My articles will focus on broadening support for sustainable entrepreneurs in our watershed and educating readers about the abundant resources we have available in this region for making green choices. In celebrating these resources and offering some insight into changing our daily practices, I believe that more people will embrace the green movement and support the green economy by realizing that it isn’t about cutting everything about their lifestyles out or the anxiety about steadily diluting our resources. Instead, being green in DC should be about making the best sustainable choices from what is currently available within, and preferrably grown and produced within, the Chespeake Bay watershed. In doing so, we will generally choose higher quality products and a higher quality of life while individually and collectively imagining more for the future or our region.
I launched into the green movement when I opened The People Garden natural food delivery service back in 1997 in Mount Pleasant and then a retail market in 2000. I operated the business under a triple social-environmental-economic mission and invested a lot of thought and creativity to provide organic, natural, healthy foods at affordable prices for all income ranges. So, I thought it was only appropriate to launch into writing for the Examiner by offering some of the insight I learned early on in that process. If you think eating healthy and organic foods means sacrificing in other areas of your budget, starve not! With these shopping tips, you can stock your shelves with organic, free-range and whole foods — and still have money for an occasional night out on the town at one of our many restaurants offering sustainable choices.
1. Browse the aisles of price-busting warehouses. These retailers, such as Costco, are carrying more and more organic items in large sizes that you cannot find elsewhere. If you don’t have the space or need for such quantity, split the membership fee and quantities with a friend. Traveling together also saves gas!
2. Shop at stores that have bulk sections. The last thing you’d want to pay for is excessive packaging that gets immediately thrown into your trash or recycling. Bulk grains, cereals, beans, nuts, dried fruit, and even chocolate-covered espresso beans are a lot cheaper per pound than items that come in a box, colorful bag or can. Compare, for example, the price of one pound of organic brown rice in the bulk section of Whole Foods at generally $0.99 against the 1-pound packaged bag for $2.49. You can also save almost $1 per pound on granola. Barley is one of the cheapest grains for making a delicious side dish or soup. (See the tip #20 for learning to cook with more of these affordable yet unfamiliar grains and beans.)
3. Ask your favorite natural food store to order an entire case of your favorite products. Split with a friend or two if needed. Generally, retailers will give you a 10% discount on a case order because there is much less processing for them and no stocking required…and it builds fantastic customer support and loyalty. Retailers with bulk sections generally receive those items in 25-50 lb bags that you could also order. If they refuse, shop around!
4. Ask to review the distributor’s sales catalogs. Natural food distributors provide retailers with monthly sales catalogs, offering an incredible amount of products at savings of 25% and some times more. Buy a case of what’s on sale and ask to get the sales discount. This is something a smaller, independent store is more likely to accommodate – and yet another good reason for frequenting them.
5. Keep a “best price” comparison list for all of your favorite food vendors for one month, then select the best prices for each product and shop accordingly. Shortly, you will know the prices by heart and will immediately know if you spot a great deal elsewhere. My routine is to save Saturdays for recreational and entertainment activities while Sundays I start with an early routine at the gym followed by stopping at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market, then Trader Joe’s, then Whole Foods and finally at the Giant two blocks from my house in Takoma Park or the Safeway on the way home – usually followed by working in my own garden to see what I can add to the day’s mix. While this sounds like it would take a lot of time, I actually speed through stores by becoming more familiar with each store’s layout, not needing to check prices and being able to use the 15-items-or-less check-out in some cases. Important to note, I thoughtfully planned this routine along a continuous path I would otherwise take as not to use extra miles.
6. Buy the store’s brand name products. If you really want to save money, forget clipping coupons for higher priced labels that, even with the coupon, come in above the store’s own brand of the same product. Trader Joe’s brand of soy milk, yogurt, cereal, toilet paper, coffee, etc. are a consistently much lower price than any of the other brand names sold in the store. Whole Foods’ 365 brand products are also a great savings. Of course, compare sugar and other nutritional information.
