Is It More Expensive to Eat Local and Organic?

Jenn DiPiazza Campus is a homespun cook who blogs at The Leftover Queen about using leftovers and pantry essentials to make frugal, healthy and delicious meals, using local, seasonal and traditional foods.  You’ll likely find Melissa Ortiz at the farmers’ market, local meat markets, and the various ethnic markets around southern California, seeking out the best of what her neighborhood has to offer — and writing about it on her site, Alosha’s Kitchen.

Today they have teamed up to discuss the cost-effectiveness of eating local and organic by sharing some of their personal experiences and research from two different sides of the country.

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Preserving Winter Tomatoes

We can hear the objections now: “It’s more expensive to buy good food!”

No, more often than not, it isn’t. Sadly, we have had the propaganda of packaged and processed foods shoved in our faces until we believe that cooking from bags and boxes is the best we can do with our time and our money. But it isn’t true and we are the living proof. In the last year, we have both seen our food budgets drop by a good 30 to 35 percent.

We know if taste is a motivating factor for most of us, that money either supersedes or just follows that. Or does it all just boil down to convenience? We invite you to throw out what you think you know and do the opposite. You will save money over time.

Times are tough, economically speaking. That said, we really do believe that you can eat good food for less than a meal at a fast food restaurant, and even cheaper and healthier than the frozen food section of your grocery store, especially over time. We even daresay that in the time it takes you to drive to a fast food restaurant, wait in line for your order, and then drive back home, you could have made a better meal at home for about the same price.

Let’s do some math. Say a fast food meal is $3 per person if you use the dollar menu – you can get a burger, fries, and a drink for $3. That is still more than most of the meals we make at home because in our own kitchens we can “stretch” meat, veggies, and grains to make enough for leftovers (making more of something like a casserole takes the same time and effort as making enough for one meal – and it saves time later). This is especially true if you are cooking for a family. Burgers and fries for four is about $12 at mealtime for the whole family. It is hard to stretch a fast food meal or have leftovers, so once you’ve eaten the $12 worth of food, it is gone. Not so with cooking at home and having leftovers.

But the deal is this, and we will make it simple: You have to be willing to cook. You have to make food from scratch. That is where you have to make your stand and your change, and take better care of yourself and family.

We won’t lie. It takes thought, it takes planning from time to time, and it takes a willingness to learn new things in the kitchen – but hey, if you’re reading this, you probably want to learn new things in the kitchen, right?

Here are some simple steps you can take to put more local and organic foods on your table:

1. Find a Farmer’s Market.

It’s usually not hard these days to find farmer’s market information online. Do a quick search and see what you have nearby. We cannot stress this enough. If you’ve never had crisp, bright vegetables and juicy, in season fruits from an outdoor market, you really don’t know what you’re missing. In our experience, you’ll spend less than you would at the grocery store every time, sometimes by 40 percent. You’ll be supporting your local farmers and other food purveyors. And it’s fun! It’s a great way to get out and about on the weekend, on your own, or with your kids. Abundant free samples keep everybody happy, too.

Read More: The Cost Difference Between Farmers Market and the Grocery Store

2. Buy in Bulk, On Sale, and Preserve.

Stock up your pantry and freezer during sales with good, healthy staples that you enjoy and use regularly – especially for the highest ticket items, like meat or frozen organic berries. You can also visit your local health food store and do the same – especially grains, lentils and flours. To get an even better deal, order staples like flours, grains, legumes, etc. online, or ask your local health food store to do it for you. You can save almost ¼ of the cost if you buy in bulk. You can also buy in bulk from your local farmer or farmers’ market at the height of the season, during bumper crops, for cheap and preserve these items for later use.

Read More: Food Preservation For Beginners

3. Find a Good Butcher or Local Farm.

This one might be slightly more daunting, but you won’t know until you look. Try searching for “meat market” plus your zip code in Google. Try searching on Yelp by zip code and Grocery. Check out for farms in your area where you can get grassfed beef, pasture raised eggs, local cheeses, raw milk, etc. You may be surprised at what you find. Yes, it can be more expensive. But really, you can afford breakfast for 50 cents. Which is the average cost of a farm fresh egg. Still too expensive? Buy less. Or better yet, buy more, as in bulk. See if you can go in on a share. There are shares from lambs, to pigs to even cows! You may be able to cut costs even more by learning to cut up your own share. You may not know it if you’ve never tried anything else, but the meat, eggs and dairy in your chain grocer’s bin is, in a word, horrible on so many levels. Once you taste the “good stuff,” you will never, ever want to go back. Once you have the raw materials, you can even make your own dairy products, like cheese, yogurt or kefir.

