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Can you Eat Well on a Budget?

It's a debate that's raging all over the place — from the Internet to the water cooler. Is it more expensive to eat healthy than not? The main argument you hear is that grocery prices are simply lower for "junk" food than for whole foods. And, yes, it's very often true.

"Both non-GMO and organic foods tend to be more expensive because they're more difficult to grow," says Terry Johnson, Natural Foods manager at Sherm's Food 4 Less in Medford. "GMOs are bred to be resilient and therefore have larger yields. Organic crops can suffer from insects, and that also results in lower yield and higher cost."

But all it takes to eat well on a budget is some research, planning and perhaps an open mind when it comes to where you shop, what you buy and when.

The goal is to go organic and GMO-free as much as possible, but getting the most bang for your grocery buck is important. That means establishing priorities. When planning your food budget, opt to go organic for dairy, meat and certain produce first.

"Make the effort to stay informed about GMOs and the sources and growing methods of your food," Johnson advises, offering the following straightforward tips for balancing your food budget with your health concerns:

  • Learn to grow some of your own food.
  • Can, freeze or dehydrate what you do grow or can buy when prices are good.
  • Shop with future meals in mind, check for bargains, and stock your shelves with canned and packaged products.
  • Buy in bulk whenever possible.
  • Do your research and buy in season.

One of the quickest ways to eat up your food budget and compromise the nutritional integrity of your food is buying produce out of season in your area because it has to be flown or trucked in — both adding to its cost and subtracting from its nutritional benefits.

"Fruits are typically very expensive including conventionally grown, but especially so out of season," says Medford resident Angela Stuhr, who makes an effort to eat clean, organic and GMO-free whenever possible. "Stick to in-season consumption, find a local supplier and, if possible, buy in large quantities and freeze as much as you can. What could be better in December than a fruit smoothie that tastes like summer?"

Stuhr takes a similar approach to protein.

"Meats can be purchased in bulk, and while the idea of buying a whole cow, pig or lamb seems daunting, if you ask others to go in on the purchase with you, you're likely to get a lot of takers," she adds. "And when you buy this way, you can get everything cut and packaged to your family's liking."

Shopping at local growers' markets is also helpful. Most of the farmers who sell there are offering produce that hasn't traveled very far and most likely was grown without the help of GMOs.

Johnson warns that, ideally, you should look for foods that are certified organic, but don't dismiss local growers' produce for not having that official "certified organic" seal. Getting it is an expensive and time-consuming process that often is out of financial reach of small farmers, even though they use organic growing methods.

"Our area farmers grow some amazingly tasty organic food and it's totally worth it for the flavor alone," Stuhr says. "But the kicker is that spending your money locally helps increase the participants in the local market, and that's good for prices, too."

Even if you do wind up having to pay a little more for whole, organic, non-GMO foods, Johnson says, it's more than worth it.

"Eating an organic diet may seem expensive initially," she says, "but in the long term you will spend less money on your health."

Can you Eat Well on a Budget?