Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Is Being Green Affordable?

I'm not sure I would have known the answer to this question even a few months ago. I didn't give much thought to greening my life. Well, actually I did think about it, a lot, but didn't take much action. Practically none actually. Sure I put some recycling out every week and rode the bus to work, but those were the easy things. When I started to really think about greening my life and how I never seemed to take action on things, my biggest fears seemed to be with the affordability of it all. And particularly with food. Local, organic food. Sustainable food.

I was a big coupon clipper. I mean BIG. Like I had a big binder filled with baseball card sleeves of thoroughly organized coupons. I would go to the local big chain grocery store with a computer printout of exactly what was on sale, which coupon(s) to use for each product, what price it was before and after the coupon, and my big hefty binder. I looked so serious and official that people would come up to me to ask for help. I guess all the paperwork and the binder made me look managerial or something.

So since eating more local and more organic is what comes to mind when I think of greening my food life a bit, and we all know buying food at the co-op costs more, I of course was pretty convinced it wasn't for me. After all, we all know you can't clip enough coupons for organic, local food to save 60% on your shopping trip like I was used to at the big chain stores. So I did some research.

I had heard all this stuff about CSAs for years. What's a CSA? It's Community Supported Agriculture. Meaning you buy a "share" in a local, usually organic but not necessarily, farm and in exchange receive weekly or sometimes every other weekly boxes of produce from the farm. I had actually always wanted to try one just because it sounds a little fun. But I thought it also seemed expensive. After all one share is hundreds of dollars. For VEGETABLES.

But then I did the math. For us, signing up with a local CSA with Harmony Valley Farm for a half veggie share (every other week), extended season veggies, a full fruit share, and once a month cheese is only costing us about $37 per week. For more than enough veggies, fruit & most of the cheese we need for our household. That's actually a good deal! And it's organic! And local!! Now, we will NOT get shares in February through April. I do live in Minnesota remember! But we are also not paying for them in those months either.

Then I did some more research and found out there are local meat CSAs too. I just joined Sunshine Harvest Farm. It runs $100/month and you get 20 lbs of organic meat/eggs each month. That's about $5/pound which may be a lot compared to the local chain stores, but not so much compared to the organic meats found at the local co-op. It's also plenty of meat for our family each month. So now we're up to about $255/month on groceries. Throw in a few extras like grains & milk from the co-op which I probably spend about $100/month on.

Bottom line? That's actually AT LEAST as cheap as I was getting our groceries for with all my coupon clipping frenzy. AND I no longer have to spend hours (really) clipping & organizing coupons, nor do I have to make that arduous 1.5 hour long grocery shopping trip to meticulously buy exactly what is on sale with the exact right coupons to get the deals. I simply pick up a box of veggies, fruit, or cheese every week from a neighbor's garage, and a box of meat every month. And make a couple 15 minute stops at the co-op.

I'm floored by my experiences so far. I had no idea I could do this and actually NOT spend more money than I used to on groceries. Cheap, unhealthy, processed, full-of-pesticide-and-fake-ingredients groceries. And I'm really enjoying the process of learning about new vegetables and introducing them to my family. Dinner is an adventure every night and so much fun to be trying new things.

What about other green initiatives and their affordability? Well, composting doesn't cost a thing. Gardening can, but can also be done on the cheap or at least cheaper than it would cost to buy the fruits of your labor in the store. Recycling, at least where we live, also doesn't cost a thing. It's a service provided by the city and they'll come by every week whether we like it or not. Soon we will begin cloth diapering with a local diaper service, also cheaper than disposables even though we are splurging to pay the service to launder them. (I'll go into the details after our twins are born - I PROMISE!) Bicycling? Also cheaper than both the bus and the car.

I'll admit. There are those who's grocery allowance may be even lower than what I've detailed here. But I'd challenge folks to at least check it out. And do the math. If it doesn't work for you, then do what you can to buy local and organic every now and then. What about a local farmer's market? There are often amazing deals on organic, locally grown produce there. You can spend anywhere from $1 on up. And it's fun. My four-year-old LOVES a trip to the farmer's market. Especially if we can arrange to ride the light rail (a.k.a. "train" to him) to get there.

Are there ways that you've found to make greening your life affordable? Insights or tips you'd like to share? If so, I'd love to hear 'em!


  1. What a great post, Heather! I haven't done a cost analysis myself about the cost of the food changes we've made so it's good to hear from someone else how it tallies up.

    My biggest issues I have with doing the CSA route are perishability and needing to meticulously meal plan to make sure stuff is used before it goes bad. We are still buying supplemental groceries so I think we are spending more overall but are eating extremely well on the weeks we have our veggie share.

    Re: other green tips, this spring I bought the book Better Basics for the Home, which includes a million recipes for making your own cleaning supplies, personal care products, etc. and the author calculated that these are a tenth of the cost of buying the conventional store products. Seems like a great promise, but do they actually work as well as conventional cleaners? I haven't delved into it enough yet to offer a verdict.

  2. This is a great post! One thing to consider -- as we move to later in the fall, you'll begin to get boxes with a great deal more storage vegies that will last for a month or more. Our experience was that you go through a good bit of the winter using these in your cooking rather than buying them at the store.

  3. Organic does not mean "no pesticides"

    Check with your CSA to make sure they're not using pesticides if that's important to you.

  4. Our CSA experience has saved us money in our grocery budget as well. A wonderful unintended consequence we found after buying a CSA share was that we have learned all kinds of new cooking techniques and recipes as we have dealt with various bumper crops.

    Thanks to an overflow of okra, we now know how to pickle. A mountain of eggplant introduced us to ratatouille. And bunch after bunch of basil pushed us to learn how to make homemade pesto.

    Other green ideas we love that save us money include visiting the library (we stop by at least weekly) and shopping for clothes and housewares at thrift stores (where we have found really cute things we are happy to reuse).

  5. Fantastic post. I also started down this green road trying to save money. Who knew you could do it on the cheap. I don't think people believe me when I tell them what we eat for cheap.

  6. Our food budget has gone up because we live where organic food is not common but we are learning to get it back down by stocking up and giving up more and more packaged food.

    I also started a garden and found out a lady in our town is selling organic produce at the farmers market and about to open up a store which will help us save some money and buy VERY local.

    Most changes however cost much less. In place of buying or even renting movies we have Netflix (the cheapest option) and mostly watch the things that are online so we don't even have the waste of having the dvds mailed.

    I love how I save more and more as I learn more about what I'm doing lol.