How much does it cost to buy organic food? It is easy enough to compare a conventional product to an organically grown product. That side by side comparison confirms what most of us already know. Organic food is more expensive–but only if we choose to ignore all the indirect costs of conventional farming like the destruction of soil ecology, bee colony collapse disorder, polluted waterways and dead zones in the oceans. Oh, and the fact that our cheap food supply is mostly a subsidized food supply. We do pay more–with our taxes. I am already convinced that bio-dynamic agriculture and the spirit of organically grown food is our future, but the actual cost of organic food compared to subsidized products keeps many customers away. So how much more are we talking about?
In my work as an expert witness for a child support case I was recently asked to assess the cost of feeding two children with a twist– the mom says she buys only organic foods. The USDA publishes annual estimates of food costs to feed children and families. These plans allows for four different income levels from the thrifty food plan to moderate and liberal plans. But there is nothing said about the costs of buying groceries that are grown organically, locally and more sustainably. How much more does that cost?
COMPARING APPLES TO ORANGES
I started my research at a local Ralph’s supermarket–one of many regional markets positioning themselves as a low price leader. I priced a sample of foods from six different food categories that are set up by the USDA: meat and beans, milk and dairy products, fruits, vegetables, grains, and a mix of other foods including fats and sugar. I then stopped by my local Whole Food’s Market and priced the same foods, just different sources.
The idea was to establish a baseline using a local market and then compare costs for conventionally grown items at Whole Foods and then make the big leap and compare the cost of organics. At Whole Foods I couldn’t find a conventionally grown apple or potato to price (see * in the list) These items were not included in the final analysis.
I basically asked myself two questions. First, how much more expensive it is to purchase organic food purchased at Whole Foods compared to conventionally grown food at Whole Foods? The numbers covered a huge range, from a modest 22% more in cost to a ridiculous 290% more. Still, this comparison is not quite fair. Maybe that high priced organic pasta at $6.99 a pound is phenomenal and can’t be compared to the $2.19 per pound version.
Then I tallied the difference between costs for organic food at Whole Food’s to conventional food at Ralph’s. Since so few organic products were available at Ralph’s–this difference is what most consumers face if they are thinking of taking the organic plunge. Check out the table to see how prices line up.
THE COST OF FOOD–PART 1
|FOOD ITEMS||Ralph’sConventional||Whole Food’s Conventional||Whole Food’s Organics|
|Whole wheat bread (22 oz)||$ 2.74||$ 3.73||$ 4.99|
|Oat “O” cereal (12 oz)||2.30||2.81||3.42|
|Brown Rice (16 oz)||1.59||1.49||2.69|
|Oatmeal (24 oz)||2.92||3.29||3.99|
|Pasta (16 oz)||1.99||2.19||6.35|
|VEGETABLE (per pound)|
|FRUIT (per pound)|
|Whole Milk — 1/2 gal||2.59||1.99||5.79|
|Fruit flavored yogurt (6 oz)||.59||.89||1.19|
|Mozarella stick cheese (6 oz)||2.80||3.99||6.99|
|MEAT AND BEANS|
|Lean ground beef (lb)||3.99||5.99||9.99|
|Skinless, boneless, chicken breast (per pound)||6.99||7.99||9.99|
|Fresh salmon (per pound)||9.99||13.99||18.99|
|Canned black beans (per pound)||1.49||.89||1.39|
|Eggs (1 dozen)||2.49||3.39||5.29|
|TOTAL COST||$ 72.61||$ 82.14||$ 130.49|
|% DIFFERENCE||+ 13%||+ 80%|
Food costs assessed on September
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
So how do the numbers stand? It is clearly cheaper to shop for food at a supermarket that markets itself as a “low cost leader”. Whole Food’s demands a premium for its conventional products, but in this sample it is a modest 13% premium. At Whole Foods, I would like to think I am buying product from farmers and manufacturers that are better stewards of the land, but unfortunately the question is outside the scope of this study.
The more significant cost difference is trying to jump from the conventional aisles of Ralph’s Supermarket to buying preferentially organic products from Whole Foods. The different tallies a whopping 80% increase in these sample products. Incredibly this cost comparison doesn’t tell the whole story. In a future blog I’ll share additional data suggesting that the true cost of feeding children organic foods could actually tally up to 300% more. How can this be? Stay tuned for part II.