Read More: Making Your Own Dairy Products

4. Find the Hidden Gems of Your Neighborhood.

For Melissa, this ranges from local fish to an amazing French-Japanese bakery to a good Italian market. For Jenn, it is all the local farm stores that sell not only that farm’s products, but many times also other local products. Each time you find something new, you will smack yourself for not finding it sooner. All it takes is a quick search. You will miss out on a lot of beautiful – and often, cheap! – foods by sticking to your routines. Look around you. Be amazed.

5. Cook Every Day.

This is a no-brainer. You know what you like, you know how to cook (and you can learn more every day!), and if you’re buying good ingredients, you are eating like a king compared to the family at the chain restaurant down the street. Cooking can be as simple as throwing veggies and meat in a crock pot and switching the button on. Literally less than five minutes of prep time. Can a fast food joint beat that timing? You save money and time, and as we keep emphasizing, everything tastes so. much. better. Which brings us to the last point…

6. Stop Eating Out.

Or, if you do eat out, choose a locally-owned joint, not a chain. That little Thai restaurant in the strip mall a few minutes away is going to serve you food with more love and care than any loud, large-menu, run-of-the-mill place ever could. Or that place that sources local ingredients? You want to support them, because they in turn are supporting your local farmers and economy. That is a win-win. That big restaurant chain doesn’t need your money. The guy who owns the place with twelve tables trying to feed his family needs your money. Go there. Your palate will thank you.

7. Start Today.

There’s no time like the present.  To help you with scheduling meal prep into a busy lifestyle, here are several recipes with all the best ingredients (like grassfed beef and organic vegetables) for under $3 per hefty serving:

Making Your Own Convenience Food

Make Your Own Bread

2-for-1 Chicken

Beans and Rice -The Ultimate Leftover Meal

Eating on the Fly: Acorn Squash with Sausage Stuffing

Nourishing and Comforting Shepard’s Pie

And there you have it. Doesn’t seem that crazy, does it?

Shopping well takes willingness to drive to more places and, as we’ve said above, it also takes a bit more planning. In a single week, you might go to the farmers’ market, the meat market, and the regular grocery store (for things like rice and baking items – unless you order them online) and whatever ethnic shops or bakeries are in the area for your weekly menu. But if you make the effort, one step at a time, after a while, you will wonder how you ever did it any other way. Your food will taste infinitely better, your wallet will be fatter, and you will, without even thinking of it, be helping the environment, your community and the food world at large. Good for all of us.

A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

Welcome to Eating Rules!

Hi! My name is Andrew Wilder, and I think healthy eating doesn’t have to suck. With just three simple eating rules, we'll kickstart your journey into the delicious and vibrant world of unprocessed food.

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October 21, 2010 2:46 pm

Hi again, I agree with Melissa – “just do what you can.” In my experience shopping at farmers’ markets in downtown Boston and in NYC, the prices are, on average, higher than at supermarkets for both organic and non-organic produce. In this part of the country, I think it has more to do with city permits, transportation costs and the fact that it costs farmers much more to be rated “organic.” This past summer when I was buying some cucumbers and peppers from a farmer at the Back Bay farmers’ market we started talking about organic versus non-organic. He told me that his farm uses fewer pesticides, but cannot afford to be rated organic. His fellow farmer at the next stand over was charging over a $1.50 more per pound for organic produce… so I did what I could and bought the local, but not organic produce. I’m no expert… Read more »

October 21, 2010 2:17 pm

Like Jenn, I am simply speaking from my own experience. I can take $20 to my farmers market and buy almost twice as much as I can in my local chain grocery stores. Why it may not be the same for people elsewhere I do not know. And as for meats, as stated above, I simply recommend eating meat less often, buying quality for the occasions that you do. I know that can be difficult in itself. My husband is one of those that “needs to see meat” at every meal. And changing habits has been hard. But it can be done. I knew this article would bring up a lot of complex issues and emotions. I have spent a significant amount of time reading and researching the different ways that people spend their money on food and I know that the answers aren’t always easy, and aren’t always cut… Read more »

October 21, 2010 2:00 pm

Hi Jenn! Hi Melissa!

Fantastic tips/suggestions. While I’ve been known to use canned goods, M, you know I cook fresh almost every night. And I rarely eat out.

