I am sometimes asked why vegetarian, vegan, and organic food are more expensive than “regular food”. For the most part, I do not experience this issue, although I am perennially on a limited budget, so I started thinking about why that would be, and came up with the following:
Vegetarian food is not basically more expensive, unless you are buying processed packaged foods. It costs just about as much (or, perhaps, even less) to make a vegetarian dinner at home using natural ingredients, i.e., cooking from scratch from the real vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, sprouts, and herbs and spices, as it does to make a “healthy” whole foods non-vegetarian meal .
People who eat non-vegetarian actually spend more, if they are eating natural foods, because they must buy meat products, milk, and cheese, which are not cheap.
Most people who depend heavily on prepared, processed, packaged foods end up spending more than people who eat natural foods they prepare themselves.
Organic prepared foods are expensive because the ingredients tend to be more expensive, and the market is smaller, and the producers and sellers need to make some money in order to stay in business and continue to provide these products.
Organic vegetables and fruit tend to be more expensive for the same reason. In addition, they may be more labor intensive to cultivate, store, and transport. To be certified organic, a farm must cultivate its products organically for three years (in order to ensure that no chemical residues remain in the soil). During that time, the farm can only sell its produce as “natural”. This is costly (as the farmer is doing the same work as would be done for organic produce, without the glory, so to speak), but worth it for farmers who do want to produce organic vegetables, fruit, and other products. Once the farm has been certified organic, the amount of produce harvested tends to be somewhat less than that of farms which use chemical fertilizers and insecticides. As a result, those of us who want organically grown produce must pay a fair price for our healthy choices. Furthermore, markets which sell organic produce reliably (and large chains *are not* reliable) tend to be small, and so, must have a higher mark-up on their products. (The trade-off is that such markets also tend to know their produce better, and be more able to respond to individual requests for assistance and information, and, even, possibly, deals on bulk purchases)
The cheapest way to get organic produce tends to be becoming a member of a CSA (community supported agriculture) group. As a CSA member, you typically receive a box of produce that the farmer who supplies your CSA has harvested that week/delivery period. While you have no choice as to what will appear in your share, you do have the assurance that your produce is organic and locally harvested in the last day or so, i.e., fresher than anything else you can get anywhere else in your town.
The next cheapest way to get organic produce is to join a food co-op, if there is one where you are, and, typically, trade a few hours of work per month for lower prices. You can also shop co-ops without being a member, but the prices will be a bit higher than those for members.
One thing you can do to control costs is to comparison shop. If you are on a limited budget, as I am, you can check out any and all organic sources in your area, as well as on-line, and make your own price comparisons, then shop where things are cheaper, even if that means going to several different places to get everything you want. For example, I live in New York City, where we do have quite a few organic resources. LaraBars (my one processed food) are cheaper at one particular store, so I go there. If I happen to find something that is cheaper that week than at other stores, I will pick up some of that, at the same time that I am saving 75 cents per LaraBar (they had a really good price on agave syrup a couple of weeks ago, so I got some to see what all the hoopla is about– I’ve noticed prices but never wanted to buy the stuff, so I knew that the price was good) I go to a farmers’ market to fill in things I want that I haven’t gotten in my CSA box. I go to one particular market because they often have bruised apples for cheap (I can use them for juice or applesauce) Mostly, however, I depend on my CSA share. I use everything that comes in my box, even if I have never eaten that before (I have learned to eat a lot of new things since I joined the CSA, and I have even learned to prepare dishes with things that people have said cannot be prepared raw — I am a raw vegan)
Now, I admit that, once in a while, I want something, but funds are low, and I go non-organic. It happens. I bought young Thai coconuts in Chinatown, where what you get is anybody’s guess, because they were half the price of the ones in the organic market, and I wanted to know what was up with young Thai coconuts. I check out the produce when I shop for dish detergent, laundry detergent, food storage bags, and sponges, and, sometimes, I buy a vegetable or fruit there, if the price is really good, and I would not be able to afford it at an organic market right then.
Even if you have no access to organic produce (it can happen), if you eat vegetarian/vegan/raw vegan (you choose) your food is still better for you.