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Eat better with less: How to buy organic on a budget

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FARGO — Eating organic, vegan or gluten-free can help people become healthier, but their waistline may not be the only thing that's shrinking. According to a 2015 Consumer Report, organic food was 47 percent more expensive than food by conventional means, on average.

The accessibility of these dietary options are increasing in the Fargo-Moorhead area, but the affordability can still be an issue.

"Most conventional growers — when they have a problem with weeds and pesticides — they just spray chemicals on it," says Jodi Regan, marketing coordinator at Prairie Roots Food Co-op in Fargo. "These chemicals get into whatever the product is, and the consumer has to deal with it being absorbed into the product."

Growing organic takes more work and often the consumer is paying for the extra labor, like when the organic growers pick out weeds and remove pests by hand.

"Chemicals will always be cheaper than human labor," Regan says.

In addition, organic farmers may not use the same technology as conventional farmers which may add time to the production process. Usually, organic farmers pay more for their non-GMO seeds as well.

"There are food subsidies that make conventional food less expensive," she says. "Right now these subsidies are not given to organic farmers."

Regan says if you can afford organic, it's worth the buy but she also recognizes that some can't manage the added expense. Consider these four tips to find affordable organic products.

Ask what's in season

Seasonal buying is choosing fresh produce based on its particular growing season. When consumers buy seasonal produce, they find the freshest fruits and vegetables that haven't been shipped internationally.

"We've been trained to think that there are four seasons, but there are actually six seasons when it comes to growing," Regan says.

Often a person's palette and general knowledge of recipes will expand as they start to shop seasonally.

"It's hard for us to gravitate towards certain ingredients — like bitter ones — because we used to have things on their own," she says. "We used to have green beans, potatoes and chicken. But cooking seasonally is the most intricate when you have different flavors interacting with each other."

Regan says it's important to get to know local producers and produce managers at your chosen store. "These people can suggest recipes that will introduce you to different flavors," she says.

Choose 'ugly food'

Just like consumers have been conditioned to think of four seasons, they have also been conditioned to view produce in a certain way — void of irregular formations or discolorations.

"Many times people don't choose the fruit that has a bruise on it," Regan says. "These bruised fruit usually have more sugar concentration than others. I always wait until my produce is a little overripe before freezing so it has the most flavor."

At the Prairie Roots Food Coop, an ugly food bin offers produce marked down 30 percent. Another grocery store — Cash Wise, off 13th Ave. S. in Fargo — has an ugly food bin.

Buy fresh, not frozen

Generally, frozen organic produce will be more expensive so, to save a few dollars, buy fresh in-season produce and package it in small ziplock baggies to freeze for later use.

"I generally always have corn and green beans in my freezer, along with a jar of some kind of sauce," Regan says. "This way if I need to, I can come home and just throw something together."

Buy small amounts and shop often

Regan recommends to adopt a more "European way of shopping" and get into the practice of buying for the day, instead of the week.

Use bulk bins and buy only what the recipe needs instead of purchasing a large package that may sit on your shelf for the next 12 months.

"All grocery stores do things to make food more accessible where they price items per ounce or put things in plastic bags," she says. "You think you're getting a better deal, but really you're getting the same amount as you would individually."

Why food prices vary

All grocery items' costs can vary, influenced by distributor pricing, quality or supplier deals, according to Thekitchen.com. Even at organic markets, the rules stay fairly the same.

"Prices get set pretty simply — our local producers set their product costs and then we mark them up slightly to pay for our own overhead," Regan says. "Our primary wholesale supplier works with us to set SRPs (suggested retail price) based on the margin goals set for the various departments of our store."

If stores work with local producers, occasionally there will be rigid restrictions if the producer requires an item to be sold at a certain price. Also, if the store is part of corporations, then there might be other factors like a required margin that affect the price.

With sales tax, food and food ingredients sold in grocery stores for home-use is exempt in North Dakota.

"We're lucky because some of our local farmers produce in a style of organic farming but they haven't gone through all the certification," she says. "Because of this, sometimes you can find local, organic produce as cheap as conventional."

April Knutson

April Knutson is lifestyle-focused journalist producing stories for the Forum News Service about people, health, community issues, and services. She earned her degree in both English Literature and Mass Communications. After working as a digital marketing specialist and web design consultant for a few years, she joined Forum Communications in 2015. She grew up on a farm near Volga, S.D. Follow her on Twitter @april_knutson.

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