Organic economics: The budget version
Organic markets have been cutting prices. Should you buy?
Going organic has become a lot less trendy in the struggling economy.
As consumers have cut back spending, one of the first places they’ve looked to save is in the organics aisle at the grocery store. Sixty percent of consumers say they have changed their organic purchasing habits since the recession hit, according to a December study from market researcher Mintel. Three percent have stopped buying organic altogether.
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The single biggest factor: price. Consumers have nicknamed Whole Foods "Whole Paycheck" for its high prices, and the store has struggled with that image over the last year, says Michelle Chang, an analyst who covers the supermarket industry for Morningstar. One thing that Whole Foods and other natural retailers have done to retain customers is cut prices to stay competitive. Whole Foods has also been pushing its lower-priced private label, which includes organics, she says.
When is the higher price of organics worth it? Here are five ways to shop within your budget:
Prioritize your organics. Some produce requires less pesticide to grow, and so retains little or no residue after washing, according to the Environmental Working Group, a public health nonprofit. Peels on bananas and other tropical fruits further reduce your exposure.
Should You Buy Organic?
Not Worth It
* Data from the Environmental Working Group.
Peaches, apples, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes (imported)
Bananas, kiwi, mangoes, papaya, pineapples
Celery, potatoes, spinach, sweet bell peppers, lettuce
Asparagus, avocados, broccoli, sweet corn (frozen), onions, sweet peas (frozen)
Join a co-op. “It’s like the farmer’s market seven days a week,” says Mark Kastel, co-director and senior farm policy analyst for The Cornucopia Institute, a research group that promotes sustainable and organic farming. The Iowa Food Cooperative in Ames, Iowa, charges a one-time $50 fee to join, and $10 every year thereafter. In exchange, members get access to low-priced food from local farms. For example, 5 pounds of certified organic whole-wheat flour cost $7.50. (In comparison, that much King Arthur organic whole-wheat flour will set you back roughly $8.75 at the supermarket. You'll save 14%.)
Keep in mind that some co-ops require a more substantial commitment to save. The Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, requires a $25 joining fee, an investment of $100 (refunded when you leave the co-op). You must also work at the co-op, for at least two hours and 45 minutes every four weeks.
Clip coupons. Organics don’t often pop up in the Sunday coupon circular, but keep your eyes open for manufacturers’ coupons good on “any” of a particular product line. For example, a recent 50-cent Quaker oatmeal coupon: “It doesn’t say organic specifically, but you can use it on Quaker’s instant organic oatmeal,” says Teri Gault, the founder of shopping site The Grocery Game.
Buy in season. In-season produce is cheap to begin with, and organic prices are more competitive, Kastel says. Compare prices at farmer’s markets and local supermarkets. At New York food delivery service FreshDirect.com, for example, both conventional and organic spinach are currently priced at two bundles for $5.
Consider generics. Many supermarkets are adding organic lines to their private labels, a move that enables consumers to buy organic at significant discounts over big-name brands, says Gault. Meijer has Meijer Organics, Whole Foods has 360 Organics, and Publix has GreenWise Market. “When the store-brand organic is on sale, it’s a killer deal,” says Gault.
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