7. Don’t buy primarily organic at supermarkets that don’t specialize in natural foods. The prices are much higher than at natural food stores, even though the selection is expanding and Giant does offer their Nature’s Promise brand (still at a higher price than elsewhere). Of course, Giant does offer frequent shopper discounts on selected items that really help lower the overall bill; so, look out for these regular deals on the Nature’s Promise meats and other products.
8. Learn to create menus based on what’s on sale in the produce, meat fish departments. The most costly shopping trips are the ones that entail a pre-planned and inflexible menu and shopping list. Instead, buy the 10 produce, fish, meat items at the best sale prices and then plan a menu. Most likely, these items will also be in season and fresher.
9. Stock up your pantry when things are on sale. Why buy the same pasta or olive oil every shopping trip regardless of what price it is? Before you put any item in your cart, walk the aisles (or look for the weekly sales flyer online or at the entrance) and adjust your list based upon what’s on sale. Buy 3 or more of the items you use regularly or know you’ll need in the next month or two (if non-perishable). Having a well-stocked pantry will also allow you to go back home and find recipes for produce, fish, meat sale items without having to go back to the grocery store for missing ingredients.
10. Keep a fully stocked pantry. How often have you spent a ridiculous amount on a pizza delivery, and then felt sick the next day, simply because you didn’t have anything at home to eat and you didn’t feel like going to the grocery store.
11. Don’t forget your tote bags. Most stores offer a 5 cent refund or other incentive per bag. Put each of those nickels in a piggy bank and you’ll see that it does make a difference!
12. Negotiate at farmers markets. Make friends with the farmers and learn their names to better your negotiations. Let them know to bring brusied or slightly wilted or bruised produce for you to buy at a reduced price, there are a lot of recipes where you’ll never know the difference – like tomato sauce or cobbler. Learn to come around at the end of the market when they’d rather sell at any price than lose the produce and have to take it home (beware that most markets have strict rules about not selling a minute after closing time).
13. Learn which foods are most susceptible to pesticides. Do all the foods you buy need to be organic? When money matters, you should prioritize by which ones could be most effected by pesticides and most harmful to you. Bananas and onions are among the produce items least susceptible to pesticides, and the most vulnerable include strawberries, bell peppers and potatoes. Download the Environmental Working Group’s guide at www.foodnews.org.
14. Try to create healthy meals for $5 or less per person. Keep your receipts and then figure out how much each meal cost you according to how much of each item you used. Keep the least costly menus of the week and share them with friends. Make a challenge or game out of who (if you eat with others) can create the least expensive meal of the week.
15. Make a soup. A large pot of soup will feed two people for at least five meals, it can be frozen for another week, and can use up a lot of your produce ends. Bean soups are some of the most affordable. When making rice or barley as a side dish, you can make enough to have leftovers that would be a great addition to an upcoming soup. I generally make a weekly soup on Sunday night while also making that night’s dinner – that way, it’s ready when I come home Monday night and the flavor is even richer.
16. Grow a garden, get a community garden plot. Focus on the more expensive produce items at the supermarket.
17. Learn to can. You can order a couple of cases of produce from your local farmer at great savings and have that produce items throughout the winter. Save money at Christmas too by giving the canned food as gifts.
18. Split an order of a whole or half free-range cow or pig from a local farm that butchers or butcher. I split an order with my mother, sister-in-law and one of her friends last year and we had meat for months at a fraction of what it would normally cost.
19. Follow your local favoritie stores on Facebook and Twitter. I know Whole Foods promotes all of their deals on these social media outlets, and Fridays tend to be the biggest broadcast of deals. Of course, Whole Foods does offer one-time daily deals and weekly daily deals such as Wednesdays for rotisserie chickens, that warrant working a small mid-week grocery trip into your routine if you live or work nearby.
20. Take Healthy Living’s cooking classes that teach people how to make a natural meal for $5 or less – you can also support their work teaching low-income individuals. See www.healthylivinginc.org for upcoming dates.