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Families try eating organic on a budget

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I recall someone on here talking about the high cost of eating organic, but I can't find the old post!!! In any event, here is an interesting article on creative solutions to eating healthy!

Families try eating organic on a budget

Premium prices force health-conscious to find creative solutions

Tim Roske / AP

The Associated Press

Updated: 3:55 p.m. ET June 08, 2004ALTAMONT, N.Y. -

They buy rice at a co-op, fruit at farm stands and organic beef on Sundays, when supermarkets cut prices to clear the shelves.

Janelle Fletcher and her husband adopted those strategies to achieve two goals that can seem incompatible: Feeding their family of five organic food and staying within a middle-class budget.

Even as organics move from its health food niche into the mainstream, premium prices remain in many cases. Health-conscious families are left to find creative solutions to eat naturally on a budget. It can involve a bit of hunting and gathering, bulk-buying, and thinking outside the grocery cart.

“We do eat well despite not being wealthy,” Fletcher said. “That’s one thing I don’t quibble about.”

Organic food — produced without pesticides, growth hormones or other additives — accounts for slightly less than 2 percent of U.S. food sales. But the market has been on a healthy growth spurt. Organic food sales almost tripled from 1997 through 2003 to $10.38 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Industry officials expect the double-digit annual growth to continue.

More consumers getting savvy

Mad cow disease scares and concerns about pesticide-laden produce are among the factors cited for organic’s popularity. But an overarching reason appears to be that consumers are more interested about what is in their food, whether it’s carbs, fat, hydrogenated oils or chemicals. Organic advocates offer one more reason: flavor.

“Anybody who tries the organic stuff, you don’t go back,” said Fletcher, whose family lives near Albany, N.Y. “My chicken soup with organic chickens is so much better. The fat is better. It has a better quality.”

Organic food can be costlier for a number of reasons, including higher labor costs and economies of scale. A recent trip to the supermarket showed organic broccoli selling for a dollar more a head than conventional broccoli and organic carrots costing a third more. Organic ribeye steaks were priced for two dollars more a pound.

How to eat organic affordably

Ronnie Cummins of the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association said people always ask him how to eat organic affordably. He points them beyond the supermarket.

Cummins suggests food buying clubs, which allow a bunch of people to pool their purchasing power and buy straight from wholesalers. Liz Welch, Cummins’ sister-in-law, said her family teams up with four others in their Minneapolis neighborhood to order — then split up — cases of organic macaroni & cheese, tomatoes and natural sodas.

Cummins also advocates Community Supported Agriculture, in which people agree to pay a “share” of a farm’s operating expenses. In return they get regular deliveries of whatever crop is coming in, be it peas, patty pan squash or rhubarb.

Alice Waters, the Berkeley, Calif., restaurateur and sustainable agriculture guru, advises people to go straight to the source and buy food at farmers’ markets. She also says people should grow their own, noting that even city dwellers have access to community gardens.

A keystone of many organic strategies is buying grains and other dry goods in bulk. Local food cooperatives are stocked with bins of brown rice, quinoa, cayenne, raisins and nuts. The cooperatives shave costs by having shoppers provide their own packages. Shoppers also can get discounts in return for working a set number of hours each month.

Not an easy lifestyle

While buying in quantity makes economic sense, it requires planning. What can a family cook do with a mound of bulgur? Fletcher made organic meatballs. Waters suggests preserving and pickling when possible, like canning tomatoes when the harvest bounty makes them dirt cheap.

Waters admits the organic lifestyle can be time-consuming but said the canning, pickling and preparation can be an enjoyable activity shared by the family.

And yes, getting kids to eat their grains can be a challenge. But parents report success.

“I’ve convinced my 6-year-old to eat oatmeal and raisins in the morning instead of what he’d like to eat, which would be a breakfast cereal with a lot of sugar in it,” Cummins said.

