The practice of eating organic and locally grown foods dates back thousands of years to when the first nomadic hunter-gatherer put down his bow and arrow and took up a hoe to farm. However, the Industrial Revolution of the early 1900s introduced new techniques for crop cultivation, including the use of chemical applications as well as the invention of mass transportation methods to move foods far and wide.
In the early 1970s a small movement, spurred by events like the publication of Rachel Carson's bestseller "Silent Spring" (1962), which argued that widespread pesticide use was harming birds, animals and people, began crusading against industrial, chemically-treated food and instead encouraged the growth and consumption of organic, locally grown food products, both for health and environmental reasons. (Put a little green in your wallet by investing in these Top 10 Green Industries.)
The movement grew incrementally over 20 years and found its legs in the 1990s, rapidly going mainstream. Today big-name corporate conglomerates such as PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) and Coca-Cola (Nasdaq:COKE) have jumped on the bandwagon producing a flood of organically labeled products and helping introduce more competitive pricing to the organic market niche.
The Movement Today
In the last few years a new, related movement - the "eat local" or "localvore" movement - has taken root. The concept behind the movement is that buying food from local farmers and producers can help improve the environment (no transportation costs means no energy consumption and pollution), improve people's health, and improve small farmers' likelihood for financial sustainability.
While you may have more organic and locally-grown food options, the bottom line for your personal budget is how much is it going to cost you? Let's look at the financial pros and cons for eating a local and/or organic diet. (Trim the fat from your grocery bill to reduce the impact of food cost on your budget with 22 Ways To Fight Rising Food Prices.)
Unfortunately there are a few financial realities to eating locally and/or organically, such as:
It's More Expensive
It seems counterintuitive, but the reality is that on average organic and locally grown food is still more expensive than non-organic, "imported" food that is flown, trucked or shipped in from far away. Organic food is more expensive to produce because it requires labor-intensive cultivation and harvesting techniques and most farmers produce small volumes so they have to charge more per unit than their large, mass-producing non-organic farming and food-producing competitors.
There May Be Fees
Community sponsored agriculture (CSA) is one way that many Americans choose to obtain their locally-grown and/or organic produce and food products. When you join a CSA you are, in effect, buying a "share" of a farm and your investment reaps a food dividend - you periodically receive deliveries of fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and/or grain products produced on the farm. It's a delicious investment, but one that still requires that you lay out some cash up front in the form of a membership fee, potentially in addition to the cost of food.
Those cons aside, let's look at the financial benefits of eating organic and/or locally-grown foods.
While most naysayers cite the higher cost as the reason for not changing their diet, the reality is that there are tangible financial benefits to eating organic and/or locally-grown foods including:
Healthy Foods Can Mean Healthcare Savings
One of the most obvious potential benefits of eating organic foods is that they are typically much healthier than non-organic foods. Think crunchy carrots instead of cellophane-wrapped cupcakes. While an organic diet isn't going to solve all of your health issues, it does offer one way of potentially improving your overall health and producing a healthier wallet. Better health means that you may very well be able to:
- Save money on over-the-counter drugs costs
- Qualify for a health plan that offers lower health insurance premiums, lower (or no) deductibles, and lower co-pay costs
- Make fewer visits to the doctor's office, saving money on office visit co-pays and prescription drug costs
With healthcare costs outpacing wages and inflation by a wide margin (131% increase in healthcare costs over the past 10 years compared to a wage increase of just 38% and inflation of 28%, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation), eating healthfully may be your best weapon to reduce your healthcare spending.
Better Food Means You'll Eat Less
Another financial benefit of eating organic food is that it tends to be a higher-quality food containing fewer high-calorie, low-nutrient fillers that lead to being hungrier sooner. When you eat whole, healthy foods you are likely to require less food to make you feel full. Less food to buy = more money saved.
Buying and Budgeting
One of the financial benefits of becoming a CSA farm member is that you know in advance how much you'll be charged for your produce/products which can help you better budget for grocery shopping. In addition, when you know what food you'll receive each week (i.e. a basket of fruits or vegetables or an order of meat), you can plan menus around your CSA goodies; shopping from a predetermined menu is a proven way to save money. (Stick to your budget every day with these 15 simple tips to Squeeze A Greenback Out Of Your Latte.)
Supply and Demand Works to Your Advantage
Eating locally involves not only eating items grown in your area, but also foods that are grown in-season. By eating in sync with the growing season, you're eating items when they're at their most plentiful. Remember Econ 101? Ample supply = lower prices.
Mainstream Means Savings
As the organic and "eat local" food movements have swelled in popularity, big business has responded. Today grocery stores nationwide and big box stores (like Wal-Mart) are stocking more organic foods which, in turn, lowers the relative price.
While the price for organic items can be incrementally higher than non-organic, the trend means that you don't have to shop at high-price health food stores to get organic staples including fruits, vegetables, grain products, meats, dairy foods, seasonings and more. As more consumers create a demand for organic or locally-grown items, sellers will respond and the prices will continue to drop.
Buying In Bulk
Buying in bulk almost always lowers your price per unit, and it's no different when it comes to buying locally-grown food. If a certain crop is in season, buying it in bulk can save money in two ways. (Find out why getting more for less isn't always a great deal in The Dark Side Of Bulk Buying.)
For example, buying a bushel of blueberries from a local farmer's market will cost less than buying non-locally grown produce from your grocery store (saving money method #1) and enables you to whip up batches of homemade blueberry muffins, pancakes, pies and more for a fraction of what you would pay for similar pre-made products in the freezer section (saving money method #2).
In addition, buying and freezing crops at the right time means you won't pay higher prices when they are no longer in season. And chances are frozen, in-season fruit will be better quality and taste than fruit forced to grow out of season.
Learn more about eating organic and locally-grown foods, and find sustainable farms in your area, through LocalHarvest.org or SustainableTable.org.
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