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Save green to eat green
Here are some ways to eat organic without breaking the bank
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The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research organization, developed The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The guide ranks pesticide contamination for popular fruits and vegetables. Visit gainesvilletimes.com for a link to their Web site. - photo by Robin Michener Nathan

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Suzanne Welander, communications director at Georgia Organics, talks about the advantages of buying organic and local produce.

People choose organic products for a variety of reasons. Some are interested in health benefits, others in saving the environment. And some just say it tastes better. But eating foods with the organic label can come at a pretty steep price.

With food costs rising, is it possible to buy organic and stay on budget?

According to Suzanne Welander, communications director at the nonprofit organization Georgia Organics, one of the best options is to buy from community supported agriculture programs, or CSAs. These usually require people to pay a large sum of money up front, but then they receive a certain amount of food each week during the growing season.

"That tends to be a better deal per poundage, if you’re looking at it from that perspective," she said. "You know, you’ve got to be able to pay $600 up front, but then for the next 30 weeks you’ve got a box of vegetables. And quite frankly, most people have a hard time keeping up with the volume that they get."

Katrina and David Lent, who run Coleman River Farms, a certified organic CSA in Rabun County, said organic produce at the grocery store is, on average, 25 percent to 50 percent more expensive than produce from their CSA. Their customers can buy a full share in the CSA for $30 a week and receive three-quarters to a full bushel of seasonal produce.

Lent said the farm is shooting for 50 to 60 shares for this season, and they are not yet full. They currently offer pickup in Clayton, but Lent said 10 to 15 people signing up from Hall County could justify making a drop here.

Kim Cook operates a CSA in Clermont that, though not certfied organic, uses sustainable and natural methods. His program costs $25 a week for a variety of vegetables that he said could feed a family of four for the week.

The money is paid in lump sums, but it is divided between one payment at the begining of the season and another about halfway through. Cook said he currently has 10-15 spots open for the season that begins in May.

Local farmer David White also runs a CSA in Hall County, but his is already full for this season. But he, Lent and Welander all said the local farmers market is another good option.

The Hall County Farmers Market opens in May and has local produce available Tuesday and Saturday mornings.

According to White, who is organizer of the farmer’s market this year, there are no certified organic farms at the market, but because the farms are small and local, you’re getting the same benefits — fresh produce with less pesticides. And the farmer’s market offers better value than the grocery store, White said.

Welander said working with the local farmer offers a few extra benefits — it puts money back into your community and supports crop diversity since most of the farms are growing a variety of fruits and vegetables.

"A lot of what we talk to people about is establishing a relationship with the farmer and buying directly from the farmer," she said. Even if the money you spend isn’t significantly less than what you might at the grocery store, you’re still supporting your neighbor and community, she added.

Joe Gatins, a certified organic gardener in Rabun County, said starting your own organic garden is another possibility.

"If people are seriously interested in getting organic produce, they probably should think about growing their own," he said. "And that can be just as satisfying if not more satisfying than going all over creation to try to find a retail outlet where you can actually buy it."

Groups like Georgia Organics offer resources and hold seminars to help people interested in organic farming.

"It’s not that difficult if you keep it small to start with," Gatins said.

For products outside of produce and the time between the growing seasons, the local grocery store or organic store may be the only option.

Just as with any purchase, one way to save money at the store is to clip coupons. While there may be less coupons for organic food in the Sunday paper, many organic companies offer coupons on their Web sites.

Enter your e-mail address at Stoneyfield Farm’s Web site, for example, and you can find a variety of coupons for yogurt and other dairy products. Sign up for the newsletter at Organic Valley, which produces cheese and other dairy products, or Bob’s Red Mill, which produces flours and other grains, and receive coupons in your e-mail.

If buying all organic is still too expensive, shoppers can focus on getting more bang for their buck by buying the right kinds of organic produce.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research organization, conducted a study on the amount of pesticides found in produce and provides a ranking on their Web site.

The list of the most contaminated produce — sometimes called the "dirty dozen" — includes common fruits and vegetables like apples, bell peppers, celery, lettuce and peaches. Buying organic for those products will limit the pesticides you ingest, and you can save some money by purchasing conventional for the less contaminated items, such as bananas, pineapples, onions and avocados.

"If you can only buy some things organically it’s best to focus on the ones where it’s going to make the most difference," Welander said.

Buying organic may cost more when you ring up your groceries, but one thing to think about if you’ve got sticker shock is that even if you’re spending more now, it may save you in the long run.

Welander said that buying organic will pay off in health benefits down the road, and many people are willing to foot the cost because "they know it’s going to keep them healthier, and they’ll have fewer medical expenses."

"I really advise people to kind of look beyond the price when they’re evaluating how much this is costing them, because there’s a lot of other benefits associated with it," Welander said.

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