiled, and you are not sick of apples by the time you get to the second pound of apples in one week. This approach works well with potatoes and carrots as well which are often sold at discount in larger quantities.

You might enjoy trading dishes that you make with a neighbor or friend. Making two lasagnas and trading one for a dish that your neighbor makes for example. I have even heard of some people buying produce in bulk when it is in season and then canning or freezing it together. Doing this with others can help ease the burden of the work involved in doing this labor intensive process. Why not make a party of it?

Shopping the bulk foods and spices aisles at your co-op can lead you to particularly affordable options for high quality and organic foods. When purchasing spices in particular you can save a great deal by buying just the quantity you plan on using.

Consider foods that you like which happen to be expensive when organic or locally grown as special occasion foods. This might mean you don’t buy them at the grocery, but rather combine them with eating out at a restaurant where you are already paying more for food. It may mean expanding flexibility to your eating habits and eating less meat. Protein is an essential part of nutrition, but it comes in various forms which vary a great deal when it comes to cost. I know, I might be losing you by suggesting eating less meat. Notice I didn’t suggest that you eat no meat. It is possible to have a complete and healthy diet without eating any meat, but it is not necessary.

If I lost you on the eat less meat approach, you can use a similar concept on other non-meat items. What I mean, is that you may find that certain food items are particularly expensive when purchased through organic or local sources. Examples include many dairy items such as butter, milk and cheese. In the interest of expanding your eating style and shopping in a more affordable way, you may find it possible to shift your eating such that some of these expensive items (such as meat) become condiments. By this I mean, that you think of them as more of a flavorful side item or ingredient rather than a main dish of the meal.

In order to change your eating style to accommodate this type of thinking, you might find it useful to build your skills and abilities in the kitchen. Some ideas on how to do this are featured in a section of my e-book. Yup, that’s right. I am excited to announce that some of the most useful topics I have written about to help you in your efforts to be better are now available in one handy dandy little guide. You can find the Guide to Betterness in iBooks in the store. Here is a link.

For now, I wish you well in your adventure of eating well while feeling a little less broke at the grocery store.

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