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5 Ways to Spend Your Organic Food Dollars Wisely

The economy is making us all second-guess every purchase we make -- including what we eat.
Who could have missed the cow with the dollar bills hanging out of his mouth on the cover of the business section last weekend? Cute? Yes. But the message was a serious downer. It turns out the economy is making us all second-guess every purchase we make -- including what we eat. Nielsen Company, a market research firm, reported that organic food sales rose only 4 percent in the four week period ending October 4th, compared to 20 percent a year in recent years. What's keeping shoppers from purchasing organic food? Cost. No question. And who can blame them? But let's understand why and what we can do about it. Organic food usually will cost at least 50 percent more than conventionally grown food and sometimes much more than that. There are several reasons, some of them pretty surprising.

First, organic food is more expensive to produce. Without cheap fertilizers and pesticides, farmers have to do a lot more manual labor, and people are much more expensive than petrochemicals. Additionally, organic farming operations aren't big enough to achieve economies of scale.

Secondly, demand has outstripped supply -- there simply are not enough people growing and producing organic ingredients. And if you recall from your economics class, when demand is greater than supply, prices are higher.

And finally, there is the cost of farm subsidies. Every year the U.S. government pays many conventional farmers -- including many giant mid-western agricultural corporations -- billions of dollars in subsidies. One effect of these subsidies is that the price of many products in your supermarket, especially meat, is lower than it would be without these subsidies. So when you look at the cost of, say, a pot roast, you'll need to add in the tax dollars you paid April 15 to get a clue about the real price of that piece of conventionally raised meat.

But I won't let you give up on the health of your family. You do not need to give up on organic -- just curtail your organic spending and focus on the area where you get the biggest bang for your buck. Stick with these strategies and you will soon see your organic dollar stretching farther while you keep your family healthier.

-- Buy Smart: The Environmental Working Group found that you can reduce your pesticide intake by 90 percent if you ate only organic versions of the following produce: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes.

-- Shop Around: Pricing for organic foods is sometimes … well, let's just call it whimsical. So may different retail outlets are selling organic products these days that there are bargains available if you just take the time to look for them.

-- Buy Local: Many supermarkets feature locally grown vegetables, fruits, and meat in season and there are more and more farmers' markets every year. Foods in season tend to be cheaper, because they're abundant then (it's that supply and demand thing again).

-- Join a Co-op: In many cities, there are full-service natural foods supermarkets that also function as co-ops. That means when you join you get an automatic discount on everything you buy (sometimes on specific days of the week).

-- Grow Your Own: Is there a corner in your yard, or some section of your apartment balcony, that gets sun most of the day? Well, farm it! Seriously, you'd be amazed at how much you can grow in a tiny space. In a box roughly two feet square, you can grow enough mixed salad greens to keep you going for months!
Sloan Barnett is a contributor to NBC’s Today Show and the green editor for KNTV, the NBC affiliate in the San Francisco bay area. She's the author of the new book, Green Goes with Everything: Simple Steps to a Healthier Life and a Cleaner Planet.
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