The words organic and frugal rarely are used in the same sentence. But with the weather warming up and fresh produce beginning to ripen, we set out to find the best cheap source of fresh organic foods. Our sample contenders included Kroger, Walmart, Costco, Whole Foods, and the farmers market in Columbus, Ohio.
In the end, we had to settle for the best source; that is, the vendor with the most high quality offerings at budget prices. Limited offerings in general (in part due to seasonality) and in particular at Walmart forced us to abandon "cheapest" as a primary criterion. The resulting rankings left the local farmers market in first place, followed by Costco, Kroger, and finally, Walmart.
At each venue we set out to fill our basket with organic versions of the fruits and vegetables belonging to the so-called "dirty dozen" group, plus organic meat, eggs, and dairy items. We shopped on a single Saturday in early April and were stymied by a shortage of fresh organic produce at all the sites. To supplement the locally-grown offerings at the farmers market we turned to Green Bean Delivery, which carries organic produce and delivers to your home or business. Among the comparison markets, Kroger stocked the most items on our list of organics: 16 out of 22. Whole Foods came in second with 15; the local farmers market plus Green Bean Delivery offered 11; Costco and Walmart brought up the rear with just nine items each.
(Shopper alert #1: Walmart recently announced a partnership with Wild Oats, a health food brand that will give the mega-retailer access to a much larger range of USDA-certified organic pantry foodstuffs. Eventually Walmart expects to offer a greater variety of fresh organic dairy and produce. Currently both Costco and Amazon stock a wide assortment of organic pantry items.)
When checking for USDA Organic Certification, we ran into yet another obstacle. Local farmers rarely obtain the formal certification but are considered by many consumers to be the best source of fresh, organic food. Columbus resident Nicole Shepherd is a farmers market regular and has gotten to know many vendors through years of trying to eat local. "It's a lengthy and costly process to get the certification," she explains, "but many follow the principles of organic farming. All you have to do is ask if they aren't already advertising their practices."
Farmers we interviewed at the local market confirmed this account. As one put it: "The organic certification process is a lot of paperwork to keep up with -- too much when you're busy running a farm." Still, all the sellers said they adhere to the certification standards.
Shopping Cart Test.
After tallying the contents of our baskets, there were a few surprises. Prices at Whole Foods, referred to as "whole paycheck" in some frugal circles, were cheaper than Kroger on 14 items (based on unit costs): $52.17 versus $54.72. Our calculations did not reflect Kroger Plus Card membership deals or sales or Whole Deal Coupons at Whole Foods. We didn't calculate totals for the other sellers because they carried no, or none of the same, organics in at least two of the four food categories on our list.
The Dirty Dozen.
Buying the organic equivalent of the fruits and vegetables belonging to the "dirty dozen" is one way to limit exposure to pesticides. Some consumers prefer to eat only organic produce, but not all produce is quite so contaminated (see, for example, the Environmental Working Group's "clean 15"). Of the dirty dozen, which this year includes 14 items (such as cucumbers, sweet bell peppers, grapes, and peaches), we found six at Kroger, Whole Foods, and the local farmers market/Green Bean Delivery. The total for kale, spinach, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, celery, and apples came to $17.06 when purchased from local producers; Kroger was the highest at $22.29 and Whole Foods sat in the middle at $18.75.
Meat, Eggs, and Dairy.
According to a food blog that focuses on organics, animal products (meat and dairy) are a triple threat to consumers concerned about the risks of exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormone. We compared prices on organic boneless/skinless chicken breasts and eggs sold at the farmers market/Green Bean Delivery, Kroger, Whole Foods, and Costco; Walmart's shelves were bare in this category. Again, the local producers were cheapest: $7.99 compared with $9.38 at Costco, $10.98 at Whole Foods, and $11.48 at Kroger.
(Shopper alert #2: A cheaper alternative for organic meat is a whole or half cow or pig that has grazed on grass, and consequently, notes Robyn Latimer, a blogger at Lupus and the Paleo Diet, free of hormones and antibiotics. She buys half a cow every six to nine months from a local farmer and estimates she saves 30 percent to 40 percent off retail prices. We found a farmer willing to sell us an organically raised pig for $2.50 a pound -- far below supermarket prices. Just remember that you need plenty of freezer space to pull this off.)
The local farmers market didn't carry organic dairy products except for cheese, which was also available at Kroger the day we shopped. Only Costco, Kroger, and Whole Foods displayed both organic milk and butter; the total at the former was $7.51 compared with $10.48 at and the latter two.
If you dig around, there are coupons and deals to be found for organic foods. But it's still pricey to eat 100 percent organic all the time, so pick your organic buys carefully. As the season progresses you'll likely find more organic items at better prices at local outlets.