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Deliciously Affordable: One Mama’s Adventure in Feeding Her Family Organic Food on a Budget 

by Joli Forbes

photo: alexandra de furio

Several (hundred) moons ago, I was a young college student in Northern California, which is an entirely different planet than my current home in Los Angeles, learning about food production and consumption from a fresh perspective. I learned about veganism, ecofeminism, organics, and how unscrupulous the meat, dairy and media propaganda machines (probably all the same machine) really are.

Once educated, I came to understand one of my truths:  organic is the only healthy way to go for the world, the people, and for me. While my mind understood these truths it would take me until now—some 15 years later—to turn thought into action on a regular basis. At the time, the organic movement had my steadfast mental support but I was not willing to prioritize the financial change. I simply couldn’t afford it—especially with all that beer I was buying on my pizza delivery job salary! 


Consciousness is a holistic practice, one that is constantly evolving, so we learn and we change and we make mistakes and we learn some more. I have finally made the choice—both mentally and financially—to shop organically and have begun my trial-and-error process to learn about organic gardening. One day I will follow my dream to live as an organic farmer who feeds a café full of foodies … but that’s a whole other story! 

I am a wife, pregnant mother, the family grocery shopper and cook—I would have it no other way for these are honestly some of my favorite activities in life. There are 6 human mouths, two finicky canine palates and one adorable rat named CJ in our house. We buy a lot of food! I do not make a lot of money, so instead of denying my family the deliciously healthy benefits of organic foods, I have learned and developed some tricks for affording organics on a budget—and lucky for me, since my college days, shopping organically has become much more affordable.


Farmers’ Markets vs. Grocery Stores

First and foremost, I try to buy produce that’s in season and shop locally—which used to mean shopping at farmer’s markets. Here in Los Angeles this is no longer the most cost-effective method of shopping organically. In my town, I’m finding that these days it’s actually cheaper to shop the organic section of grocery stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes  (and even Ralphs, the local conventional supermarket, in some parts of town) than to shop at farmer’s markets. Unless you develop some kind of personal relationship with the grower, seller, or both, farmers’ market produce is shockingly more expensive. 

After speaking with a farmers’ market vendor, John Givens Farms (in Ventura County, CA)—a 10-year veteran of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market—I’ve come to understand some reasons why this is currently true. Since the organic movement has gained so much recent gusto and the grocery stores have jumped on the organic band wagon, it is cheaper for organic farmers to fill a giant truck and deliver it to one grocery store than to fill that same giant truck and deliver to six different farmers’ markets on any given day. Never mind the petroleum and truck maintenance associated with all that commuting, but the farmers also have to pay the overhead costs of market booth fees (which pay for things like real estate and taxes) and shift fees for the veggie slingers at each stand.  All in all, shopping organically has become easier and cheaper since the major supermarket chains have begun to carry organic produce.


Organic Gardening: Lessons and Rewards

I am rarely convinced that packaging and store signs are telling me the truth, so I am leaning toward gardening organically and I’m coming to find gardening can be a risky business (yet so worth it in the end)! My family and I have planted herb and veggie gardens around our rental property, and we share the bounty of neighbors’ fruit trees. Gardening is a giant learning curve and takes years of accumulated wisdom to understand the symbiotic ways of weather and plants. Buying organic starts (sprouted, potted plants) is a less risky way to go than seeds, for someone else has taken on the gamble involved with the germination process. While starts are more hearty and probable to produce fruit than seeds they cost quite a bit more. 

If you buy seeds and wait with hope that they’ll germinate in the ground and sprout, this is a cheaper process than buying starts, however, you might find yourself six weeks into growing season with very little growth … much like what first happened to me! Being at the mercy of Mother Nature during global warming’s drastic weather changes has proven a very risky time for my gardening education! Every lesson is valuable, and I remain grateful for my ability to buy organic produce while I learn how to grow it.


Reduce and Renew: Utilize Every Ounce of Your Organic Produce 

Once you have your organic produce, it is the most cost-effective to use every bit of the bounty in as many recipes as it will stretch out to. I keep a large container with a lid in my fridge that houses veggie scraps and every few days I boil them down into soups and/or broths. The broths I use to cook with and the soups can be made out of boiled down everything … even asparagus butts and broccoli stems—both of which are full of vitamins and delicious when blended into a soup with potato, celery, and carrot.


Location, Location, Location: Buying Organic Dry Goods in Bulk 

Buying organic dry goods in bulk has also become more accessible than ever before. Mega stores like Costco carry numerous organic products. Unfortunately some of them come with mega packaging, but the cost effectiveness of buying in bulk can’t be beat as long as you’re diligent with recycling the plastics surrounding them.

Bulk bin shopping, in theory, is more cost effective in part because this process eliminates the growers’ packaging costs. Most organic food companies place smaller packaging orders than the conventional producers and are therefore charged a higher cost per unit for their packaging … which is of course offset to us, the consumers. 

My family and I also bring jars and reusable bags to the bulk bins at local markets to keep costs down and to lessen the amount of trash that’s packed out of our house (I love Mason and Ball jars … it’s my little bit of country!). However, in the course of writing this article, I came to realize that—in Los Angeles anyway— it is not always cheaper to buy from bulk bins as I had thought. After some personal inquiries, it turns out that bulk bin shopping in my area is not very popular so shopping them is somewhat of a novelty. In smaller, more rural communities shopping in bulk bins can be a more cost-effective way to shop for dry goods because local producers can fill bins less expensively than packaging them and sending them to far-off lands. 


You really have to do your local research to find out the cheapest ways to shop organically for your town. Perishable commodities are priced differently in many different ways and for each locale. My best advice as a mother, a chef, and a serious food lover, is to always buy in-season organic foods and waste none of them! Everything can be used for extreme deliciousness and to get the most out of your hard earned money. 

(P.S. We are going to begin feeding our dogs and our rat, CJ, our organic food scraps instead of serving them pre-packaged, store-bought “what-the-heck-is-in there” dry foods. But that, too, is another story!)

Bon Appetit!

Joli Selten Forbes is a freelance writer, photographer and poet based in Valley Village, CA. She is a mother, dancer, gardener and foodie who instigates change in her home and community for what she calls the “Revolution of Consciousness” currently underway. She holds a degree in Journalism from the University of Oregon who's professional bylines can be found at, Flaunt, Shape, Bon Appétit, the LA Times, Press Democrat, Orange Coast Magazine, Minnesota Law & Politics, URB, and many other magazines and newspapers. She is also a regular volunteer for local organizations like Food Not Bombs and music/art festivals like Lightning in a Bottle. 

Reader Comments (1)

Most of the people think that organic foods are expensive but this is not the case every time. If you want to buy organic in a budget then you can go to local farmer's market and buy fresh farm products. The local farmers are using organic farming now a days and they are selling organic products at affordable rates. The product in grocery stores are expensive and thus people are not buying it.
May 22, 2013 at 5:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterStephen Lewis

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