This post is one of a series I've been writing tagged as "Social Responsibility" The series focuses on eating and shopping locally, choosing healthier food sources, supporting your local economy and merchants, and learning to do all these things without hurting your budget. I hope you enjoy the posts.
Over the past few months, I've been exposing myself to documentaries and books, and other literature revolving around food choices such as organic, local, all-natural, cage-free, free-range, etc. I've also been speaking to a few friends of mine who eat that way regularly. For a variety of reasons, which I will detail in future posts, I'm finding myself wanting to take advantage of many of these food choices but frustrated at the prices associated with them, which can often be 3 to 4 times the price of conventionally grown food.
That said, I'm slowly learning a few tricks and tips and I'd like to share them with you.
Take Advantage of Deals & Stock-Up
Many organic and socially responsible grocers offer weekly sales items even though they don't send out fliers. In the case of Whole Foods, one of the largest of these types of grocers, you can look-up your store's sales flier on their website.
When something is on sale, whether it be organic or free-range, or whatever, it's often close to the price of it's conventional counterpart at regular price. When I see those prices, I stock-up. This practice could make your grocery bills unpredictable (high one week and low the next), but it usually works out even in the end if your budget can deal with the fluctuation.
A perfect example is whole roaster and fryer chickens. I've seen packaged free-range fryers as cheap as 99 cents a pound and Bell & Evans roasters for $1.79 per pound. When I do, I buy two or three (depending on available freezer space).
Be Willing To Wait
Unlike the typical megamart, prices and availability have a tendency to fluctuate with market availability and the seasons. We've grown so used to everything being available year-round that we've forgotten the entire concept of eating what's in season. This is especially true with meats and veggies.
When something has a lower price because it's in-season, I take advantage of it. When they don't, I simply choose another veggie or meat that week or use something I have in the freezer.
Ask Questions & Special Order
If it isn't out on the shelf, it doesn't mean they don't have it. Ask someone. Butchers, deli, and produce employees at upscale grocery stores and local shops usually really know their products and don't always display everything they have or can get. Often, the item not on display is even cheaper than what is. If you want a particular cut of meat, ask for it. If they don't have what you want, ask if they can get it.
Case in point, I asked a guy stocking shelves for canned white beans one day day and he actually walked me to the opposite end of the store to show me where they were and then explained how I could buy ones packed in salt or ones packed in a special type of seaweed that supposedly helps you digest beans better and without many of the unpleasant side effects. Not only did he do all of this with a smile and interrupt his work stocking shelves, but I got a free lesson to boot. Certainly beats a blank stare and having, "Aisle six," grunted at you by a lethargic 16-year-old stock boy.
Don't Be In a Rush
The above-mentioned level of service does come with a price. In order to give other customers the same service you would like, the employees don't move too fast and you may get stuck in line for a bit. I once ordered six slices of prosciutto and the woman didn't have one open. It took her over 5 minutes to open the package, shave off some fat, and get the first slice off, but it was worth it.
To avoid problems, shopping late is a good strategy (like 1-2 hours before closing). It's usually much less busy and you don't usually need to rush to be somewhere. Also, if it looks like it'll be awhile to do a laborious task, often you can ask them if you can swing back and pick it up after you've finished working through the rest of the store. They may even be grateful if they can take the next three people in line before working on your more time-consuming order.
Make Quantity Changes To Your Diet
A friend of mine who shops almost exclusively locally and at Whole Foods recently told me that she's changed her way of eating so that they eat less meat and more veggies and she absolutely loves eating that way. This is similar to the philosophy behind Mark Bittman's book Food Matters. It also keeps her budget in line.
The premise is that "big business" and restaurants have brainwashed us into believing our portion sizes should be huge when, in reality, our bodies are scientifically built to only eat about a quarter of the protein, fat, and calories we generally eat. Whether you agree with the science behind it or not, there are a lot of well-known health benefits to increasing our veggie intake and decreasing our meat intake.
It just so happens that this model works well when shopping naturally because meat tends to have a higher difference in price from conventionally grown food than produce does. So double-up on the veggies and cut back on the meat. It'll save you money AND be a healthy choice.
Farm Stands & Farmer's Markets
Most communities have access to farmer's markets and farm stands these days, especially during the summer. Here in Rhode Island, we even have an indoor winter market. I try to make it to the market at least every other week and buy most of my veggies there.
Local & Non-Chain Stores
In most communities, there are few locally-owned grocery and food businesses left. However, if you're lucky enough to have them, they can be a great resource. They're often more than willing to stock items you like when asked and you usually can't beat the local knowledge and customer service.
Don't Try to go Whole-Hog
If you want to start buying organically, locally, or whatever, don't set the bar too high for yourself or you'll just get discouraged. I think many people, myself included, jump in head first and want 100% all at once. The simple fact is that it's difficult to do for financial and other reasons. Do what you can and don't worry about the rest. It's still way better than doing nothing.