The good news, in Cummins’ view, is that it’s getting easier to root out organic bargains. He said the organic market is getting big enough so that sales are more common. Holly Givens of the Organic Trade Association said the margin between organic and conventional products has been closing.

Higher prices linger, though. Fletcher recalls passing over tempting organic strawberries for $3.50 a pint after seeing non-organic berries at half the price.

“I could get two of them for the same price, so I didn’t buy (organic),” she said.


Understanding the labels.....

Organic. Natural. Free-range. Those in search of healthier food can find themselves in a whirlwind of labels. Some, like the certified organic mark, can help the discerning shopper. Many -– including the word "natural" itself -– tell us little about what’s in our food and how it was produced.

The best way to check on your food is to talk to the people who made it. That can be difficult, so you might try producers' Web sites or ask the buyers at your local market.

As the only federally certified standard, organic labels have specific requirements, though some loopholes remain. Produce must be grown without synthetic fertilizers or chemicals. Genetic engineering and several other techniques are prohibited. Animals eat organic feed and must be treated humanely.

But be careful: Even organic labels must be read closely.

Organic producer: Some 90 certifiers, approved by the USDA, check every step of the process from farm to finished package.

Farms that grow or raise organic foods must receive their own certification. Ingredients, like organic flour, must be certified.

The final product must be certified too, along with the company that makes it. A certification seal for the producer appears on packages of organic foods.

Organic product: Only a product with 95 to 100 percent organic ingredients is considered a true organic product. The exact percentage is sometimes listed on the package. Only these may contain the word organic in the product name: organic milk, organic cereal.

And only these may carry the USDA’s organic seal, though they don't have to. The certifying agency's name must always be listed.

Made with organic ingredients: Products using the "made with" label contain between 70 and 94 percent organic ingredients. They cannot be called organic products and can't use the USDA seal, but must name their certifier. Labels should be examined closely. The word "organic" may appear several places on the label.

Anything with less than 70 percent organic ingredients can't be marketed as organic.

Plenty of other labels show up besides the organic tag. A few have basic government guidelines, but most aren't regulated and are the responsibility of the food producer.

NATURAL: Probably the most used, and perhaps the least meaningful. Basic guidelines exist for "natural" meat and poultry products: no artificial ingredients or colors, and minimal processing. But it tells you nothing about animals' food or treatment.

Though companies use it to denote products without artificial ingredients, it has no officially defined meaning for fruits, vegetables or other foods.

GRASS-FED: Usually refers to meat and poultry that eat grass, silage or hay, not grain or other feed. Unregulated.

Only meaningful if it is "100 percent grass-fed" or similar. Otherwise, the animals may have been given normal feed.

"Grass-finished" or "pasture-finished" can be more helpful, as it often indicates animals ate grass or silage until slaughter.

NO GMOs: Refers to products made without the use of genetically-modified organisms. Unregulated. While it can be hard to guarantee products are completely GMO-free, many ingredients can be verified as genetically unmodified. All organic ingredients must not be GMOs.

However, U.S. foods that do use GMOs are not required to be labeled as such.

FREE-RANGE: Another popular but largely unregulated term. Basic USDA free-range rules say poultry must have some access to the outside. It does not specify how much and it does not verify claims.

The term has almost no meaning in terms of livestock or eggs.

"Cage-free" is a more precise term, indicating animals were allowed to roam openly, though it is not regulated either.

NO HORMONES: Another unregulated claim.

Because animals have natural hormones, labels are beginning to indicate more precise terms, like "no added hormones," or "no hormones administered," for which the USDA has basic standards.

With the exception of organic products, standards are not verified.

VEGETARIAN DIET or GRAIN FED: Like "grass fed," but animals may also have been fed corn or other grain. Only meaningful if it includes "100 percent" or similar. Otherwise, meat or poultry may have been fed animal by-products.

The terms are unregulated and unverified.

* Quality Assurance International (QAI) is a popular organic certifier. Dozens of other groups also certify. Source: MSNBC research, Eco-labels.org •

© 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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