No doubt cooking from scratch and tossing those processed foods to the corner will save significant money. Since +1 lost his job, though, I have had to really cut back on organic. It is more expensive. And sadly, I don’t notice that much difference in flavor.

I shop my local Farmer’s Market on the weekends, but I certainly could do more. I think I stand alone when I say I don’t belong to a CSA 🙁 And I do shop my local grocery store…with two little kids, husband who travels, and not enough hours in the day, the convenience of the grocery store is winning. Sucks. But at least I recognize it. And I know it’s not forever.

October 21, 2010 1:42 pm

Great post and great comments! I agree that, generally speaking, eating organic is more expensive and not always feasible, especially for families and folks with limited budgets. That said, even if you can’t find affordable local and organic produce, buying and eating fresh, but (eek!) non-organic produce is still a decent, healthy alternative and should not be put down by the foodie establishment. It was not that long ago that “organic” was an exotic word that applied to maybe just a few apples at small health food stores, but people still ate fresh fruits, veggies and other unprocessed foods (thanks mom!). Yet for individuals who have limited food budgets or live in so-called food deserts (usually inner-city or other poor communities) this “buy local and organic” movement is often an unaffordable, nutritional pipe dream. I hope that some of the bigger “healthy” grocers out there like Whole Foods and Trader… Read more »

October 21, 2010 12:05 pm

And I can say with all truth that I’ve followed all of your advice and there’s no question that buying local and organic products costs substantially more. I live in Missouri and we have a lot of options in terms of CSAs, farmers markets, and other vendors of local foods. But they are – all of them – more expensive than the grocery store. I can’t tell you how often I stand in front of the meat and dairy sections at my local health food store and stare longingly at their bountiful offerings of local meat, cheese, and eggs. But those prices just SLAY me. Same with the Farmer’s Market. There’s simply no way I can trim my budget any more than I already have. I guess I’m a little defensive because I really WANT to eat this way and I wish very much that I could afford to. So… Read more »

October 21, 2010 11:55 am

Thanks for all the comments everyone! It is awesome that Andrew has all these great posts up and is challenging the way we think about and eat food. I can only speak from my own experience, (which is what I wrote the article based on) but I can honestly say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that both here in Vermont and in Florida, I have not only more choice, but also cheaper costs on produce, especially, at the Farmers market. Perhaps not all farmers markets are created equal. In fact, I have been to many “farmers markets” that are comprised of vendors selling organic produce from California, still in the grocery store packaging. Also most farmers, if you get to know them, and really talk to them, are open to things such as barter or trade, which you will never find at a grocery store. All I am saying… Read more »

October 21, 2010 11:37 am

I think Renee has a great point, from my experience buying organic vs conventional food is usually more expensive. And I’ve yet to find that mythical farmer’s market where produce is cheaper than the grocery store. Better tasting and fresher, yes. Cheaper, no.

October 21, 2010 11:30 am

This is the awesomest post ever! Really, I’ve been preaching it for years and years. Renee, you are right. If you already cook from scratch, buying organic will cost you more. However, you are in the minority in this country. Truly. And maybe that’s the point you were trying to make, maybe not. But for the vast majority of people in this country, making these changes will only save money. I started down this path of cooking, buying in bulk, cooking from scratch, buying organic, etc. almost 10 years ago. My food bill dropped drastically at first (from >$10,000 a year for two to less than $5000 a year). Over the last few years, I have upped my organic purchases. 10 years ago, it was just CSA. Now it’s CSA, plus farmer’s market, plus local eggs and free range meat, plus organic dairy. My food costs have gone up (I… Read more »

October 21, 2010 10:58 am

I am making my best effort to consume more local and organic foods. However, my family already cooks at home as a rule (we NEVER eat fast food), and already eats whole homemade foods. In our case, there is absolutely a higher cost to purchasing local organic food. I sincerely appreciate what you’re trying to do here, but I feel like it’s disingenuous to tell people that they can save money by eating this way. Sure, if they’re in the habit of eating out a lot, then eating at home is always going to save money. But for those of us who have always been frugal and conscious of our food consumption, the cost is only going to go up. You can certainly argue that these higher costs should be considered an investment in better long-term health and other benefits. That’s definitely true. But at the end of the month… Read more »

October 21, 2010 10:45 am

BEST.POST.EVER! This challenge is changing my life but I couldn’t do it without all these resources you are providing. Thank you.