Buying fruits and vegetables on a budget

Picking blueberries was a family affair!

Picking blueberries was a family affair!

This family needs a budget and we have one!  But as we “upgraded” the quality of our fruits and vegetables in response to learning about the most pesticide-covered produce, aka the dirty dozen, I had to adjust my budgeting expectations.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach for determining what to feed a family and how much to spend.  Would I love to buy local and organic produce exclusively?  Yes and I think it is preferable to buying conventional produce.  In the future I may buy only local and/or organic, but right now, our budget does not allow for it.  Instead, I am choosing to steward our food dollars as craftily as I can to get the best bang for our family’s buck. Here’s how I try to meet my family’s first goal for health eating: Eat more fruits and vegetables (and avoid as much pesticides as possible) while sticking to our budget.

My overall strategy for vegetables includes the following:

  • to only buy organic or less-pesticide local alternatives for all items on the dirty dozen
  • to shift as much food dollars to local options from growers who use organic methods
  • to eat seasonally much of the time
  • to buy bulk quantities of seasonal food when it is less expensive to preserve for when it is costly
  • to buy vegetables on the “clean 15” and other vegetables not available locally from the supermarket or discount store when on sale or available

More specifically and practically, here is how I address the items on the dirty dozen:

  1. Apples – I buy locally grown apples from growers who use IPM or integrated pest management techniques.  IPM fruit growers use “reduced risk pesticides” as well as other no risk techniques like using phermones to disrupt the mating of specific pests.  We save money by buying the apples directly from the growers in larger quantities and by buying seconds, which are apples that are slightly blemished or the wrong size for selling at the “normal” price.  Although these apples still contain pesticides, the amounts may be reduced 80-85% from what is used on a non-IPM apples.  In 2012, we dried apples and made applesauce.  We still have a bit left to get us through, but we will be excited to enjoy apples again in the late summer/early fall.
  2. Celery – I buy organic celery at the supermarket. I save the ends and leaves in the freezer to use for making bone broth so nothing goes to waste.
  3. Sweet bell peppers – I buy locally grown peppers from a farmer who is not certified organic but used organic methods.  This year, I was able to buy a large bag of seconds for a great price.  I then washed, stemmed, and halved the peppers and froze them in freezer bags.  I have used these peppers in soups, stews, and grain salads all winter.
  4. Peaches – I  buy locally grown peaches from growers who use IPM or integrated pest management techniques. See apples. We canned peaches in water last summer and we love them.  I can’t wait to can more of them! In 2011, we froze peaches to use in smoothies, although I prefer the canned ones.
  5. Strawberries – I buy locally grown from growers who use organic methods. Last year I did not buy any due to the relatively high cost.  I hope to buy some this year though because we missed them.
  6. Nectarines (imported) – I buy locally grown nectarines about once a year from growers who use IPM or integrated pest management techniques. See apples. Otherwise, we go without nectarines.
  7. Grapes – I do not buy them as a rule, although as with all of the other fruits and vegetables on the list, we have absolutely zero qualms about enjoying them when others offer them to us.  My kids love grapes and they taste good.
  8. Spinach – I buy organic at the supermarket on occasion  or I buy it from local growers who use organic methods.  This year, I’m trying to grow some for myself.
  9. Lettuce – I buy organic at the store on occasion   I much prefer to buy it from local growers who use organic methods and who grow amazingly tasty varieties that would never transport well and so are never available at the supermarket.  Last year I grew some for myself and it was so easy and delicious.  I hope to grow much more this year in our garden.
  10. Cucumbers – I forgot or didn’t know that this was on the list! I rarely buy cucumbers anyway, but I’ll peel the conventional ones and buy more local ones.  I do hope to buy some large quantities of “clean” ones this year to use for canning pickles.
  11. Blueberries (domestic) – I pick my own from a local farm that does not spray and freeze them to use in smoothies, pancakes, and baked goods all winter.  We still have one more bag left from the summer!
  12. Potatoes – I get potatoes in our winter CSA box from a farmer who uses organic methods. Otherwise, I go without potatoes or splurge on organic potatoes from the supermarket.  They are significantly more expensive than conventional potatoes, but I think they are worth it on occasion. Sweet potatoes, which are on the clean 15, are better for you and taste great, so we don’t miss potatoes much.

Although this is how I decided to respond to learning about the dirty dozen, I do not let it dictate how my family eats when not at home.  We do not worry about eating fruits or vegetables at other people’s houses or at restaurants nor do we ask for or inquire about the origins of the fruits or vegetables being offered to us.  We decided to change our buying habits partly to reduce our pesticide exposure and partly to vote with our food dollars about what we want and I feel that our approach accomplishes both in a way we feel comfortable with.

If you are wanting to buy “cleaner” produce, I hope my story gives you some ideas about how to make small changes while sticking to a budget. If you live in central PA, you can also check out exactly where I’m buying my local stuff on the Crunchy Connections page.